In the early 1980′s Phoebe Cates was one of the hottest rising stars
in Hollywood. After memorable roles in two Hollywood blockbusters,
her career cooled off. In the early 1990s, she went into retirement
and has rarely been seen or heard from since.
What the hell happened?
Cates got her start as a dancer. However, an injury ended her dancing
career at a young age. Next, Cates went into modeling. Although she
was successful, she did not find it to be fulfilling. According to
Cates, ”It was just the same thing, over and over. After a while I
did it solely for the money.”
In 1982, Cates made her film debut in the tropical romance, The Blue
Lagoon. No wait, that’s not right. It was a Blue Lagoon rip-off
called Paradise which co-starred Scott Baio’s sidekick, Willie Aames.
At the time, Aames was a relatively popular TV actor having appeared
in the long-running series, Eight is Enough. The producers were
looking for an attractive young actress to cast opposite Aames in a
role that required quite a bit of nudity. Cates was 17-years old at
the time. Her modeling career prepared her for the requirements of
During the production, Aames and Cates decided the movie didn’t
require as much nudity as the script called for. The producers
responded by shooting additional nude scenes with body doubles. Cates
wasn’t happy when she saw the final film, “They weren’t in the version
of the film they showed us for approval. When I finally got to see the
final print months later, I flipped.”
In spite of his reservations, Aames agreed to promote the movie.
Cates refused to have anything to do with Paradise. Probably a wise
move. Aarmes was nominated for a Golden Raspberry for Wost Actor for
Paradise. His movie career stalled out and he ended up playing second
banana to Chachi on Charles in Charge. Eventually, he became the
writer, director and star of the direct-to-video Christian super hero
series, Bibleman which does not include nude scenes performed by body
Later that year, Cates appeared as part of the ensemble in Amy
Heckerling’s classic high school comedy, Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Cates played Jennifer Jason Leigh’s best friend and the object of
Judge Reinhold’s fantasies. The famous “pool scene” in which
Reinhold’s character imagines Cates removing her red bikini is one of
the funniest and most memorable scenes in the movie. Over thirty
years later, it’s still memorable.
Fast Times was written by Cameron Crowe. Crowe went undercover as a
high school student and wrote a tell-all book which he adapted into a
screenplay. The result is a comedy that is edgier and more true-to-
life than your average high school comedy.
The success of Fast Times resulted in a wave of knock-offs. For a
time, every teen comedy was required to include a certain number of
nude scenes in hopes of duplicating its success. But most of these
teen sex comedies fell far short of the standards set by Fast Times.
Most of the copycats have long since been forgotten.
A TV spin-off was also attempted. Cates’ role was played by Claudia
Wells, the actress who originated the role of Michael J. Fox’s girl
friend in Back to the Future before being replaced by Elisabeth Shue
in the sequels.
In 1983, Cates starred opposite Matthew Modine in another teen sex
comedy, Private School.
Private School was one of those forgettable Fast Times rip-offs. The
cast also included Ray Walston who memorably played Sean Penn’s
teacher in Fast Times. But the presence of two Fast Times alumni
couldn’t save Private School. It is the kind of sex comedy in which
the jokes come from characters reacting orgasmically to the sight of a
girl in her under wear, boys dress in incredibly unconvincing drag in
order to sneak into the girls’ dormitory and the girls play pranks on
each other by pulling off their tops in public.
Reviews were mixed to negative. While most critics disapproved of the
movie, a few noted that it was better than the average teen sex comedy
of the time. Which tells you just how bad most of these teen sex
comedies were, because Private School is awful.
In 1984, Cates appeared in the TV mini-series, Lace. The series was
based on a novel of the same name. Cates played a sex symbol looking
for her mother who had given her up for adoption as a baby.
Cates took the role because she was growing bored with “the sameness”
of her movie roles. The mini-series was one of the highest-rated of
the 83-84 season.
Later that year, Cates starred opposite Zach Galligan in Joe Dante’s
Gremlins was a Steven Spielberg production at a time when everything
Spielberg touched turned to gold. Chris Columbus wrote Gremlins as a
spec script to show potential employers what he was capable of. At
the time, he had no expectation that the film would ever be produced.
But Spielberg took an interest in the scripts mixture of horror and
The original script for Gremlins was far darker than the movie that
was ultimately made. In the original script, Gizmo and Spike are the
same character. The cute, cuddly Gizmo turns into the evil Gremlin,
Spike. Spielberg over-ruled this plot point on the basis that he felt
audiences would want Gizmo to stick around for the entire film. He
probably also realized that turning Gizmo evil would negatively impact
Spielberg decided to executive produce Gremlins rather than direct it
himself. He chose Joe Dante to handle the directing duties. It was
an inspired choice as Dante is known for his blend of humorous
horror. Dante has the mentality of a gremlin. Dante and Spielberg
toned down the violence while keeping the fun house-style scares.
