Not every ’80s kid saw Just One Of The Guys in theaters, but many of them likely watched it more than a few times on HBO, where it appeared to be on a constant rotation throughout the decade. Billed as a teenaged Tootsie (really, a Yentl), the 1985 movie starred Joyce Hyser as Terry, a somewhat superficial popular girl (with a fortunately androgynous name) in Arizona who infiltrates rival high school dressed as a boy to win a journalism contest. Only her horny younger brother Buddy (Billy Jacoby) and best friend Denise (Toni Hudson) are in on the scheme. As described by an enamored Sandy (Sherilyn Fenn), Boy Terry “dresses like Elvis Costello, looks like the Karate Kid.” The new kid makes quite a splash, befriending Rick (Clayton Rohner) and attempting to help the loner get a prom date. Naturally, Terry winds up learning a lot in the process, ultimately about what really makes someone cool or not.
In celebration of the 35th anniversary of the film’s premiere—a milestone being commemorated by the release of a special Blu-ray edition of the movie—director Lisa Gottlieb chatted with The A.V. Club about Just One Of The Guys’ long legacy, including how she learned that gay and trans teens viewed the film as a bit of a breakthrough, and the effect a Bruce Springsteen set visit had on the movie’s ending.
The A.V. Club: I just watched the movie again, and I’m sure you hear this from a lot of people, but I still knew it by heart. What’s it like to see that movie have such resonance 35 years on?
Lisa Gottlieb: Well, it did very well when it opened. It held its theaters for months and months, but the studio had changed owners and changed production presidents. And a lot of the people who set it up were gone. They were constantly surprised at how well it was doing. I think ultimately they collected a lot of money on it—the ancillary rights after many years, all of the international sales, all of the formats it came out in. You know, it came out certainly on video tape, and then LaserDisc, and then that DVD. We’ve been begging for a long time because we know how pretty it is. I mean, I took a lot of care in working on the look, and we just really wanted a Blu-ray.
AVC: Ten years ago, you did a live chat event with [A.V. Club sister site] Jezebel about the movie, and received quite a large response. [Sample comments: “I have a friend who saw this when she was beginning to form her queer and feminist identity, and she says the movie really meant a lot to her,” and “I know you weren’t making a movie about a trans person, but there were some things in there that were really nailed.”]
LG: Irin Carmon [who was then a Jezebel staff writer] called me, and she said, “I love your film, and I’m doing this couple of weeks of analyzing different scenes and writing about it. And this should culminate in a few hours of a live chat online. We do that a lot, it’s really great.” I had no idea how to do it, but I tell you—I couldn’t get off my couch for like six to seven hours. There was so much action, largely a lot of gay people, and a lot of trans people were saying—telling me, typing in, you know—that it just changed their lives. They saw the path open before them. They identified with her. A lot of young men who felt they were women, and a lot of young women who felt that they were really men, when they saw this, it felt like they had permission to explore the other side. To cross the street, to put on different clothes, to walk differently, to talk differently, to think in this other way that might be who they truly were.
I didn’t think about adding gay characters right at that moment. You know, now I look back, and I think it would have been interesting to fill out that table a little more. The aliens, the lizard boy, and then maybe a couple of gay kids. Probably what that table would have looked like.
So that shocked me, because I always say, without a doubt, it’s an unapologetically heterosexual film. But it’s also sex-positive. My belief was that pretty much every character in the film with the exception of Buddy, the younger brother, all lost their virginity long ago. It’s not a thing. The brick wall that Buddy is trying to break down… and he has two weeks to do it before his parents come home from Europe, and then he thinks he’ll die a virgin, you know? So we went with that, and I liked that he’s the only character that’s desperate for sex. And largely, it’s because he just hasn’t had enough of it yet.
AVC: I appreciated that watching it again. Terry’s not a virgin, and it’s not a big deal. There’s absolutely no slut-shaming. And even with Sherilyn Fenn’s character, Sandy, she’s a forward girl, but she’s not shamed either. And you look at that compared to John Hughes movies, where in Breakfast Club, the girls could barely admit whether they were virgins or not. Your movie seems so progressive for the time.
