Where Have the 1990s Teens Gone?

Published on October 21st, 2011

James looks at the careers of 1990s teen stars and tries to understand what went wrong, or what didn’t.

When it was decided it would be teen week here at The MacGuffin Men, I was excited. Not as excited as Alex, who loves teen movies like Melissa Joan Hart loves getting people to sign her yearbook, but I was excited nevertheless. I like teen movies too, and in order to write about them I started to think about my experience with them when I was their target demographic. I discovered that while I like teen movies from late 1990s-early 2000s, none of them are particularly important to me. I never felt any of the ones that came out while I was in high school really ‘spoke to me’ or ‘understood me’ the way other movies couldn’t; mostly because popular teen movies post-1986 almost never even try to be taken seriously. I had a look over some of the biggest teen movies of that time period to confirm my suspicion. It ends up that I was right, that some of these movies are good but none of them do much for me emotionally, and they didn’t even when I was the most susceptible age for that. While Alex and Emily touched on why that’s the case for that certain generation of teen movies, what was more striking to me was what happened to all the stars from those movies and what happened to their careers. Or maybe more accurately, what didn’t happen to their careers.

How come none of the 90s teen stars went on to have good careers? Yes, they had better careers in Hollywood than I will, and I give them credit for making it as far as they did in a competitive field, but I’m a bit confused as to how none of them are more relevant today. Most of them were marginally talented and good-looking, which seems to be enough to have a decent career.

Jason Biggs
He was the face of the American Pie franchise, one of the most successful teen franchises ever, if you judge success purely on the number of sequels that came out of it. Biggs stayed on until American Wedding and then let Eugene Levy become the series’ only returning actor. This always confused me because Levy was Biggs’ father but I’d have to watch the direct-to-video sequels to get the shitty explanation of how that made sense and I refuse to put myself through that. For some reason that I still can’t explain, however, I always kind of liked Biggs. I think I’m in the minority on that but he played a believably likeable loser, one who you can see why he’s at the bottom of the social ladder, but he still doesn’t annoy you. He wasn’t too over the top but managed to make some pretty bland lines get a laugh.

What went wrong? Perhaps it was American Pie oversaturation and they had just seen too much of him. Maybe people started finding out he wasn’t actually Jewish and felt cheated. I haven’t seen all of the movies he’s been in but looking over his filmography I can’t find anything good, so maybe he just picked the wrong project too many times. I’m sure he had plenty of offers immediately after the success of American Pie. After that breakout role he starred in Loser, which is (hilariously) best known for its use of Wheatus’ Teenage Dirtbag, which has got to hurt. Or, also very likely, Biggs had the problem Alex suggested: it’s hard unsee someone fucking a pie. His career in Hollywood* has since involved just a couple of projects a year, often a single TV episode of a short film. On tap for 2012 he will be the voice of Leonardo on Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (admittedly rad) and will be back on the big screen with… American Reunion, reprising his role as Jim Levenstein. If I get caught seeing this, I will justify by saying I only went to see Chad Ochocinco’s cameo, which I’m totally not making up.

*Biggs has done some theatre work as well, beating out a then-unknown Charlie Day for the role of Benjamin Braddock in a stage adaptation of The Graduate, and he has continued to work off and on in theatre over the past decade.

**Also, it appears that somebody forgot to tell Biggs that Jenny Mollen is not a pie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seann William Scott
Scott is another guy who got his big break from America Pie. He memorably played Stifler, a guy who stole all of the scenes he was in. He also played the anti-Stifler in Final Destination, another teen movie, though of a different kind. He was also in Road Trip, which was American Pie for people who thought American Pie was too sentimental. I’m also going to mention Dude, Where’s My Car? which was somehow a teen movie, although it appears to have been written for 9-year-olds. Also, there was a character named Christie Boner, which I will mention every time I can.

Scott did okay for himself and continues to work but never made it in a big way since playing Stifler. Outside of the well-liked Role Models, and overlooked action film The Rundown, he was never able to become much of a leading man. He has small but memorable parts in Old School and Cop Out, and perhaps if Cop Out was better, that would have helped him out. He is now 35, which is both good and bad. He still has time to act but he stills seem to be seen as a frat guy, and those roles can run out when you hit 40. Just look at Matthew Lillard.

