You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried, by Susannah Gora

by Kirby Fields

22 March 2010

Ferris Bueller's Day Off 

A Powerful Hold on a Select Few

The Breakfast Club

The Breakfast Club

A Powerful Hold on a Select Few

Susanna Gora’s list of interviewees reads like my dream birthday party when I was 14.

OK, so calling out an actor’s masculinity is one of the more sensational tidbits included in the book, but hopefully the example illustrates just how open everyone is as they look back on this period of their careers. Whether it’s Cryer being incredulous at the apartments in St. Elmo’s Fire, Lea Thompson talking about how overly sensitive she was on the set of Some Kind of Wonderful after the failure of Howard the Duck, or Mia Sara (Sloane Peterson) confessing that she was distractingly infatuated with co-star Matthew Broderick, time has granted the participants a perspective that transcends the typical junket-type observations.

The risk here, if you haven’t picked up on it already, is that you should read this book at your own peril if you are prone to disillusionment. By no means does this suggest that Gora is in the business of muckraking. If anything, she can be accused of protecting her childhood heroes a little too much. However, during the course of the book, revelations naturally come up. Jennifer Grey was a pothead back in the day. Rob Lowe was reportedly high on cocaine and ecstasy when he shot his infamous video at the 1988 Democratic National Convention (as if shooting said video with two underage girls wasn’t bad enough). Also, it’s a little suspicious how many times Molly Ringwald remembers unflattering events differently than everyone else.

The biggest disillusionment of them all stems from the presence that is most conspicuous by his absence: John Hughes. Hughes’ story provides the closest thing the book has to a narrative. Gora traces his career from his upper-middle-class upbringing to his stint as a writer for National Lampoon to his early success with Vacation to the insecurity he felt about his directorial debut (The Breakfast Club) and on through his rise to Hollywood royalty with Home Alone and his apparent contentment in working as a hired gun on projects like 101 Dalmations, Flubber, and the Beethoven franchise.

Much of this is common knowledge: that he “retired” from youth movies after Some Kind of Wonderful, that his last directing effort was the much maligned Curly Sue, that he had become a recluse. What I didn’t know, however, was that Hughes became the worst kind of power-mad egomaniacal Hollywood cliché, to the point that he would fire assistants seemingly without cause and shut people out of the inner circle for they knew not what offense.

To her great credit, Gora resists the impulse to judge, but you may not be so forgiving when you read about the cliques he would form with his actors, the temper he would unleash on even his closest collaborators, or the avarice he betrays when he boasts about how much he made off of the merchandising for 101 Dalmations. I, for one, couldn’t help but think that his reclusiveness was the result of the shame he felt with his late-career choices, but that’s clearly me projecting. I just have a hard time believing that the mind that wrote the prom speech from Pretty in Pink would be fully content coming up with the idea for Drillbit Taylor.

To indulge his inner Laurel and Hardy with Home Alone is one thing, but to never go back? I would think that not even his piles of cash could ease that burden. In any case, if you have a sense of him as the cinematic equivalent of J.D. Salinger, you are mistaken. Think Howard Hughes, his coincidental namesake, and you’re closer to the mark.

The non-movie specific chapters deserve 2,000 words of their own, but I have to leave some of the delights for you to uncover yourself. I’ll just say that the chapter on the music is especially good, in part because so many of us found some of the bands we did through these soundtracks, and the chapter on the origin of the term “Brat Pack” is noteworthy if only because it shows the very real consequences of a term that we have casually tossed around for the past 25 years. One of the handful of summative chapters near the end finally takes the movies to task for being so damn white. One of the great quotes belongs to sociologist Joshua Gamson: “I very much doubt that black urban kids were watching these movies and going, ‘Yeah, that’s me’”, If you haven’t thought about it before, take a moment to reflect on just how offensive Long Duk Dong is. He’s not Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s bad, but he’s pretty close.

Ultimately, the real question with a book like this is who’s going to read it. Yes, Gora has a built-in audience of devoted fans. I could give this book to 20 people right now, and they’d have it devoured by sun up. However, for as much fun as it is, this is hardly a transcendent study. You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried is about this specific crop of movies, which happen to have a powerful hold on a generation of suburban white kids who were born in the late ‘60s and the ‘70s.

If the ‘80s youth films were eligible for some kind of a Hall of Fame, I could not in good conscience vote them in. They were great, yes, but their appeal is too local. Gora makes her case for longevity in the book’s final pages, as she talks about modern-day teenagers throwing slumber parties and watching all-night Hughes marathons, but surely this is the exception. She talks about a recent screening of Sixteen Candles, but it was during a “classic films of the ‘80s” film festival. Aren’t the ‘80s notorious for being the nadir of recent cinematic history? I’m simply not convinced of their long-term appeal as anything other than a kind of cultural phenomenon. I hope I’m wrong. They deserve a life. This book does, too.

Finally, Dave MacDowell deserves special recognition. The book’s website indicates that MacDowell illustrated the eye-catching images that grace the book’s cover. It’s a rogue’s gallery of (mostly) Hughes characters, each image capturing the character’s essence in a look or a pose (my favorite is Estevez’s jock pulling the string through his hoodie). This cover will entice a lot of people to pick the book from the shelf. They will not be disappointed at what they find inside.

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