You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried
By Susannah Gora
Hardcover, 384 pages
List price: $26
The lavender-hued poster of The Breakfast Club has hung on the walls of countless childhood bedrooms and college dorm rooms over the past quarter of a century. To anybody who grew up staring at that poster, with the film's young cast staring boldly back, the words written there have held the power of a magic spell, a call to arms in the social battle that is adolescence. "They were five total strangers," the poster reads, "with nothing in common, meeting for the first time. A brain, a beauty, a jock, a rebel and a recluse. Before the day was over, they broke the rules. Bared their souls. And touched each other in a way they never dreamed possible." Those very words were mirrored in the kind of impact The Breakfast Club would have — it became one of a group of seminal 1980s youth films that broke the rules of teen movies, bared young people's souls, and touched a generation in ways they'd never dreamed possible. "These movies," says St. Elmo's Fire and Pretty in Pink star Andrew McCarthy, "changed everything." And in doing so, he adds, "they defined a generation."
It's been decades since the movies flickered in theaters across America, and yet, for those who grew up watching them, the films' stories run on a nonstop loop in their hearts, against the aching beat of a synth- pop New Wave song. As adults, many of them let the movies' lessons inform the way they live, often in very significant ways. Kelly Farrell, a thirty-one-year-old lawyer in the Washington, D.C., area, named her son Jake after Jake Ryan, the noble heartthrob played by Michael Schoeffling in Sixteen Candles. "I feel like I will have succeeded as a mother if my Jake grows up to be like Jake Ryan," says Farrell. "That will be my pride and joy, if I raise the boy who can see past the cheerleader to find the right girl, and who'll do all those great things we always imagined Jake Ryan doing." (She also named her daughter Samantha, after Molly Ringwald's character in that movie.)
The effects of these films are indeed wide-reaching. Ben Stein, the actor-writer-economist who called attendance in Ferris Bueller's Day Off with a nasal ennui, has heard everyone from the first President Bush to Kurt Cobain ape the "Bueller . . . Bueller . . ." line back to him. The New York Times wrote that, to a certain generation, "Judd Nelson's portrayal of the flannel-wearing misfit John Bender in The Breakfast Club remains the coolest rebel in the history of film." The American Film Institute described the eighties youth movies as "the cultural phenomena that helped make us what we are today."
This book focuses on the history behind the making of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, St. Elmo's Fire, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Some Kind of Wonderful, and Say Anything, movies that were different from any youth films that came before or, unfortunately, since. "Before these," says Molly Ringwald, the star of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink, " there weren't a lot of movies from the kids' point of view. And if they were, they weren't terribly realistic, and it didn't really sound like they were kids talking." In these eighties teen movies, however, audiences found beautifully written, powerfully acted films about young people — something almost new to the art form. "These weren't beach blanket movies," says Andrew McCarthy, "they weren't slasher movies. They were melodramas, and these melodramas gave dignity and a voice to that age of people, who hadn't had a voice before."
In the post-Vietnam America of the 1980s, teenagers didn't have to worry about getting drafted. Though some feared nuclear war, for the most part they were fortunate enough to focus on things like proms, pimples, and popularity. These teenagers were passionate, misunderstood, restless, and looking for something that could be their own. And rather than making fun of the trials of teenhood, the films served to treat these issues with gravitas. "There's something about youth that inspires heightened emotions," says film critic Leonard Maltin. "Everything is life or death, and these films recognize that, and don't disparage it."
The movies, says Breakfast Club and St. Elmo's Fire star Ally Sheedy, ushered in a time of "young people feeling like they mattered — these were movies about them, and their issues. There was nothing that was looking down, there was nothing that was saying 'how cute.' They focused on a generation, as if to say, you matter — to us." They distilled the teenage experience in new and unforgettable ways. Say Anything, says that film's star John Cusack, provides "a snapshot of aware humans who happen to be in high school — who are scared, and alive, and who desire, and who are as uninterested in conforming as anyone in a J. D. Salinger book."
In an oft-quoted scene from The Breakfast Club, Molly Ringwald's popular princess tells the other kids in detention that they should just ignore Judd Nelson's sexy rebel. "Sweets," he tells her knowingly, "you couldn't ignore me if you tried." Time has shown that even if we tried, we couldn't ignore the movies of the Brat Pack. Their films changed the way many young people looked at everything from class distinction to friendship, from love and sex to fashion and music. Though not universally loved by critics, these movies were among the most influential pop cultural contributions of their time. Their storylines also had a way of instilling a sense of optimism in audiences. At an age when young people were struggling to find their way, in these movies they learned that the nerd could get the babe, the jock could have a heart, that an awesome pink prom dress could be crafted from hand-me-downs, that anything was possible.