In spite of the changes, Gremlins opened to controversy. The
Spielberg name and the film’s marketing material suggested a cuddly
family film. So some audiences and critics were upset when gremlins
started blowing up in microwaves. You can only imagine what the
reaction would have been if the scene of Billy’s mom being decapitated
had remained in the film.
Gremlins along with the Spielberg-directed Indiana Jones and the
Temple of Doom resulted in the creation of the PG-13 rating for movies
that did not require an R but were not appropriate for young
children. In spite of the film’s horror elements, Gizmo toys were
sold to children everywhere.
Reviews for Gremlins were mixed to positive. Many of the negative
reviews focused on the film’s violence. Over the years, Gremlins has
come to be regarded more positively as the violence has become less
polarizing. Due to the Spielberg name and the marketing push,
Gremlins was also a hit at the box office. Its success inspired a
rash of knock-offs like Critters, Ghoulies, Troll, Hobgoblins, and
Really, Munchies? Yep. In fact, the Gremlins rip-off was successful
enough to spawn two sequels of its own.
In 1985, Cates starred in a sequel to her hit mini-series. In Lace
II, her character went searching for her biological father. The
sequel failed to duplicate the success of the original mini-series.
It had only half the ratings of the first Lace. Unfortunately there
would never be a Lace III in which Cates goes searching for her long-
lost cousin who could have been played by Willie Aaames.
In 1986, Cates made her stage debut in the Off Broadway play, Rich
In 1987, Cates returned to movies for the first time in three years in
the romantic comedy, Date With an Angel.
Date With an Angel was sort of like Splash except instead of a guy
falling in love with a mythical mermaid, he falls for a heavenly
angel. Cates had the thankless role of playing Michael E. Knight’s
fiancée whom he dumps in favor of his angelic girlfriend played by
Date With an Angel received mixed to negative reviews and was barely
noticed at the box office.
In 1988, Cates appeared opposite Michael J. Fox and Kiefer Sutherland
in the drama, Bright Lights, Big City.
The movie was based on a novel of the same name about a fact-checker
for a New York newspaper who spends his nights partying and doing
drugs. Cates played Fox’s wife, a model whose career is on the rise.
She leaves Fox whose career at the paper seems to be going nowhere.
The movie had a troubled production. Originally, Joel Schumacher was
attached to direct. Tom Cruise was given first right of refusal to
play the lead. Numerous Brat Pack actors including Emilio Estevez,
Judd Nelson and Rob Lowe were all considered for the best friend role
that was ultimately played by Sutherland.
After several rewrites, Schumacher and Cruise left the project. It
was going to be shot in Toronto with unknown actors until Fox took an
interest in the lead role. Fox was still appearing on Family Ties and
had a box office smash with Back to the Furture. His involvement
resulted in a bigger budget for Bright Lights, Big City.
Fox had a short window during which to make the movie. The original
director, Joyce Chopra, was taking too long to shoot and was replaced
one week into filming. The new director, James Bridges, had no script
and only seven weeks in which to finish shooting due to an impending
strike. Bridges replaced much of the cast and reverted to an older
draft of the script to which he made revisions.
The film received mixed reviews but was a flop at the box office.
Critics complained that Fox was miscast as a cocaine addict and
audiences weren’t interested in seeing Alex Keaton/Marty McFly doing
lines of coke.
In 1989, Cates appeared in the coming of age road movie, Shag,
opposite Bridget Fonda, Annabeth Gish and Page Hannah.
The light-hearted story centers on a group of friends who go on a road
trip to the beach in 1963. Cates played a young socialite engaged to
a rich but dull young man.
Shag got mostly positive reviews, but flopped at the box office. It
has developed a cult following in the years since its release.
Later that year, Cates appeared opposite Ally Sheedy and Virginia
Madsen in another period drama, Heart of Dixie.
The story focused on a group of sorority girls dealing with racial
tensions in 1957 at a fictional college in Alabama. Despite good
intentions, the movie received mixed reviews. The Washington Post
trashed the film saying, ”Ally Sheedy, Virginia Madsen and Phoebe
Cates combine their negligible talents in Heart of Dixie – a melodrama
so full of hams, it oinks. Led by Sheedy, the tedious trio plays giddy
coeds caught up in the racist and sexist traditions of the South in
the late ’50s. They all sound like they’ve been gulping hush puppy
batter…Working from McCown’s histrionic screenplay, Martin Davidson of
Eddie and the Cruisers proves once again that he don’t know nothing
’bout directing no movies.”
