It’s broken hearts and class division in the John Hughes penned alt pop teen drama Pretty in Pink
There are some filmmakers who are so synonymous with a certain decade that anything they did before or after is most often always compared (sometimes unfairly) in relation to that golden era. The late John Hughes was one such icon. Despite his creative output stretching back to the ’70s and on into the ’90s, for many of us Hughes is the 1980s. He tapped into a way of filmmaking that was so irresistibly contemporary, so in-sync with the teenage pop culture of the time that it’s no wonder he struggled to adapt to the following decade, focusing instead on writing scripts that, instead of moving forward from the rites-of-passage drama of the previous decade, actually went further backwards into pre-teen focused storylines. As fine and fun as those later films were, John Hughes’ peak era were those five years — 1984 to 1989 — that started with his directorial debut Sixteen Candles and ended with Uncle Buck.
Admittedly, Sixteen Candles was, like its secondary character ‘The Geek’, an awkward, clumsy mess, sometimes charming, sometimes obnoxious. Caught between Animal House-style raucousness and a mature sensibility, it’s a great showcase for Hughes’ directorial flair and ear for dialogue, but for every moment of tender insight there’s an example of cultural and sexual attitudes that have not aged well. Long Duck Dong anyone? Still, it boasted two amazing lead performances — Molly Ringwald as the frustrated, ignored and lovesick Samantha and Anthony Michael Hall as the aforementioned, anonymous geek were so good that it’s not surprising Hughes stuck with them, casting them both in his next film, The Breakfast Club, a monster success that propelled Hughes to the very top.
Extraordinarily confident, The Breakfast Club took the risk of confining its drama to a single location and almost entirely on a single set — a cinematic play, essentially. And while, again, some of its elements have aged poorly (Judd Nelson’s rebellious Bender, for all his working-class virtues, is an aggressive sex pest) and some just never felt right at the time (did Ally Sheedy’s Allison really need that bland makeover?), it was funny, sharp, powerful and captured teenage angst beautifully. For the next few years, everything Hughes touched turned to gold. Mention the likes of The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Planes, Trains and Automobiles (not a teen movie, but much loved regardless) to a fan and they’re likely to swoon. There’s also the hysterically wild Weird Science, the super-popular Uncle Buck and the flawed but worthwhile She’s Having a Baby.
These films touched the hearts of a lot of people, even those outside of the well-off, white, middle-class protagonists in the films themselves. I mean, I can understand if people felt annoyed that they were being expected to relate to these ridiculously wealthy characters, the kind that lamented that they ‘only’ got a computer instead of a car for their birthday, the kind that live in very swanky houses, but for me it didn’t matter. The feelings they felt were so quintessentially teenage that they transcended things like wealth — things like peer pressure, bullying, the horrors of attending parties where you don’t belong and of course: love, love, love. You know the score; the awkwardness of initial conversation, the agony of asking someone out on a date, the pain of waiting for that phone call, resorting to coldness as emotional self-defence. As Samantha’s father in Sixteen Candles so beautifully put it, that’s why they call them crushes. If they were easy, they’d call them something else. Sure, I couldn’t afford a house like Gary or Wyatt or Ferris, but I still loved these characters, because when you’re a teenager, you suffer from being a teenager, and it doesn’t matter how much money you’ve got. Unless you’re the likes of Stef or Hardy or Chet, who are buttwads, pure and simple.
Saying that, Pretty in Pink remains one of Hughes’ most relatable movies for me personally, probably because 18-year old Andie Walsh (played to perfection by Ringwald) is working class. I mean, she literally lives on the wrong side of the tracks with her out-of-work father Jack (Harry Dean Stanton), who’s still nursing wounds ever since Andie’s mother abandoned them years earlier. Andie can’t afford to dress as fancy as the richer girls at Shermer High School, but her resourcefulness and creativity means that she makes her own clothing, including her own prom dress, which to be honest, isn’t that great or very flattering (even Ringwald didn’t like it), but that’s probably the point. She works in a record store and is rapidly falling in love with fellow student Blane (Andrew McCarthy), who happens to be pretty wealthy. She doesn’t think she stands a chance with him, but the thing is, he likes her too. Problem is, so does Andie’s best friend Duckie (Jon Cryer), who has been in love with her for years but never told her. To be fair, he’s so overt in his adoration that telling her seems almost unnecessary, but she only sees him as a friend, and as her father says to Duckie at one point, when it comes to love between two people, ‘you can’t make it happen, it either will or it won’t’.
