Entertainment

05.30.14

‘Clueless’: How the Greatest Clique of the ‘90s Transformed Into A Shakespearean Tragedy

The tragic death of Brittany Murphy. Stacey Dash as a Fox News pundit. Alicia Silverstone’s transformation into bizarre self-help guru. What the hell happened to Cher and Co.?

In April 2012, I had the pleasure of attending a special screening of Clueless at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The 1995 film was shown as part of BAM’s “Hey, Girlfriend!” series, co-curated by Lena Dunham—a program that, in the words of the Girls creator, sought to focus on movies that depicted “realistic female relationships onscreen…inspiring in their tenacity and unparalleled in their complexity.” And “coincidentally,” she added, “these are the movies that made me want to make movies.”

The screening of the irreverent teen classic, one that puts a delightful Angeleno twist on Jane Austen’s Emma, was a riot. You could barely hear the dialogue over the wildly enthusiastic crowd, which treated it like a quote-along: As if! Do you prefer fashion victim, or ensembly-challenged? We could certainly party with the Hai-ti-ans! You’re a virgin who can’t drive. The list, of course, goes on. But the highlight of the evening was the post-screening Q&A featuring writer/director Amy Heckerling, who also helmed Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and star Alicia Silverstone.

Things began pleasantly, with the sardonic Heckerling discussing her battles with Fox, the project’s original distributor, who dropped Clueless when the filmmaker refused to change Josh (Paul Rudd), Cher Horowitz’s love interest, to her neighbor rather than her stepbrother—they found it too incestuous, and Scott Rudin swooped in and saved it. She also blasted the spate of “Katherine Heigl-y type things where women…have no reason to exist other than to get a guy.” But the chat took an awkward turn when Silverstone was forced to deflect a question by a dapper, accented journalist—presumably from a U.K. tabloid rag—who pressed the actress about the then-recent YouTube video of her feeding her baby by chewing up food and spitting it into the child’s mouth, and then a sad one when the pair was asked about the death of Brittany Murphy, who played the “tragically unhip” new girl in school, Tai Frasier.

“It’s just such a shame,” said Heckerling, “and when you see her in full-screen and you can really see what she’s doing…it’s heartbreaking.”

On Wednesday, the ’90s cultural touchstone was thrust back into the public spotlight when it was revealed that the actress Stacey Dash, a.k.a. Cher’s left-hand lady Dionne Davenport, had been hired as a Fox News contributor.

“Stacey is an engaging conversationalist whose distinctive viewpoints amongst her Hollywood peers have spawned national debates,” Bill Shine, Fox News’ executive vice president of programming, said in a statement. “We’re pleased to have her join Fox News.”

During Murphy’s final days, the couple took “extreme security precautions” because they believed “they were under surveillance by helicopters and their phone was bugged.”

The news was met with a collective Excuse me, Ms. Dionne? from millennials like yours truly, who grew up worshipping the splendidly loquacious portrait of the halcyon ’90s, a self-described “Noxzema commercial” replete with skateboarding, “purple clogs,” and trips to the mall.

But the shocking announcement also raised the following question: What the hell happened to the most amazing clique of the ’90s?

Why should I listen to you anyway? You’re a virgin who can’t drive.

After a string of minor parts on celebrated ’90s sitcoms Blossom, Party of Five, and Boy Meets World, Brittany Murphy was elevated to “one to watch” status with her turn in Clueless. She played Tai Frasier—the dorky new girl at Bronson Alcott High who’s adopted by popular gals Cher and Dionne as a pet project. The do-gooder pair give her a makeover, transforming the ugly duckling into a swan, and foist her on Elton (Jeremy Sisto), a Cranberries-obsessed rich kid, to help boost her popularity. After a “near-death experience” at the mall—it wasn’t—she becomes all the rage at school, and begins to throw serious shade at her adolescent Obi-Wan, Cher.

In the wake of Clueless, Hollywood had a hard time placing Murphy, who alternated from edgy indies like Girl, Interrupted and Freeway, the latter offering the greatest Reese Witherspoon performance ever (her husband’s DUI video notwithstanding), to schlocky studio films like Don’t Say A Word, which is most notable for a bizarre scene where the schizo Murphy creepily whispers to Michael Douglas: “I’ll never te-ell…” But in Curtis Hanson’s 2002 film 8 Mile, based on the life of star Eminem, the actress finally graduated from playing mostly mentally deranged characters, appearing as the flawed-but-supportive love interest to the Detroit rapper. Murphy was then elevated to bubbly leading-lady status, but after a string of forgettable films—Just Married, Uptown Girls, Little Black Book—she was demoted to direct-to-video.

