Appreciations of art and popular culture (movies, music, books, theater) from long ago to now.
Wednesday, May 12, 2021
Pretty in Pink (dir. Howard Deutch, 1986)
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Pretty in Pink, written by the late John Hughes, which came out exactly 35 years ago now, as hard as that is to believe. This week I attended a virtual live Q&A event with Andrew McCarthy, whose new memoir Brat: An ’80s Story was just released. I was glad to have the chance to ask him a couple of questions during the event, to which he gave great answers. His answer to my question about his character Blane in Pretty in Pink ended the Q&A session. I was curious about a comment he’d made regarding how Molly Ringwald, who plays Andie in the film, had argued after the auditions that he was the right actor for the role, the kind of guy whom she’d fall for herself, whereas John Hughes questioned whether McCarthy seemed too shy and reserved when compared with typical leading men. It’s this gendered dichotomy that interests me most about the movie, especially its questioning of masculinity and masculine roles, at least as they stood back in the mid-1980s, right when I was wrapping up junior high and heading into my high school years.
I asked Andrew McCarthy specifically about what it felt like to be seen as a kind of template or role model for younger men back in the ’80s, and his response to my question was at first slightly perplexed. “Did it really happen like that? Is that how people saw me?” he wondered in reply, recalling how frequently he’d been told back then that he needed to lift weights and beef up to transform himself into a standard matinee idol. What’s interesting is how that’s essentially the only masculine type that existed in Hollywood films. Any male performer who seemed too sweet or too sensitive bordered on something not quite masculine enough at that point in time. Andie’s lifelong friend and other suitor in the film, Duckie (portrayed so memorably by Jon Cryer), leans a bit further in that less macho direction: offbeat, artistic, even somewhat self-consciously effeminate, when he’s not lip-synching to Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” and pretending to be butch. Molly Ringwald has gone on the record as saying that she assumed in retrospect that Duckie’s character was actually gay.
This explains to me why I felt such an affinity for the movie as a teenager, and why I retain such deep associations with the film today. I was already pretty certain that I was gay at that point in time, but it was the ’80s in Cincinnati, Ohio, so my social options for open self-expression were still limited. Cinema, notably the sort that winds up feeling nostalgic years later, provides an avenue for considering other available forms of selfhood, and I think back then I’d convinced myself that Blane and Duckie, vying for Andie’s affections, were for me two sensible and accessible versions of (potentially straight) early manhood. Since I couldn’t yet fully imagine myself to be what I actually was, I let the movie’s fantasy overwrite my own visions of myself for a couple of hours whenever I watched the film, while simply admiring the well-told story of a heterosexual romance in John Hughes’ screenplay. I think John Hughes was probably closest to Duckie himself, and his teen comedies almost always placed the issue of class status near the heart of the drama. It’s no coincidence that Pretty in Pink’s opening shot is literally of a street sweeper driving down the road on the wrong side of the tracks.
James Spader’s character, Steff, the hilariously condescending, obscenely rich asshole best friend of Blane, is another type of male template in the film, and he’s no less fun to watch for being totally revolting, swishing around their high school in his crisp linen suits and sport jackets. There’s also a fairly obvious level on which John Hughes clearly implied (and the actors intelligently conveyed) that Steff isn’t only competing with Blane for Andie’s romantic attentions out of sexual jealousy. In the homosocial sense, Steff is also afraid of losing Blane to Andie, when even only as a best friend, he really wants to have more of Blane all to himself. James Spader is smart enough an actor to wink at the audience about that aspect of his character between the lines of dialogue that he so tantalizingly delivers throughout the movie.
So what was it about watching Andie and Blane go out on their first date, much to the frustration of Duckie, that so appealed to teenage me? I believe the answer to that question is also a clue to what’s given John Hughes’ teen movies their enduring status in American culture; he was able like no other writer/director to dignify what it feels like to be seen as who you are, in the very act of becoming yourself, by the first person with whom you fall in love. Many critics have pointed out that John Hughes took teenagers seriously and got what it feels like to be misunderstood in adolescence, and therefore they argue that’s the reason why his movies have lasted, though I think the truth is perhaps even more reflective than that. I think that feeling of finally being “seen” as oneself is successfully conveyed in John Hughes’ films because he was a perceptive enough screenwriter to actually be the one who’s doing the seeing, thereby allowing viewers of his films to see themselves and their own struggles in clearer focus.
And that’s how Andrew McCarthy actually ended up answering my question about whether he’d become a kind of archetype for young guys back in the ’80s. He said that he’s realized as he’s gotten older that he was very lucky to be an avatar for people’s own youth through his first several film roles, the key that continues to grant them some kind of access to their earlier selves. All three performers in the movie’s central love triangle — Andrew McCarthy, Molly Ringwald, and Jon Cryer — seem to know just how well-rounded their characters are and how carefully John Hughes crafted them in his script. Each actor infuses his or her respective character with their own personality in ways that make them continue to be indelible nearly four decades later. I can’t imagine their effect on popular culture waning anytime soon.
One of my favorite scenes out of many in the film is the movie’s dramatic climax, when Andie screams at Blane in an empty hallway of their high school after he’s given her the cold shoulder due to peer pressure from his wealthy friends. The set-up is theatrical, with the audience aware that both Duckie and Steff are watching from the edges of the scene as Andie and Blane fight it out in public, a Shakespearean device that I’m sure John Hughes was knowingly using. The unbridled bitterness of that scene, and of Duckie’s earlier falling out with Andie, only makes their reunion at the prom in the movie’s finale all the more moving and fulfilling for viewers. Duckie’s gentlemanly final bow as Andie’s steadfast friend, encouraging her to go to Blane and embrace the romance that the film wants her to have, ultimately represented the kind of guy who seemed worth striving to be back in my high school days. I remain grateful to John Hughes and the actors for giving young men back then — gay or bi or straight — a sketch of an ideal to aim for.