Director: Howard Deutch
By Roderick Heath
The death of Michael Jackson and John Hughes within a few weeks of each other had me thinking a lot about the 1980s. I never had much time for ’80s youth pics when I was an ’80s youth, and I watched most of Hughes’s later cornball films, like the intolerable Plains, Trains, and Automobiles (1987), without digging them in the least: they were broad, sticky, and slick in the wrong way. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1985) was funny, but also queasy in its celebration of a self-impressed jack-off passing off his gross egotism as rebellion, an accusation I feel like aiming at the whole parade of ’80s teen flicks. At least part of my distrust of such works was, to put it in the parlance of this film, the Duckie in me: they’re the richies, smooth and carefully buffed so that no matter what truths they reflect, they come back bathed in a glitzy sheen. I’d much rather one of the more recent films that have made a meal of the tired carcass of ’80s pop culture, like Zoolander (2001) or Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004).
But the accolades after his death for the core group of Hughes films—Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), Bueller, Pretty in Pink, and Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)—that retain a tremendously loyal cult made me feel, as Iona (Annie Potts) says of her friend who never went to the prom, like I’d missed something. And in Pretty in Pink, I found something of what they were talking about. In that very narrow range of experience those films charted, most of the praise comes for their accuracy in portraying teenage self-dramatisation and for not eliding the social schisms that plague high school society. I suppose this praise is something of a slap at recent, nakedly materialist youth fiction like Gossip Girl and the pretty dullards who bounce through contemporary teen dramas.
But a socially cynical aspect was always present in films looking at American rites of passage in diverse works like King’s Row (1940), Rebel without a Cause (1955), Peyton Place (1957), Home from the Hill (1960), and a host of others, quite often with rather more caustic, troubling perspectives. There have always been the friends from the wrong side of the tracks, the Cinderella romance, the troubled outcasts, the skeletons in the closet, the intergenerational hang-ups. Hughes “reinvented” the genre for the ’80s, which meant, in essence, gluing synth-pop and shitty clothes all over it, and providing a set template of predictable story arcs and familiar dramatic beats delivered with the sort of rhythm screenwriting guides adore.
Pretty in Pink displays the strengths and weaknesses of this little subgenre in equal measure, though Hughes didn’t direct it (and it’s interesting to note the popular auteur status Hughes gained despite mostly being a writer and producer). Far more modest and low-key than the greasy Bueller, it’s fairly amusing in places, with some deftly sketched comic types abutting moderately detailed protagonists and a sense of detail. The key moment comes early on, having noted how Molly Ringwald’s financially strapped heroine Andie Walsh constructs inventive costumes to wear, only to be instantly skewered by the rich girls for whom it is the precise lack of necessary inventiveness and industry entailed in being able to buy fashionable clothes that is significant. There’s a lot of truth in that moment, but one shouldn’t mistake it for much more than a good way of getting us on the heroine’s side. Andie, the daughter of Jack (Harry Dean Stanton), a sad-sack, semi-employed divorcee, has two loyal companions: Phil “Duckie” Dale (Jon Cryer), her high-pressure, low-achieving admirer, and Iona (Annie Potts), her thirty-something, lovelorn, nostalgic coworker in a shopping mall record store.
On the threshold of moving on, with a scholarship in sight, Andie catches the eye of two “richies,” as they call the yuppie larvae who stride around with their mullets and Don Johnson suits. One of them, Steff (James Spader), makes sly propositions to Andie whilst claiming to deplore her as trash, but she rejects him out of hand. The other, Steff’s friend Blane McDonnagh (Andrew McCarthy), is gentle and engages her in discursive, uneasy conversations that accurately record the way intelligent young people flirt. However, their first date is a near- calamity. Blane takes Andie to a party of Steff’s, where she’s treated with colossal contempt by the other richies, and Duckie, jealous beyond all reason, rebuffs Blane’s efforts to be friendly. But they have a great kiss, and Andie gushes excitedly to her father. The snaky Steff, however, instills enough doubt in Blane’s mind to make him back away from Andie, inspiring two furious showdowns, one in which Andie repeatedly demands Blane admit that he’s dumping her because she’s poor, and then Duckie crash-tackling and brawling with Steff before running off and tearing down the prom banner.