Murphy married Simon Monjack, a British screenwriter, in May 2007, and the couple shared a house with her mother, Sharon. On Dec. 20, 2009, the Los Angeles Fire Department rushed over to the home after Murphy’s mother found her collapsed in the bathroom. She was unconscious and immediately transported to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center but during the ambulance trip, went into cardiac arrest. When the ambulance arrived at the hospital, she was pronounced dead. The public fingered Monjack as a possible suspect after the widower opposed an autopsy—claims that he vehemently denied.

Following the autopsy, it was revealed that Murphy’s main cause of death was pneumonia, with anemia and several over-the-counter drugs also playing a factor. According to the coroner’s report, the death was ruled an accident because “possible adverse physiological effects of elevated levels of these medications cannot be discounted, especially in her weakened state.”

140529-stern-clueless-embed1

On May 23, 2010, Monjack was found dead—also by Brittany’s mother—at the same Hollywood Hills home, and Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter revealed that he died “just like Brittany”—of pneumonia, anemia, and multiple drug intoxication.

Murphy’s estranged father, Angelo Bertolotti, filed a lawsuit in early 2012 against the Los Angeles Coroner’s Office and the Los Angeles Police Department demanding additional toxicology reports be performed on his late daughter’s hair—probing the metals and toxins—to determine her cause of death. According to the Examiner, that private lab report came back in late 2013 and revealed shocking results:

“Ten of the heavy metals evaluated were detected at levels higher than the WHO [The World Health Organization] high levels,” according to the Examiner. Testing the hair strand sample identified as ‘back of the head,’ we have detected ten heavy metals at levels above the WHO high levels recommendation. If we were to eliminate the possibility of a simultaneous accidental heavy metals exposure to the sample donor then the only logical explanation would be an exposure to these metals (toxins) administered by a third party perpetrator with likely criminal intent.”

“Heavy metals,” noted the article, “can be commonly found in rodenticides (chemicals that kill mice or rats) and insecticides”—in other words: poison.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, during Murphy’s final days, the couple took “extreme security precautions” because they believed “they were under surveillance by helicopters and their phone was bugged.” The toxicology report allegations, coupled with the matching causes of death, led to Internet speculation that Murphy and Monjack may have been murdered. 

Murray, I have asked you repeatedly not to call me ‘woman.’

Stacey Dash was considerably older than the rest of the Clueless cast—27, compared to Silverstone’s 18—but turned in a hilarious performance as Dionne, the teen socialite with a love of ridiculous hats who, along with her partner-in-crime, Cher, was “named after famous singers of the past who now do infomercials.” She dates high schooler Murray (Donald Faison), much to Cher’s dismay, reluctantly participates in the makeover project with Tai (“She is toe-up… our stock would plummet”), and does NOT wear polyester hair.

Following Clueless, Dash reprised her role as Dionne in the regrettable TV spinoff of the same name, which ran from 1996 to 1999, popped up in a handful of films you’ve never heard of, and in 2004, starred in the music video for Kanye West’s single “All Fall Down” (West was, at the time, signed to her cousin Damon Dash’s label). She posed nude on the cover of Playboy in 2006—at 40. 

In 2010, Dash filed for divorce from her husband, Emmanuel Xuereb, alleging years of abuse. A restraining order filed by Dash against Xuereb that year was obtained by TMZ, and in it, she claimed he “hit her in the face, head and body during their two-plus years of marriage” and that “a drunken Xuereb once violently pinned her down to a bed and threatened her, saying it would be the worst night of her life,” according to TMZ. Xuereb was ordered to stay 100 yards away from Dash and her two children (neither of whom are his).

