Wayne’s World: Penelope Spheeris and the Amplified Femininity

By Greg Mucci

Back in February of 1992, a ‘Saturday Night Live’ spinoff head-banged its way into theaters in the form of Wayne’s World, an ode to music and personal creativity that caused a “Schwing!” to be heard from around the world. It’s a sound that carried with it an affirmatively virile pelvic thrust, one that’s used to rate notable women – their photo enlarged to poster size –acting as its own gesticulating male gaze. With its sexual utterance, forever engrained in the pop canon, comes the sound of money – also brought forth into the cartoon cash lexicon by our film – its “Cha-ching” indicating a tremendous box office success. This so happens to play to the tune of both money and industry sexism, frequent collaborators that have been a discordant scratch on the records of female directors since the birth of Hollywood.

Marking the 25th anniversary of Wayne and Garth’s own cable access show turned film; Wayne’s World cemented Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ as a carpool companion, and director Penelope Spheeris as a successful female powerhouse. Spheeris, a trailblazing director who embodied the sound of a generation with The Decline of Western Civilization, came on to direct Wayne’s World after writing a few ‘Saturday Night Live’ skits with Albert Brooks. Although she would go on to direct two Golden Age television remakes and a spiritual successor to ‘Tommy Boy,’ Spheeris was ultimately prevented from returning to the basement-set in Aurora, Illinois by Mike Myer’s, his thinly veiled machismo masquerading as Hollywood clout. She was never given the creative opportunities either, ones that typically come from turning a $20 million dollar couch-skit into a $121 million dollar domestic riff, resorting to the comedic corner she was muscled into by an industry cranked to 11 with executive testosterone.

Despite its release into almost 2,000 domestic theaters, a number that toppled the draws of buddy-surf crime caper Point Break– another paramount success for a female director – Spheeris was never green-lit to expand outside the comedic confines that distributor Paramount had established. Recalling her time working with the studio, Spheeris told Vanity Fair back in February, “I don’t think of the world as funny, but that’s maybe what makes the comedy in the films work. But I wish I would’ve been able to do other kinds of films after Wayne’s World.”

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Spheeris’ father, a Greek immigrant who owned a traveling circus and was a side-show strong man, was killed during a racial dispute when she was only six, later bouncing around to different trailer parks with her mother, who took to bouts of alcoholism in an already unstable mental condition. “I interpreted my mother’s lack of interest in my life as a lack of love,” she recounts to The Guardian back in 2015. Similarly it wouldn’t be difficult to interpret Spheeris’ lack of interest in comedies as a lack of humor, though for anyone that has seen Wayne’s World, it would be an egregious statement that has perhaps been discriminately labeled towards one too many women. What makes Wayne’s World work, similarly to the dynamic intricacies reflected in Bigelow’s Point Break duo – undercover cop turned surfer Johnny Utah and surfer sage Bodhi – is Spheeris’ ability to amplify the masculine frailty in a way that fine tunes the feminist point of view.

Our own duo, waxing philosophically about the attractiveness of Bugs Bunny in drag while waiting for the overhead adrenaline rush of a landing plane, observe the women around them in the same light as unobtainable objects. Garth pines over his dream woman from afar, one who feels out of place slinging late night donuts at a diner named after a local hockey star, while Wayne dreams of Cassandra, a badass bassist in a rock n’ roll bubble, Gary Wright’s ‘Dream Weaver’ playing overhead. For Wayne, it’s an immediate lust that mirrors a ’64 Stratocaster guitar, imprisoned in a glass case at the local shop with a price tag that isn’t quite within his league. “It will be mine. Oh yes, it will be mine,” a trance induced utterance Wayne directs towards each, and for him, they both don’t quite fit his budget.

It’s a male fantasy played for laughs, one that Mike Myer’s writes and stars for the camera – at times breaking on through to the other side – though it’s Penelope Spheeris’ seriousness that keeps Myer’s comedic note from becoming an over-extended jam session. The responsiveness to Wayne eclipses the male point of view, one that never really diminishes our few empowered female characters; he adores and objectifies from afar, his words replacing the male gaze that would potentially dominate under the hands of a less self-assured and empathetic director. We get the impression that Wayne tosses the women in his life aside when he’s found no use for them, evident in Stacy, a well-intentioned insecure woman who never quite grasps the concept of a break-up. Sure, she might be a psycho hose beast to Wayne, but she’s one that Spheeris paints with shades of complexity, in one scene framing her behind his new object of obsession Cassandra, her own feminist perspective constructing Stacy’s shaky narrative.

In an interview with Forbes in February, Spheeris stated that “….I do better with buddy movies, male testosterone movies,” and beneath the product peddling and corporate take-over is a subverted buddy film, where waves are traded in for air waves. While Wayne and Garth embody the Laurel and Hardy of the 30’s, the Curtis/Lemmon of the 50’s, and the Utah/Bodhi of the 90’s, its Spheeris own feminist lens that separates them from an amplification of machismo. Just in the same way Kathryn Bigelow was able to impact Point Break with a crushing sense of male embodied adrenaline, revealing an aching fragility between her beach buddies, Spheeris is able to pick Wayne’s very strings with a woman’s hand.

 

 

Equal parts Frankenstein’s monster and The Wolf Man, Greg Mucci became enamored with movies after experiencing The Shining at the impressionable age of seven. While working at a Blockbuster in a small suburb of Connecticut, he fell in love with Carol Reed’s The Third Man and Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead trilogy, furthering his love for movies and horror. After realizing his high school lacked a film class, he quickly fled the state to Boston to attend Northeastern University. In between working as a barista at Curio Coffee, Greg can be found begging for passes to screeners and writing reviews as ReelBrew.

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