The decade of the 1980s was not a golden age in American cinema, but it was a golden period for movies about high school and about teenagers getting laid. These movies ran the gamut from the good (Sixteen Candles and everything else written and directed by John Hughes, except for Weird Science) to the great (Say Anything and anything else written and directed by Cameron Crowe, except for The Wild Life) to the just plain awful (Porky’s and anything with the word “virgin” in the title). And in between stood such oddities as Losin’ It (1983), about three friends driving across the border to lose their virginity in Tijuana. The mind-boggling cast included Tom Cruise, Jackie Earle Haley and Shelley Long (in other words, Top Gun’s Maverick meets Little Children’s sex pervert and Diane from Cheers).
Another anomalous movie from this same period is Real Genius. The anomaly comes from the fact that the teenagers in this story are smart and have more on their minds than just getting laid. Like normal teenagers, they enjoy playing pranks. But here, the pranks involve turning their dorm into an ice skating rink, installing a micro-receiver in an obnoxious student’s mouth so he thinks he is hearing the voice of God when they broadcast instructions to him, and, in the movie’s climax, turning a professor’s house into an enormous popcorn popper (with the aid of a weaponized space-based laser projector).
The difference is these teenagers are students at Pacific Tech, a West Coast university obviously modeled after Cal Tech (although the movie was actually shot at Pomona College and Occidental College). One of the characters is a reclusive genius who lives in the steam tunnels under the campus. He is played by Jon Gries, the son of the late movie director Tom Gries (Will Penny), who later achieved movie immortality as the repulsive Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite. The main character is a super-smart senior played in ever so insouciant fashion by Val Kilmer in one of his earliest screen performances (after Z-A-Z’s Top Secret). The wisecracking character he plays, Chris Knight, is studly and smart in equal measure. And yet, he is not the romantic center of the story.
That role is reserved for Gabriel Jarret as Mitch Taylor, a naïve fifteen-year-old freshman at Pacific Tech recruited by a scheming professor (William Atherton in a scene-stealing role) for his experimental laser program. Thanks to Chris Knight’s cracked idea of what it means to be a mentor, Mitch doesn’t stay naïve for long. Although an older woman (Patti D’Arbanville) with a thing for geniuses, tries to seduce him (and fails), the true object of his affection is a nineteen-year-old student named Jordan Cochran, played in indelible fashion by Michelle Meyrink in what has to be one of the most original and appealing character turns to appear in any teen film in the eighties.
Previous to this role, Michelle Meyrink had a pretty undistinguished career. She is the co-star, opposite Cameron Dye, of National Lampoon’s Joy of Sex (directed by Martha Coolidge, who also directed Valley Girl as well as Real Genius), had a brief run as one of Michael J. Fox’s girl friends (don’t ask me which one) on Family Ties, and chummed around as Diane Lane’s best friend in The Outsiders. (On The Outsiders’ DVD commentary track, it is embarrassing to hear director Francis Food Coppola gush over Diane Lane’s beauty while barely giving mention to Michelle Meyrink).
But with Jordan, Ms. Meyrink found a role she could really sink her teeth into. When we first meet her, Jordan is wearing overalls and a crash helmet while she sleds down an ice-covered dorm hallway. She removes the crash helmet to reveal an endearing Louise Brooks bob and begins speaking at a rapid clip that sounds like a speeded-up version of shorthand. She is hyperkinetic, hyper-voluble and, owing to the fact that she can’t sleep, tries to impress Mitch by staying up all night knitting him a sweater, and even offers to build him a new bed for his dorm room.
In one throw away scene, it is hilarious to watch Jordan trying to act nonchalant as she stands watch, but she can’t keep herself from squirming in place and darting her eyes around suspiciously, thus creating exactly the opposite effect. Her relationship with Mitch Taylor is charmingly chaste. Jordan herself is both brainy and sexy and adorably idiosyncratic. In many ways, she is the distaff eighties’ complement to Eddie Deezen’s uber-nerdish character in I Wanna Hold Your Hand.
And in other ways, the character Michelle Meyrink plays here is reminiscent of the kid sister teen characters played by Diana Lynn in two of the most well-remembered movies of World War II—Billy Wilder’s directorial debut, The Major and the Minor, and Preston Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (which, along with his Hail the Conquering Hero, also marks the apex of Eddie Bracken‘s movie career). In the former, Diana Lynn plays the younger sister of Ray Milland's fiancee who becomes buddy-buddy with Ginger Rogers, here improbably disguised as a twelve-year-old (for reasons that are too complicated to go into here). Level-headed Diana Lynn is the only one able to penetrate Ginger Rogers' disguise
In the latter, she is the younger sister of Betty Hutton, a single girl who finds herself scandalizingly pregnant after attending a USO dance. When everything is going to hell around her and all the adult characters are acting like children, Diana Lynn can be depended on to keep her head and exert a well-needed dollop of common sense. Tart rather than sweet, she is a bracing tonic to the types of goody-goody teen characters reliably played by Shirley Temple, Margaret O’Brien (except in The Secret Garden) and Bonita Granville in other movies of the forties.
Unlike those three young actresses, Diana Lynn went on to have a career as an adult actress, although to see her ludicrously miscast as a femme fatale seducing Glenn Ford in John Farrow’s Plunder of the Sun (1953) is to make one selfishly wish that she had stopped making movies when Tojo surrendered to MacArthur on the deck of the USS Missouri. In the fifties and sixties, Diana Lynn went back and forth between Hollywood and Broadway before choosing semi-retirement. Tragically, she died at age 45 just as she was about to return to the screen to play Anthony Perkins’ wife in Frank Perry’s film adaptation of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays (wonderful novel, pretentious movie).
As for Michelle Meyrink, she never again had a role as meaty and memorable as Jordan Cochran. Her last screen performance was with Keanu Reeves in Marisa Silver’s earnest but inert Permanent Record (1988). In Real Genius, her performance is the authentic work of genius. She gave teenagers a good name at a time when teenagers, at least in movies, were more apt to think with their genitals instead of their brains. Diana Lynn was a breath of fresh air compared to the saccharine teens who surrounded her. In many ways, Diana Lynn is the spiritual forbear of Michelle Meyrink. Who knows which young actress will, hopefully in the near future, pick up their torch and run with it, run all the way past teenhood to a long and fruitful adult acting career.