[22 March 2010]
As if the title doesn’t give enough away, the promotional materials for Susannah Gora’s compulsively readable You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation includes a tease that defines exactly the book’s audience: “Because You Can Quote Lines from Sixteen Candles, Your iPod Playlist Includes More Than One Song by The Psychedelic Furs and Simple Minds, and You Still Wish Andie Had Ended Up with Duckie in Pretty in Pink”.
I’m proudly guilty of one and three, and no one was more surprised than I was to learn that I only have one song by either the Psychedelic Furs or Simple Minds on my iPod (“Pretty in Pink”, from the soundtrack). In my defense, however, the first song I tried to buy when I got an iTunes account was “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”. At the time it was unavailable. Still, I mean… it was the very first song I looked up. That has to count for something.
In any case, there are a number of other tells I could add to that spot-on promotional blurb, but the best may be this: If you understand the book’s title without having to read past the colon, then this book is for you. Kf you add the “Sweets” to the beginning of the line, then a purchase should be in your future. For those of us who can name the original MTV VJs, who know that the Thompson Twins don’t share a surname and aren’t really twins, and who once pegged their pants, this book falls somewhere between required reading and a damn good time. It’s closer to a damn good time, but that’s OK. The movies were, too.
Gora has an impressive background as a contributor to pop-cultural criticism (she’s a former Associate Editor for Premiere magazine). Her first of many good moves here is that she smartly pares down her subject matter. This is not an encyclopedic survey of ‘80s youth films. She convincingly prunes away the likes of Fast Times at Ridgement High (1982) and even the Hughes-penned Weird Science (1985), the former on the grounds that it really belongs to the ‘70s and the latter on account of having “virtually no cultural resonances”.
What remains is a series of tight essays on, for my money, the right batch of movies: Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, St. Elmo’s Fire, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Some Kind of Wonderful, and, the surprise of the bunch, Say Anything. Interspersed throughout these movie-specific chapters are more general essays on topics such as John Hughes’ upbringing, the role of music in these films, and the impact of the infamous New York magazine article that coined the term “Brat Pack”. The result is a work that’s part cultural analysis, part trivia, and whole bunch walk down memory lane.
The structure of the movie-specific chapters relies on the same formula throughout: Introduce the broad overview of how the movie fits in the sequence of ‘80s youth films; examine the nuances of the casting, with special attention to the actors who did not get the part (what if Rick Moranis had been allowed to yuck it up in the role of Carl the Janitor in The Breakfast Club?); relate noteworthy on-set stories, complete with relevant pranks, tensions, and romances; then sum it all up with two pages on how the movie was received and what it all meant for the careers of the actors and the lives of the audience.
Formulaic or not, what Gora does within these confines is impressive.
Gora has clearly put in her time re-watching the movies (with all the accoutrements that the Special Features of the DVDs allow). She has also done her homework at the library, sifting through the relevant clippings and reviews. However, there are 42 candles on Sam’s cake now, and Gora knows that the real story isn’t how the movies were received then, but, rather, it’s how they are perceived now. Her great coup is that she got the principal players to talk about just that.
The book’s most important sentence may be the short paragraph that precedes the Notes section of the appendix: “All the quotations used in this book are from the author’s own original interviews, except for the following, unless otherwise noted in the text”. The 11 pages of notes that follow pale in comparison to the four-page list of interviewees that appears in the Acknowledgements. The list is exhaustive enough that it’s easier to mention the notable absences: Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore, and John Hughes, himself.
Sure, Hughes would have been a heckuva catch, all the more so because he died before the book was completed, but it’s hard to complain when pretty much everyone else is here: Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, Anthony Michael Hall, Matthew Broderick, Jennifer Grey, Andrew McCarthy, Rob Lowe, Eric Stoltz, John Cusack, Ally Sheedy, and Jon Cryer, to name but a few of the stars, supporting cast, and filmmakers who Gora interviewed for the book. Add Prince and that girl from Missing Persons, and Gora has assembled my dream birthday party when I was 14.
These sit-downs never serve her better than they do in the chapter about Pretty in Pink, “Sitting Pretty”. (In general, the chapter titles are quite clever—“I Love Ferris in the Springtime” or “Pack to the Future”—so don’t hold this one against her too much.) For those who don’t know the backstory, the original version of Pretty in Pink included Duckie winning the girl, but the test audiences resisted it so much that the filmmakers hastily called everyone back and re-shot what would become the ending that we all know (if we don’t all love).
The problem, as Gora tells it (and as people like Andrew McCarthy confirm), is that there was simply no chemistry between Ringwald and Cryer. By the time Pretty in Pink rolled around, Ringwald had considerable pull with the casting decisions, and she handpicked McCarthy. Cryer, however, was chosen by Howard Deutch, the director who had an on-again/off-again relationship with Hughes. Ringwald and Cryer simply never clicked, perhaps because in her mind he was a poor substitute for her top choice: Robert Downey, Jnr. To be sure, that would have been a completely different dynamic.
“There was no way, really, that anybody wanted me to end up with Duckie. They just didn’t seem vaguely romantic together at all,” says Ringwald in her interview with Gora. She continues, “Actually… I think he seemed gay. I mean, if they remade the movie now, he would be, like, the gay friend who comes out at the end. He wouldn’t be winking at a blonde [Kristy Swanson], he would be winking at a cute guy.” Ringwald does go on to praise Cryer’s performance, but to say that everything was ducky, as it were, is to bury the lead. For his part, Cryer maintains that Ringwald was so sick when they shot the original ending that it never really had a chance.
The Breakfast Club
A Powerful Hold on a Select Few
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.