You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried, by Susannah Gora
This book is part cultural analysis of ‘80s youth films, part trivia, and whole bunch walk down memory lane.
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.