Thirty years ago, Penelope Spheeris made a comedy that would break the mold of the genre thanks to a woman: Cassandra Wong. The film is apparently about best friends Wayne and Garth (Mike Myers and Dana Carvey), who broadcast their show Wayne’s World from Wayne’s parents’ basement – the laid-back couple love nothing more than hanging out and listening to music. rock music. But a rock star, however, would steal Wayne’s heart. Yet Tia Carrere’s Cassandra is far from a bland love interest, more than a prize to chase – a standalone hero in her own right.
Wayne’s World is undoubtedly a story told from a male perspective. The central friendship, humor, and characters like Lara Flynn Boyle’s Stacy (a troubled ex-girlfriend nicknamed “Psycho Hose Beast”) all point to a world created by men for men of the same age. But Cassandra doesn’t exist to serve her male co-star, or be saved by him.
We first meet her at metal club The Gasworks, with Wayne staring in wonder as he watches Cassandra, front and center stage, perform a powerful cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire.” Immediately afterwards, she becomes collateral damage in a fight between two men. This might be when Wayne would come to the rescue, but Cassandra doesn’t need help. She takes out the two men in a slow-motion fight scene, while Wayne watches in awe, stating “I love that woman!” to the viewer. It’s a sentiment repeated in a music store when Wayne shows Cassandra her dream guitar, and she knows as much about it as he does. Rather than being threatened, Cassandra’s confidence only attracts her more.
Rather than a hollow object of affection, Cassandra becomes her own person. She speaks both Cantonese and English, the latter which she learned at university (and, she adds, police academy movies). She is on her own path with her band, hard rock band Crucial Taunt. Cassandra seeks to break through musically after meeting Benjamin (Rob Lowe), a sleazy executive looking to acquire Wayne’s World.
Here we meet not one but two antagonists – Benjamin and Wayne’s own insecurity. Benjamin seems to have ulterior motives for helping Cassandra’s career, but the film is careful to point out that she’s progressing through her talent. This is said bluntly when she breaks up with Wayne. “Maybe he thinks I’m talented,” she replies when Wayne questions the attention she’s getting from Benjamin. “Maybe he’s teasing you,” Wayne retorts, to which an astonished Cassandra says, “You think that’s the only way for me to get a gig?” It’s clear that Wayne is wrong, as evidenced by a disastrous attempt to prove his video shoot wrong by accusing Benjamin of not booking the rest of his band (he did) and that there’s no of film in the cameras (there are some). There’s no doubting Cassandra’s talent and authenticity – Wayne is the one making the mistake.
Cassandra, a talented, charismatic and independent female character, stood out from her contemporaries in the slacker comedy genre in the 90s. Films like those of Kevin Smith Clerks and Dazed and confused in 1993 featured women who were more talked about than spoke for themselves, while Bill and Ted’s other headliners were literally medieval damsels in distress. Cassandra remains a refreshing burst of positive femininity, in the sea of comedic masculinity that surrounded her at the time.
It was the combination of talent from both sides of the camera that made this vision come to fruition. In the making-of documentary of the film, super close-up, Carrere says it was in Myers’ script that Cassandra had to be Asian, otherwise she thinks the character would have been “a buxom girl with blonde hair and blue eyes who is often referred to as ‘The Girl Next Door’.” Spheeris also stressed the need for her to have an “independent air”. This could only have been fully realized with a female director of her experience, having made The Decline of Western Civilization documentaries that examined the egos and frailties of the 80s hair metal scene.
Cassandra isn’t the only example of Myers’ enlightened approach to female characters. The plot of 1997 Austin Powers: The International Mystery Man sees Austin Powers, a man literally frozen in time, with outdated attitudes towards the treatment of women, paired with Vanessa Kensington (Elizabeth Hurley), who demands respect from Powers in his words and actions after numerous unwanted advances. Sadly, that ambition disappeared from Myers’ writing in the franchise’s sequels, as female co-stars such as Heather Graham and Beyoncé Knowles became interchangeable. Additionally, Myers reportedly had issues with Spheeris on Wayne’s World, resulting from a disagreement over the film’s final cut that led to Spheeris not being asked to return for the sequel in 1994, being replaced by Stephen Surjik. “Because of that (the disagreement) he decided I couldn’t direct it,” Spheeris said in 2017. “He had the power with the studio, because without Mike you don’t have a movie.”
This follow-up didn’t share the same cheerful energy of its predecessor, making do with pop culture parodies of movies like jurassic park, and problematic characters like “The Weird Naked Indian”, a Native American character who appears in one of Wayne’s dreams. Cassandra’s role is also diminished, becoming a contestable prize as she allows her overbearing father (James Hong) to marry her off to the film’s villain, music producer Bobby (Christopher Walken).
But she has been present in the sequel, which is not always acquired for the female characters (just ask Hurley in the second Austin Powers film, or the character of Morena Baccarin Vanessa in Deadpool 2, both killed in the opening minutes of their respective films). Its importance is to be credited to the breakthrough of Carrere. A charismatic presence, she was a woman of color whose origins were celebrated rather than stereotyped. Carrere’s acting talent was matched by her ability to sing (or, in Wayne’s words, “she can really moan”). Her musical prowess in this film launched a musical career that saw her win two Grammys for her Hawaiian music albums “Ikena” in 2008 and “Huana Ke Aloha” in 2012; while she also played a ruthless villain in an action movie true liesa teacher-treasure hunter in a cult tv show relic hunterand an older sister/guardian in Disney’s lilo and stitch. Her comedic timing and powerful screen presence as Wayne’s World’s “Baberaham Lincoln” was the launch pad for a long, convention-defying career that has seen her undertake a wide range of projects, from comedies like Calm your enthusiasm on reality TV like Dancing with the stars.
Comedies can age badly over time – hits around the same time such as Ace Ventura: animal detective will draw a grimace from modern audiences due to outdated depictions of race, gender, and sexuality. However, Cassandra is part of the reason why Wayne’s World remains a delight all these years later. Its comedy is derived from the youthful optimism and enthusiasm of its protagonists, rather than finding targets for laughs. Cassandra’s powerhouse introduction is still one of the film’s strong points, reflecting the good times in the story, while delivering a historic female performance.