It’s a strong, if corny, sequence, that captures the inevitable moment for a teenager when just how unfair life can be first shocks us. But Hughes built his films out of alternations of high comedy and melodrama, jerking from one pole to the other according to what point in the running time it is. Quick, we’re at the end of the first hour: let’s have Andie fight with her old man and bust up with Blane so we can resolve it in another half-hour. Hughes also loved constructing smart-mouthed, hyperactive characters whose lovable/annoying bluff often conceals deep insecurity. Ferris Bueller lacked the insecurity, which was passed off onto his troubled friend; later, John Candy’s characters in Planes, Trains and Uncle Buck portrayed them as grown ups. Duckie fits this template to a tee. Cutaways to Duckie in his seamy, lonely apartment are not explained or contextualised: how or why he’s living there isn’t clarified. In a Stephen King story, he’d conjure up a demon lawnmower or something to take bloody revenge. Here he settles for showing up at the prom with a pompadour and spiff suit, and saves Andie from the embarrassment of entering alone.
Some of the film’s minutiae, like Andie fretfully pondering if going out with a rich guy reeks of “material,” or Iona stapling unsold records to the store’s ceiling in an attempt to jazz the place up, possess authentic flavor, and Hughes and Deutch have a real affection for their characters, holding their interaction up as the real prize. But it’s an interaction that is continually built around pop images, from Duckie, singing John Lennon’s “Love” during a study session with Andie, to Iona making Andie dance with her whilst Iona wears her prom dress and a beehive wig. In a superfluous, yet crucial scene, Duckie dances to “Try a Little Tenderness” in the record store, amateur, but dynamic in his moves. It’s a moment that shows what happened to the musical: it didn’t die immediately, it just went naturalistic. Pretty in Pink is a film dotted with those immortal, long-derided mainstays of ’80s pop-cinema: music-scored montages, sing-alongs, and mime-alongs. These were part of the compromise Hollywood wrung out of templates like The Graduate (1967) and American Graffiti (1973) in trying to reconcile new realism in cinema with the epic flavouring that had always been Hollywood’s specialty: as effectively as any musical, Pretty in Pink finds the self-mythologising potential in everyday lives.
The trouble is it’s never hard to perceive the contrivance. The story wouldn’t work without placing passive characters at the mercy of broad manipulation: Blane, charming and dry in the early part, spends the latter half of the film glaring in cross-eyed fashion at people who act in grossly offensive ways. The filmmakers elide the moments of real crisis (like, say, when Blane will have to tell his apparently snobby parents about his low-rent girlfriend, or when Duckie may have to come clean about his circumstances) and provides easy out-clauses for the characters. Jack can’t get over his wife leaving him to the point where it’s corroding his ability to survive? Well at least he and Andie can have a teary get-together. Duckie’s left without the love of his life? Let’s casually toss him a blonde at the prom.
Andie, despite her independence and intelligence, finally reveals herself to be entirely at the mercy of her own social anxiety, a convenient touch that allows her to appeal to both the feminist and wannabe princess in the women watching. Duckie is more demonstrative, but equally malleable, swinging from hyped-up caricature to would-be empathy figure from scene to scene. In his first appearence, he makes a ludicrous come-on to two girls, which gets him floored by a punch, a silly moment that only makes sense in movieland. Hughes’ sociology is not to be mistaken for depth. It’s more a charting of common impulses—for the (then) over-30s to miss their fading youth; for under-30s to claim their post-counterculture right to self-expression; for everyone to feel sorry for the losers without having to yield them substantial solace.
The film’s conclusion was infamously altered according to test screenings from Duckie landing Andie to a final clinch for Andie and Blane in the school parking lot. This was held to be a betrayal of the theme, but in truth, neither ending is terribly comfortable. The current ending feels rushed and scant, but the first one wouldn’t have worked on account of Duckie’s being barely tolerable. As it is, at least it doesn’t validate refusal to grow up: Duckie confronts the idea that he doesn’t need Andie to grow up, Andie accepts human weaknesses, and Blane overcomes his passivity. In truth, Spader slams them all into the ground in terms of charisma, moving with the feral pride of a lion through all his scenes whilst hinting at some repressed injury behind his patent asshole exterior.
I can see why Ringwald made a mark in these films at the time and also why she never became a star of substance: a gracious and easy screen presence, but also not much of an actress, she makes Andie winsome and sensitive, but is a dud at providing the spikier, more cynical intelligence and social awkwardness the part demands. But possibly that’s the filmmakers’ fault, too, as well as the secret of their success—knowing how to provide a main character to whom labels are constantly affixed, but who is actually a blank slate.
So, yes, I’m still not on board with the Hughes thing. Still, there are worse way to spend an hour and a half.