Two years later, at the height of election season, Dash—who had been existing in relative obscurity—fired off the following tweet in support of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney:

The tweet took a lot of people by surprise, and the backlash was swift and brutal, with the actress receiving a ton of death threats over the social media network. She also received a bunch of publicity from the right, and from then on, Dash’s Twitter feed miraculously transformed into a conservative one, calling out Oprah for comparing the death of Trayvon Martin to that of Emmett Till, as well as Jay Z and Beyoncé’s trip to the “communist oppressive regime” of Cuba. She’d also claim to regret “naively” voting for Obama in 2008 “because he was black.”

Dash’s transition to right-wing pundit seems curiously opportunistic, given her dire acting prospects. This is, after all, the person who accompanied Jamie Foxx to the Oscars in 2010—and later hinted at a relationship between them—which many people derided as a publicity stunt. But hey, everyone’s gotta make a living.

And so if the government could just get to the kitchen, rearrange some things, we could certainly party with the Haitians.

Silverstone was cast as Cher, the Queen B of Bronson Alcott High, after Heckerling saw her in a trio of Aerosmith music videos—“Amazing,” where she gets down with Jason London on a motorcycle; “Crazy,” where she strips down with Liv Tyler; and, best of all, “Cryin’,” which ends with her faking a suicide by bungee-jumping off a bridge, before giving her boyfriend, played by Stephen Dorff, the middle finger. But her iconic turn in Clueless sent the MTV darling into the stratosphere. She subsequently signed a three-picture deal with Columbia-TriStar for up to $10 million (including performance-based incentives) and the media tore her to pieces.

The opening salvo was at the 1996 Oscars ceremony, where Silverstone presented the award for Best Makeup. She’d put on a few pounds since Clueless, and the red carpet fashion experts were absolutely brutal. “At last month’s Oscars, fashion critics thought she looked more Babe than babe,” wrote Entertainment Weekly, referring to the pig movie. That same EW article, titled “A Weighty Issue,” quoted an anonymous source claiming that Silverstone was desperately trying to get into shape for her Clueless follow-up—as Batgirl in Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin. “She’s lost 10 pounds, and she’s on her way to losing another 10,” the source said.

140529-stern-clueless-embed2
©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

When the film was released in 1997, news reports claimed that most of the scenes with Silverstone’s Batgirl were cut out because she’d gained weight during filming, and the press had a field day with it, cruelly dubbing her “Buttgirl.” The press was so vicious that Schumacher rose to his actress’s defense.

“It was horrible. I thought it was very cruel,” Schumacher later told Newsweek of the media’s treatment of Silverstone. "She was a teenager who gained a few pounds—like all of us do at certain times. I would confront female journalists and I'd say, ‘With so many young people suffering from anorexia and bulimia, why are you crucifying this girl?’”

If that weren’t enough, Silverstone was awarded a Razzie for her performance (she also became a vegan in 1998). And her final two films as part of the post-Clueless Columbia-TriStar deal, Excess Baggage and Blast From the Past, fizzled at the box office. She then tried her hand at the small screen, but her NBC sitcom Miss Match was canceled after 11 episodes, and Fox chose to pass on her subsequent pilot for Queen B, a sitcom which starred Silverstone as an ex-high school prom queen who struggles to adapt to the real world.

In the mid-aughts, Silverstone married rocker Christopher Jarecki, and slowly morphed into a new age guru of sorts, posing naked for a PETA campaign in 2007, releasing a guide to vegan nutrition, The Kind Diet, in 2009, which became a New York Times bestseller, and of course that notorious premastication video she uploaded to YouTube, wherein she fed pre-chewed food to her son, Bear Blu Jarecki, from her own mouth.

“People have been feeding their kids that way for thousands for years,” she said at the BAM Q&A. “It's a weaning process. Honestly, when I posted the video I was not thinking, so maybe I was like Cher! I think it's adorable and it makes me laugh every time he does it.”

And Silverstone’s latest tome, The Kind Mama: A Simple Guide to Supercharged Fertility, a Radiant Pregnancy, a Sweeter Birth, and a Healthier, More Beautiful Beginning (gasp for breath), she claimed, among other things, that “kind foods”—plant-based foods—can help stave off cancer, tampons can cause infertility, and that processed foods may be the cause of postpartum depression.

Fortunately for us, the enduring image of Silverstone, Dash, and Murphy will always be that of a trio of sartorially splendid teens smiling, laughing, and balancing several shopping bags while gliding through their sanctuary: the mall. And in conclusion, may I please remind you it does not say RSVP on the Statue of Liberty.