Also in 1989, Cates married actor Kevin Kline. Cates met Kline while
auditioning for the Meg Tilly role in The Big Chill in 1983.
In 1990, Cates had an uncredited cameo in Kline’s dark comedy, I Love
You to Death. She played one of Kline’s character’s many girl
Later that year, Cates appeared in Joe Dante’s Gremlins sequel,
Gremlins 2: The New Batch.
After the success of the original Gremlins, Warner Brothers was very
excited to make a Gremlins sequel. You can hardly blame them given
all the Gremlins knock-offs that were flooding the market. They
offered Dante the chance to direct the sequel, but initially he turned
them down. He didn’t enjoy making the original movie and felt a
sequel was unnecessary.
Warner Brothers proceeded without Dante, but to no avail. Eventually,
they came back to Dante and offered him both a larger budget and
complete creative control. Despite his misgivings about filming a
sequel, Dante couldn’t turn down the chance to make a big budget
studio film with creative control. So he set about making Gremlins 2
a very unconventional sequel.
Most sequels try to recreate what made the original movie a success.
But Gremlins 2 is more like a satire of the original film than a
sequel. As the film progresses, it becomes more cartoonish in tone.
Animator Chuck Jones came out of retirement to make new Looney Tunes
segments for the film. There are several meta references to the
original Gremlins poking fun at the ridiculous rules. At one point,
Dante even breaks the fourth wall as the gremlins cause the film to
Critics and audiences weren’t sure how to react to the silly sequel.
Many critics who complained about the dark tone of the original film
gave the sequel better reviews. One such critic, Leonard Maltin, even
appeared in Gremlins 2 in which he gives a negative review of the
original film only to be eaten by gremlins.
Other critics complained that the sequel lacked a coherent plot and
that it devolved into a series of gags once the gremlins appeared.
It’s a valid criticism, but it was also the entire point of the
movie. Audiences who enjoy the anarchic tone of the Looney Tunes
found a lot to like in the sequel. But those expecting a retread of
the original were left scratching their heads.
You can probably guess which camp I fit in. The movie is worth
watching just for John Glover’s take on a Donald Trump-like mogul
named Daniel Clamp. The Hulkster is just icing on the cake.
Unfortunately, too much time had passed between the original and the
sequel. Audiences weren’t interested in more Gremlins – especially a
Gremlins satires masquerading as a sequel. The movie got mixed
reviews and disappointed at the box office.
In 1991, Cates appeared in the independently produced fantasy-comedy,
Drop Dead Fred.
Cates played a woman controlled by a domineering mother. After a
string of bad luck results in Cates’ character losing her job, she
returns to her childhood home where she in reunited with her imaginary
friend. Drop Dead Fred, played by English comedian, Rik Mayall,
pledges to help make the adult Cates happy again. But his shenanigans
do more harm than good.
The movie opened to really bad reviews. Critics didn’t know what to
make of what seemed like a children’s movie with dark, psychological
subtext about child abuse. The movie did reasonably well at the box
office for an independent film on a low budget. Over the years, it
has attracted a devoted cult following.
Also in 1991, Cates and Kline had their first child. The birth of
their son side-lined Cates’ acting career as she chose to focus on her
In 1993, Cates returned to the big screen opposite Eric Stoltz, Tim
Roth and Bridget Fonda in the drama, Bodies, Rest and Motion.
In 1994, Cates appeared in her final lead role in the comedy-drama,
Princess Caraboo. The film was based on a real story about a women in
the 19th century who passed herself off as the princess of an exotic
country. Her husband, Kline, appeared in a supporting role. Reviews
were mixed to positive, but the movie was not a hit at the box office.
That year, Cates also gave birth to her second child with Kline. This
effectively ended Cates’ acting career.
In 2001, Cates temporarily came out of retirement to appear in The
Anniversary Party which was co-written, co-directed and co-starring
Cates’ best friend and Fast Times co-star, Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Cates appeared opposite her husband and their two kids (pictured
above). The entire cast consisted of friends of Leigh and co-star
So, what the hell happened?
I’m afraid there isn’t a lot of mystery behind this one.
In spite of being a beautiful girl, Cates never really caught on as an
actress. As she did with modeling, she seemed to lose interest in the
repetitive nature of her film roles. Her early movies emphasized her
sexuality. But when she tried to shift into different kinds of
movies, she met with limited success.
Eventually, Cates decided that family life was more important to her
than her career.