The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Phoebe Cates
By Mother Brain
The actress most infamous for the topless pool scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High has always been the subject of many “Where Are They Now” discussions. Phoebe Cates was an underrated icon of the 80s with a unique girl next door look that made her a favorite for casting directors to typecast as a love interest. Eventually, the Manhattan-born actress decided to semi-retire from film all together for much more richer experiences in life.
Cates was born to parents Lily and Joseph, a couple knee deep into the Broadway scene during the 1960s. Her uncle, Gilbert, was an Oscar telecast producer who frequently worked with her father. So Cates already had show-business in her blood right from the beginning, especially when she attended the Professional Children’s School as well as Juilliard. At age 10, Cates wanted to become a ballet dancer and nearly attended the School of American Ballet on a scholarship until a knee injury sidelined her. Modeling was her next interest when she appeared on the cover of Seventeen Magazine with braces on at age 15. The money was good and she made the covers of Elle, Interview, and a various others until she found the business to be unfulfilling.
While attending a party at Studio 54 one night, Cates met a film agent who was willing to help her break into movies, but her father had reservations. She made her debut in the Blue Lagoon knockoff, Paradise, in 1982 opposite Willie Aames. The role required several nude scenes that she and Aames would later find to be excessive. She refused to promote the film or even discuss it long after its release. Later that year came Fast Times which was far more successful as a teen comedy with substance. Cates’ role as Linda Barrett was more than just a topless scene in Judge Reinhold’s wet dream. Her sexual experience served as influence for Jennifer Jason Leigh’s roller-coaster of encounters and accidental pregnancy. The role had Hollywood talking about Leigh as well as her soon to be stars of the supporting cast.
Hollywood was quick to typecast Cates in girl next door parts in films such as Private School and Baby Sitter. She also auditioned for The Big Chill when she met future spouse, Kevin Kline. Then in 1984, producer Steven Spielberg and director Joe Dante chose Cates to play the role of Kate Beringer in Gremlins. Despite concerns of her past work, her chemistry with Zach Galligan was believable enough to carry the film along with its state of the art puppets and animatronics. Apart from being a strong character in the face of the chaos caused by the Gremlins, Cates had the memorable monologue about the day she found out there was no Santa Claus which she would later spoof in the far more sillier sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch in 1990.
The massive success of Gremlins made Cates more popular with mainstream audiences and was gracing the covers of various teen magazines. Now she felt there was enough clout to break against type. First she took on the two part Lace miniseries where she played the title role of a bitter actress. The role proved difficult for Cates who was trying to make audiences sympathetic to her while seeking out her mother. Her line “Which one of you bitches is my mother?” became one of the most memorable lines in television history. Cates continued her bitch streak as the unsympathetic spoiled fiancee in the 1987 cult classic, Date with an Angel.
By the late 80s, Cates’ film career started to slump. Whether it was playing Michael J. Fox’s ex in Bright Lights, Big City, the 60s-set beach comedy, Shag, or the racial tensions drama, Heart of Dixie, Cates could not bounce back to the success she enjoyed early on in her career. Not even Gremlins 2 could get her phone ringing. Cates found work mostly on Broadway as well as the British comedy scene. Before her retirement in 1994, Cates appeared as the repressed girl with the wild imaginary friend in Drop Dead Fred, an attempt to make a star out of the late Rik Mayall in America. It was Cates’ last financially successful film despite scathing reviews for her performance.
After the 1994 comedy, Princess Caraboo, costarring her husband Kline, Cates disappeared from the big screen to become a stay-at-home mother to her two children. Despite occasional appearance as award shows and red carpet premieres, Cates has not participated in many reunions or retrospectives about her past work. Her only real return to acting was in 2001’s ensemble drama, The Anniversary Party, which she and Kline did as a favor to co-director and friend, Jennifer Jason Leigh. Then in 2005, she started her own boutique, Blue Tree, on Madison Ave. Even though her time has come and gone, the memorable images and performances Phoebe Cates gave us are still well discussed amongst us cinefiles to this day.