LG: I felt that it was important to do that. I love a lot of the other teen movies that came out at the time. And I certainly admired John Hughes’ work, and I thought it was very much from the point-of-view of a young man. You know, he was a North Shore Chicago guy. He went to New Trier, and all his movies took place in these rich suburbs on the lake. And I wanted class to become a part of the movie, too. You know, when you’re really attractive and you can afford really nice clothes and a nice car, you’re probably going to be automatically more popular than the person who can’t afford the great clothes.
That was already very entrenched back then, but in our deals with the actors, I convinced the producers to let me pay them to come to location a week before and rehearse every day. And I got them these books called He and She. They’re by a guy named Robert Johnson, who is a kind of psychological-social philosopher. And he drew the Venn diagrams for where men and women crossed, and throughout time they just got closer and closer. And also talked about some central metaphors that are male, others that are female. At any rate, it was really a thought-provoking thing to do, because we’d have these long discussions—in the hotel bar, of course. We had our priorities.
And we would just talk about how interesting and how complex the issues were, if you looked at them in a deep way. So I said, “Well, this is what I want to do: I want deeper levels of performance. Deeper levels of understanding what you’re doing. When you first get to the school dressed as a guy, you’d just feel confident as hell. You’ve learned how to scratch your balls, and you’re wearing a great outfit. But in fact, it takes two minutes for you to be picked up and tossed into the bushes by a bully who is from a different class than you probably are—he has status, basically, because he just scares everyone.” So stuff like that. We just wanted to be a little more complex and have a little depth, even though we wanted to have a pretty raucous physical comedy on the surface. And, you know—we had a lot of comic relief drifting through. And, you know, nobody really likes the bully in the movie. They like the nerdy kids that he was torturing. So that’s of interest to me also, to embrace the nerds.
AVC: The nerds really stood out when watching it again. It’s not the crowd that Terry would have hung out with at her old high school, so she gets something out of her exploration—becoming a better person by seeing it from the other side.
LG: Oh, absolutely. She would never look at a guy like Rick in her old school. She had Kevin, her blond-haired, blue-eyed perfect sports car-driving college boyfriend. And of course she’s had sex with him. [Laughs.] Of course! You know, I just never saw her as a virgin.
There was a high school where we were going to do some exterior shooting, so we got to know them a little. It was called Mesa High School. It was in Tempe, which is just right next to Scottsdale. And I called them, and I said, “I want to faux-register my cast for classes. I want them to sit in classes for a couple of days, maybe three. And, you know, go to lunch with the kids and do all this stuff.” The school kind of got a kick out of it. We said, “We’d thank you profusely at the end of the film.” So they embraced it, and they let us come in.
And the first thing we noticed is that these high school kids looked much older than we did. Lots of makeup, lots of Madonna hair and Madonna outfits. I said, “We don’t have anything to worry about. We’re going to get away with it. People will think we’re in high school.”
AVC: There was an original ending that you wanted that you didn’t end up with, right? Because Rick is kind of macho at the end, like, “Hey, I’m the man. I’m taking you dancing.” That whole thing.
LG: Right. “I’ll be the one who drives.”
I wrote an ending that we shot in Phoenix and Scottsdale, and I knew it wasn’t complete. And I was pushing to get some extra shots for it. And, you know, I can’t even remember how the script we ended up shooting, the rewritten scene—which we shot on the back lot—I don’t even remember where it came from. But I remember when I read that last line, and I was talking about it with Joyce and Clayton, and they agreed with me and with you. “Why would we do that?” And I said, “Well, you know, if you were joking. If you were being completely ironic, based on what you just went through, you would end up with the result of you driving.” I have to say in both my marriages—at that point, I had two under my belt—my husbands always drove. They insisted. And I’m from New York. I don’t like driving that much. I like a road trip. Like, I like to drive to the west coast on Route 10 and stuff and New Orleans and stuff, and Austin, Texas and Santa Fe and then be in L.A. But I really loved being driven. So we sort of worked it that way. That was the drive for it… And it was a way of him saying—what he was actually telling her is, “I’m your boyfriend now, and we’ll negotiate all of it.”