Everything culminates at the prom; that high school staple that I personally have absolutely no experience of and am fascinated with whenever it’s depicted on screen. The prom is like the encapsulation of the teenage movie, a time of intense highs and appalling lows. Luckily everything turns out alright. Pretty in Pink is a film that rides emotional waves but ends up on shore safe and sound and with a happy ending. Well, happy-ish. The ending is fascinating for how it was changed from its original version. Originally, Andie and Duckie were supposed to get together, but studio pressure, plus Hughes figuring that it would send out the wrong kind of message — that love can’t transcend class barriers — resulted in a re-shoot, with Ducky dumped and Andie and Blaine together forever. Oh, don’t feel too bad for Ducky, he’s almost immediately eyed-up by the beautiful Kristy Swanson, credited, hilariously, as ‘Duckette’. I always felt this bit never rang true. I wish the film had been brave enough to leave Duckie heartbroken.
As ever with a Hughes movie, the cast is a fundamental ingredient to its success. Ringwald delivered her third and best performance for Hughes. What was great about Ringwald was that she looked like a regular, pretty girl, and her performances were utterly natural and charismatic. New to the Hughes roster was the cute-as-a-button Andrew McCarthy, who is pretty much your textbook dreamboat. Their chemistry is very sweet and fraught with awkward tension. Andie and Blane’s courting becomes a mini-battleground of class — she teases him about owning a platinum American Express card and doesn’t want him to see where she lives, he makes a terrible faux pas by asking her if she wants to go home and change for their date when she already has. His fear of being rejected by his own peers and his parents lead him to ignore Andie and to lie about their impending prom date, saying that he’s already meant to be going with someone else.
Also new is Jon Cryer as Duckie, a role that was originally written for Anthony Michael Hall. Like The Geek and Gary, he’s a nervous, goofy wreck. He’s also a pest, but not in the often passive-aggressive way Hall was in Sixteen Candles. He’s ultimately a nice guy, and his pain is real, but admittedly pretty bloody annoying, constantly hanging around Andie and never shutting up. I’ll admit, his clowning around occasionally threatens to derail the movie. He’s just so relentless in the film’s first half, but maybe that’s the point. He also gets to participate in one of two lip-sync set-pieces of Hughes’ career, but whereas Ferris Bueller singing ‘Twist and Shout’ to a mass audience of adoring fans was irresistibly euphoric, here, in just the presence of two dumbstruck witnesses and miming to Otis Redding’s ‘Try a Little Tenderness’, his behaviour comes off as borderline crazy, bless him. When you’re in love, you do stupid things, I guess. His anger at being rejected is also class-related — Duckie’s convinced that Blane is soulless and will treat Andie like trash, because, you know, that’s what the rich do.
We also have James Spader on absolute prime-bastard form as Steff, Blane’s best friend and an unapologetic snob who hides his anger at having been rejected by Andie by insisting to others that she’s a nobody and not worth dating. He’s a drunk; a self-loathing, joyless cynic who doesn’t care about anything, not even money (‘do you think I’d treat my parents house like this if I did?’, he admits). Even when Duckie attempts to beat him up he doesn’t seem at all bothered. On the plus side, his extremely laconic attitude makes a preposterous line like ‘are we gonna shoot some trap or not, because if we’re gonna shoot, we gotta shake it‘ almost sound cool. Almost.
The adult characters are great; not stock stereotypes, but small, well-rounded characters. I mean, even the head teacher is a decent bloke, not the traditional stick in the mud we’re all used to. Andie’s father, Jack, so wonderfully, naturally performed by Stanton, needs help getting out of bed in the morning, needs a purpose to get through the day. By looking after her dad (parents are often an issue in Hughes’ films, whether seen or unseen) Andie is pretty much carrying the weight of responsibility for the house, but Jack is not a cardboard cut-out ‘bad’ parent figure, he’s a flawed but kind man who needs help facing his demons if he’s going to have a future.