Sarah Michelle Gellar
Now here’s someone that seemed to have everything lining up or her. She starred in I Know What You Did Last Summer, one of the biggest teen horror films of that time period, and had a small part in Scream 2 as well. She showed her darker side in Cruel Intentions, a teen movie for teens who thought they were too grown up for teen movies, but not too grown up to laugh hysterically when Ryan Phillipe gets hit by a car. This article is about movies, but I can’t talk about Gellar without mentioning Buffy the Vampire Slayer, regarded as one of the best teen shows of all time, a show that her stellar performance was typically the highlight of. She did two Scooby Doo movies, starred in The Grudge and had a small role in its sequel, and then a bunch of stuff you don’t care about, many of which went straight to video.

Of all the people on the list, I thought she would have the biggest career. I didn’t watch Buffy consistently but I always heard how much people liked Gellar. Guys thought she was badass and wore her ultra-tiny 90s miniskirts exceptionally well, girls thought she was strong and smart, everyone thought she was funny and cool. She was capable of doing action, comedy and drama well; it seemed she could be as famous as she wanted to be. And I think that’s just it. Maybe I got caught up in all the fandom, but I think she’s just one of those grounded people who would rather be happy than uber-famous and she simply made her choice, although her television show The Ringer was recently picked up for a full season run.

Freddie Prinze Jr.
His face might be what the most people picture when you say, “Picture a male 90’s teen star.” He just looks like he should perpetually be dressed in a letterman jacket. He was also in two of the biggest teen films in the second half of the 90s: I Know What You Did Last Summer (as well as its sequel) and She’s All That. He was probably THE guy to cut out of teen magazines and put inside your locker for a while. Maybe I just wasn’t playing close enough attention but this status faded away rather suddenly. After that he has done a tiny bit of work in movies and some TV, including a pretty sizeable role in 24.

Considering he is married to Sarah Michelle Gellar, I’m going to chalk up his decline in relevance to the same reason as hers. However, let’s be honest, if they both went for it gung-ho, she would have done better. Now he makes his living (seriously) working as a producer and director for World Wrestling Entertainment. Marrying Buffy and hanging out with Randy Orton? Things could be worse.

Rachael Leigh Cook
The other half of She’s All That. She’s the ‘she’ and I think Alex would agree, she certainly is all that. She’s also Josie in Josie and the Pussycats and I’m working hard to give that gem status as seminal teen film of that generation. Cook is super cute and is slightly better than a terrible actress.

She has continued to work pretty steadily in TV and film, just not much that you’ve heard of; I certainly don’t hear her name anywhere. She seems to be making a decent living as an actress still but hasn’t done much work of note since those teen movies. The intro on her Wikipedia page says she’s best known for her role in She’s All That and an anti-drug PSA, which I’m sure makes the directors she’s worked with in the last decade feel great. Interestingly, in 2011, she was selected by the Obama administration as a Champion of Change for Arts Education. I think this is another case of intentionally moving out of the spotlight, but maybe people are right when they talk about women getting less work as they get older.

And that’s the thing. To be honest, I’m not sure how much these careers are what these people wanted. After getting such success early on, it would make sense for these people to choose to be less famous, less public, or to work less. Maybe they felt it was all too easy and not worth the drawbacks. I can imagine being a teen heartthrob could be exhausting. They were huge stars in their late teens/early 20s and perhaps that fame is something they checked off their to-do list. It could be they felt like they’ve accomplished what they set out to do and now want a quieter life, focusing on family. I cannot blame anybody for that. In fact, for actors playing teenagers (who are just supposed to be air-headed and pretty), it’s quite a mature thing to do.

But maybe it’s something. Some of them definitely give up, or tone it down, and simply aren’t as popular as they once were. As suggested above, perhaps people just got sick of them. It could also be an age-based typecasting. If you were introduced to Jason Biggs to be a 17-year-old guy, perhaps casting directors think you won’t be able to see him as anything else, and in Biggs’ case, that exactly how he still looks.

Or could it be something even close to the genre itself? Could the fame of these people be like the teen years they so famously portrayed: easy to analyze and dwell on but impossible to replicate? It could be that the success of these actors is similar to teenage years, and what is so compelling about them. You only get one chance at it; it doesn’t last forever and you can’t do it again. They may feel about their fame the way many of us feel about our teen years. It was something they stumbled into, enjoyed through the confusion and by the time they started to get the hang of it, it was over, never to return. I know that’s a bit abstract to really determine who stays on top, but it’s the only explanation I have as to how Sarah Michelle Gellar is not a superstar.

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