AVC: But in the original ending, they were playing soccer or something? Was it more even-handed?
LG: Well, they’re playing soccer, and she’s kind of running down the field toward the goal, and he actually tackles her. And they roll around on the ground together, and he’s disguised in the same red shorts, like, women’s gym [clothes]. And we got a kick out of that. You know, they’re little shorts, and he’s got a really cute butt. He looked adorable. And he tackles her in a way, and they’re rolling around, and they start laughing, and they start kissing. And that’s what I liked. But we needed a few more reaction shots. We needed a few other things to complete it.
And I hate to admit it, but that day we were shooting that, we had a visit to the set. And it was a close friend of Joyce’s, and his name was Bruce Springsteen. He was in town to do a show that night, and he gave us all tickets and backstage passes. It was cool as hell. And I couldn’t tell you that I wasn’t just a tiny bit distracted that he was there, and that I should have got the other shots I needed right then and there.
So I really understood where the studio was coming from. They decided, at the last minute—well, in the last few weeks—to open it in 1,550 movie theaters across the country. But by then, they tested it a bit, and they knew that it was an audience-pleasing movie. So by the time it released, they liked us again very much.
AVC: A lot of it holds up, but there’s some stuff that’s jarring 35 years later. Like when they kiss at the prom, she’s still dressed as a boy. And Rick’s like, “It’s okay, everybody. She’s got tits!” because she opened her shirt to prove to him that she was really a girl. But the implication is that it wouldn’t have been okay otherwise because it would be a guy. The sensibility, unfortunately, was different back then.
LG: Although this is something that was very much a part of Clayton’s performance for Rick. He and I talked about this a lot. He said, “Well, what’s the deal?” The studio cut out another scene where they’re dancing to the James Brown music in his house, and they fall on the floor—they were laughing, and they were very close. But what Clayton was telling me was, “What does Rick think of Terry and getting so close with this guy so quickly?” And that [Terry] kind of, you know, touches him in an affectionate way, pushes his hair behind his ear. And he said, “Oh, but you know, he figures out really soon that Terry is gay and might even have a crush on him.”
Younger people, the kids who were in high school that we chatted with—there were plenty of gay students. They were very mainstreamed. This was, Gen X in 1984, I guess? So you know, they were sort of that first hunk of the Millennials, and they were just different. They just weren’t as scared of gay people and all that stuff. Kids looked at their parents, if they grew up in these homes that, you know, were very prejudiced, and they’d say, “It just doesn’t work that way. I’ve got friends who are all different kinds of people at school.” Now, that might not be true of the two or three most popular kids in the school who probably had a clique. But Rick is different. He’s open to it, and he doesn’t have judgements about it. So that’s why we did that.
I wrote that line, and I also pretty much negotiated that Joyce would have to open her shirt. We made it work. We did a lot of rehearsing. I actually also told her if in the finished film, when I bring her in and show her a final cut, if she feels really humiliated or used or something, “I will fix it. I’ll fix it. I have the shots to…” But she said, “It’s the right thing to do.”
I screened [the movie] a couple of years ago in a classroom, a film class that was studying female directors. So I get invited to come and be a guest on a lot of that kind of stuff. And that week, they showed Just One Of The Guys, and then I came out, and I said to the audience, “Well, what do you think? I mean, it was shot in ’84, released in ’85. It’s a very different culture than what we have now. What hit you wrong? What hit you right?” And one woman said, “When Buddy is talking to their parents, who call in from vacation—and he says, ‘Well, Terry is getting a sex change. Okay, I’ll ask if it wants to talk to you.’” And she pointed that out that calling someone “it” is so dehumanizing. Now, I thought in the context it was pretty funny that he was poking fun at his sister. So when I weigh and measure that, I didn’t know. I might do it the same way in the moment.
AVC: I have to tell you: I still use the line “And yet somehow you find the courage to go on living. You’ve got guts,” all the time, like sarcastically, to my husband. I love it.
LG: My whole family does this thing where we go off together to do something. We’re really tired, we all look at our watches, and we say, “Oh wow! 9:15 already. Got to go! Got to go.” Also “Do fish eat pizza?” happens to weave into my life at least every six months.