Annie Potts’s record store owner Iona is a delightful supporting character, a blend of Potts’ earlier role as Janine in Ghostbusters (she even answers the phone with a curt ‘TRAX, what do you want?’) and the animated version of the same character. She’s in her thirties, which in Hughesworld is very old indeed. Already she’s lamenting her lost years, asking aloud ‘why can’t we start old and get younger?’. She also seems to having an identity crisis. She starts out looking like Siouxsie Sioux, then later a 1950s housewife with a killer beehive hairdo and then finally a contemporary look which ironically is probably the most dated of all.
Inspired by Ringwald asking him to write a film that was inspired by her then-favourite song — ‘Pretty in Pink’ by The Psychedelic Furs — Hughes played to his strengths and delivered a sharp, sweet, warm and funny romantic comedy that I often forget isn’t actually directed by him, even though it is to all intents and purposes a Hughes movie. It was in fact directed by Howard Deutch, who would also make the Hughes-penned Some Kind of Wonderful and The Great Outdoors. Deutch has little of the flair of Hughes — the odd moment excepted, be it the music video editing of the opening sequence, or Duckie breaking the fourth wall when the Duckette smiles at him, the film’s a pretty straight-up technical exercise. However, you could also say that Hughes had never been this openly romantic in his own films. Usually love was either a side-plot or a funny joke, even in Sixteen Candles, where equal attention is devoted to The Geek and his buddies’ farcical escapades. Additionally, Pretty in Pink is probably his ‘kissiest’ film, and notable, like many of Hughes’ films, in that sex is never really an issue. Even Weird Science, with its ‘It’s Purely Sexual’ tagline, had its characters shy away from the actual act.
As to be expected, Pretty in Pink came loaded with a big alt-pop soundtrack. The Psychedelic Furs’ immortal title track was a chrome-plated re-recording of their earlier 1981 single. Which one is better? Well, the original is rawer and more exciting, the ’86 take is full of lovely, sleek enhancements. You decide. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s beautiful ‘If You Leave’ is a total heartbreaker, even if the version playing at the prom seems to be extended to the point where you wonder if Hughes had his hand on a rare 24″ single mix. Elsewhere we get Echo and the Bunnymen’s magisterial ‘Bring on the Dancing Horses’ and The Smiths’ ‘Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want’, one of their shortest and most devastatingly powerful songs (Johnny Marr’s closing mandolin solo never fails to kill me), though Hughes would use it more prominently (via The Dream Academy’s cover) during the museum sequence in Ferris Bueller. New Order fans are treated to three gems – the downbeat instrumental ‘Elegia’, the cut-and-paste madness of ‘Shellshock’, (one of the most 1980s things ever recorded) and the magnificent, glittering ‘Thieves Like Us’, which accompanies the all-important dress-making montage.
Yet despite the film’s many pleasures, there’s also a sad awareness of the Hughes juggernaut slowing down. Having already been rejected by Anthony Michael Hall, who turned down the role of Duckie because of its similarity to Sixteen Candles, Hughes would soon find himself abandoned by Ringwald, his muse, his, you could say cinematic/platonic high school sweetheart stand-in. Hoping to redress the post-production compromise of Pretty in Pink‘s ending, Some Kind of Wonderful would essentially replay the former movie’s plot, albeit with genders reversed and with Mary Stuart Masterson’s working-class Watts (this film’s Duckie) getting the boy (Eric Stoltz) in the end. Ringwald was offered the role of Amanda Jones, the Blane of this new love triangle, but she turned it down, to be replaced by Lea Thompson. Hughes was wounded by this rejection, and they never worked together again.
To close, I just want to add, and on a very personal note, that my beautiful wife Carole sadly passed away last month after living for a year-and-a-half with cancer, and I wanted to review this film as a little tribute because she loved it as a teen — as did I. My love for Pretty in Pink only enhanced when I realised she loved it too. She went one better than me though in the fan stakes — she even had the big box rental copy of the film on VHS, bought at a time when they were very, very expensive to purchase.
John Hughes films were a fun common ground for us. We loved the music, the fashions, the humour, the invention and the emotion. We also loved little quirks like Spader’s aforementioned ‘shake it’ line, the absurd, hilariously cheesy computer chat between Andie and Blane, and most of all, Stanton’s bizarre delivery of the word ‘brilliant’ (or ‘brulleant’) during his argument with Ringwald. Ferris Bueller and The Breakfast Club may have tapped more into the popular psyche, Weird Science and Planes, Trains and Automobiles may have been far funnier, but Pretty in Pink is a wonderful mix of everything.