Although new waves of teenagers keep discovering and falling in love with the films, there is one generation who was particularly, and permanently, affected by these movies: the post–Baby Boom cohort born in the late 1960s and 1970s, labeled Generation X. For these people who came of age in the 1980s, this cinematic world and its players made an indelible mark upon their formative years.
The movies were created by a handful of distinct filmmakers: Cameron Crowe, Joel Schumacher, Howard Deutch, and particularly the late John Hughes (considered the godfather of the genre). When Hughes died suddenly of a heart attack in August of 2009, newspapers and websites ran obituaries, and television news networks took a fond look back at his movies. But the remembrances ran deeper than that. Film critics around the world crafted glowing appraisals of his work. A. O. Scott wrote that to those who grew up in the eighties, "John Hughes was our Godard, the filmmaker who crystallized our attitudes and anxieties with just the right blend of teasing and sympathy." Roger Ebert noted that "few directors have left a more distinctive or influential body of work than John Hughes." The New York Times ran a moving valediction by Molly Ringwald on its op-ed page. Website message boards were filled with thousands of reminiscences from shocked fans ("I feel like my '80s childhood went with him," one commentator wrote). It is no oversight that Hughes's most successful film, Home Alone, was given relatively little attention upon his passing. Yes, that was the one that made the most money, but its impact was comparatively ephemeral. Starting in 1984 with Sixteen Candles, and ending in 1987 with Some Kind of Wonderful, John Hughes remade American teenhood in his own image. And for that epoch, he was the bard of youth.
Hughes, Deutch, Schumacher, and Crowe brought different voices and cinematic contours to their stories of young people finding their place in the world. Their backgrounds were different, to be sure — Schumacher had been a costume designer, Crowe a teenage rock journalist for Rolling Stone, Deutch made movie trailers, and Hughes worked for a Chicago advertising agency. But the films that these men would make shared common narrative threads in which middle- and upper- middle- class American teenagers wrestled with questions of identity and conformity, while trying to find love and embrace hope. All four filmmakers also often worked with one legendary producer, Ned Tanen, who ran Universal and Paramount during the 1980s, and had a hand in making virtually every important youth film of that era.
And as cinematic fate would have it, at one point in the early 1980s, the three filmmakers who would most change the genre all literally worked under the same roof. Schumacher, who would go on to co write and direct St. Elmo's Fire; Crowe, who would go on to write and direct Say Anything; and Hughes, who would go on to write and direct Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and write and produce Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful — all shared a bungalow on the Universal lot.
Through interviews with the actors, filmmakers, and other insiders from that time, a picture emerges of a group of people who loved their craft, their movies, and each other. The relatively low bud gets of their films allowed them great artistic freedom, and as such, their work comprised what turned out to be the golden age of youth cinema. They had no idea at the time that they were participating in films that, two decades later, would still be so important.
On-screen, the gang was all there — the soulful Molly Ringwald, the intense Judd Nelson, the dreamy Rob Lowe, the funky Ally Sheedy, the energetic Emilio Estevez, the glamorous Demi Moore, the bravely geeky Anthony Michael Hall, and the sensitive Andrew McCarthy. There were also talented young actors such as Ferris Bueller's Day Off 's charismatic Matthew Broderick; Some Kind of Wonderful's solemn Eric Stoltz, strong Mary Stuart Masterson, and charming Lea Thompson; Pretty in Pink's earnest Jon Cryer; and Say Anything's passionate John Cusack.
There were other notable teen films of that period, which, for various reasons, aren't given as much detailed attention in this book. For example, Amy Heckerling's savvy, critically acclaimed Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) understood teens in ways few films had before, and dealt with societal issues that not even Hughes dared touch. But with its laid-back 1970s feel, Fast Times seems more like an important predecessor to the later eighties teen movies than a true part of that canon. 1985's Weird Science, though written and directed by John Hughes and starring Anthony Michael Hall, doesn't get much attention herein because, though it's still a late-night cable TV fixture, it has virtually no cultural resonance.
This book examines the intriguing makings of the eighties youth movies that most represent a phenomenon described in these pages as cine-sociology: the concrete sociological impact that movies can have on our lives. Of course, the films also made a mark upon the lives of the actors who starred in them. Most of them were new to fame, and had trouble navigating their way under the glare of stardom, especially after finding themselves quickly labeled as a "pack" after a handful of them spent a fateful night on the town with a reporter.
The origins of the term "Brat Pack" and the ramifications the label had upon the careers and personal lives of the actors branded with it are explored in detail in these pages, along with the question of which actors the label stuck to most, and why. Some of these actors are still understandably wounded by the use of this moniker. But for better or worse, it is impossible to talk about this set of movies without talking about "the Brat Pack." What ever the term may mean to those actors, the phrase has taken on a positive, romantic tone over the course of the past de cades, as the actors, and the phrase itself, have become indelible elements of pop culture history.
Reprinted from You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried by Susannah Gora. Copyright 2010 by Susannah Gora. Published by Crown, a division of Random House Inc.