Pretty in Pink

Pretty in Pink is not my favourite 80s film – that accolade goes to Ghostbusters, which I wrote about last year for my paymaster general – but it is, to my mind, the most 80s film. Let us count the ways: most obviously, it is a teen film, one of the most 80s of film genres; it was written by John Hughes; it stars many of the key players from the 80s teen film genres, all playing classic 80s teen film types; it opens with a sequence showing a young woman getting dressed while a pop song plays on the soundtrack; it indulges in a superfluous but marvellous solo dancing sequence (John Cryer jiving to Otis Redding – see also Ferris Bueller, Risky Business); it features a parent going through A Tough Time (see also Say Anything, Dirty Dancing); it has a love triangle (classic Hughes set up: Sixteen Candles, Some Kind of Wonderful); the teenagers all look like recognisably normal kids as opposed to the airbrushed avatars who appear on screen today (and we’ll return to this subject anon); Annie Potts plays the female sidekick (Ghostbusters); Margaret Colin is in a small and thankless role (Three Men and a Baby); it climaxes with a prom; it plays the proud host to quite possibly the ugliest dress of all time which, endearingly, everyone in the film thinks is “breathtaking.” If there was such a thing as a 1980s Film cocktail, Pretty in Pink would be the seemingly gentle tincture that underpins the whole drink, lingering long on the tastebuds.

By the time Pretty in Pink came out Hughes was bang in the middle of his teen movie phase, having written and directed Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Weird Science, and he was on the verge of making his finest contributions to the genre, Some Kind of Wonderful and, most of all, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

It is not simple sentimentality that has ensured the legacy of Hughes’ teen comedies; no one ever made or will ever make teen films as heartfelt, innocent and unpatronising as Hughes did. They weren’t especially original (except in the case of Ferris Bueller, which shall be discussed at length another time) and they often toyed with stereotypes. But the movies feel so honest and open, written with love for his characters and respect for teenagers, too full of Hughes’ own memories of his teenage years (they are invariably set in the suburbs of Chicago, where he lived as a teenager) to bother kowtowing to studio demands or imagined audience desires. In a wonderful article written after Hughes died in 2009, Molly Ringwald – his true muse – smartly compares him to Peter Pan and his films to Neverland. Once the Lost Boys (and Girl) finally left him to grow up, “he did away with Neverland itself”, throwing himself into family comedies (Uncle Buck, Planes, Trains and Automobiles) before slumping into the 90s, in which his stars became younger (Home Alone, Baby’s Day Out) and inhuman (Beethoven.)

“None of the films that he made subsequently had the same kind of personal feeling to me,” Ringwald wrote. “They were funny, yes, wildly successful, to be sure, but I recognized very little of the John I knew in them, of his youthful, urgent, unmistakable vulnerability. It was like his heart had closed, or at least was no longer open for public view. A darker spin can be gleaned from the words John put into the mouth of Allison in The Breakfast Club: ‘When you grow up … your heart dies.’”

All this was years away for Hughes when he wrote Pretty in Pink in early 1985, near simultaneously with when he wrote Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and the connection between these two movies emphasises a major theme in Hughes’ work and Pretty in Pink in particular: money.

Duckie (played by John Cryer, currently held hostage in a house with nothing but a laughtrack and Ashton Kutcher for company) is clearly a prototype for Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick), and the fact that Cryer looks so much like Broderick underlines the connections. Both of them are geeky; both favour animal print accessories (Duckie: shoes, Ferris: waistcoat); both have a tendency to talk to themselves and both dance to improbably old school singers. They also, obviously, have ridiculous names, as teenagers often do in Hughes films (Sloane, Watts, Bender.) But there are two big differences between them: Duckie is poor and an outcast and Ferris is rich and popular and these qualities are connected.

In Hughes’ films, the rich kids are the popular kids and I’m sorry to say that in my experience of American schools, this is a fairly accurate assessment. In The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink, Hughes is definitely against this dichotomy, epitomised here through the nasty, character of Steff, played by the always wonderful James Spader who dresses like a cutprice American Gigolo and says things like, “I wouldn’t be too JAZZED if I were you…”, a phrase I think we should all work into our everyday conversations. In Pretty in Pink, Hughes seems to disapprove of Andie’s (Molly Ringwald) growing crush on wealthy Blane (Andrew McCarthy) who, as Duckie wisely notes, has a name like a major appliance (although he and I are ones to talk.) He shows this disapproval most clearly when Andie and Duckie go driving through a wealthy neighbourhood and she is dazzled by the big houses, much to the mystification of Duckie. One could argue that the movie is saying that teenagers –and people in general – shouldn’t get so hung up on differences in social status, as Andie’s father tells her when she worries about going out with a “richie.” But everything in the movie goes against that advice: the party that Blane takes Andie to is horrible; the rich girls – one of whom is played by a youthful Gina Gershon – are especially cruel to Andie; Blane turns out to be weak and betrays her. By contrast, Duckie and Ilona (Potts) stay true to her. Rich kids in Pretty in Pink are mean and doomed to unhappy lives; poor kids are loyal, kind and funny. Andie’s vintage clothes which she wears because she can’t afford new ones are depicted as proof of her admirable creativity, even if she does then sew for herself – and I might have mentioned this elsewhere – literally the ugliest prom dress of all time at the end of the movie. Thus, it makes sense that in the original cut of this film Andie and Duckie get together at the prom, the end, roll credits.

Except, Hughes came up against a big problem: McCarthy. McCarthy was so damn cute when he made this movie that Andie simply had to get together with him, class warfare whatever. Every time I watch this film, I wonder if Hughes had directed this movie instead of Howard Deutch whether he even would have let McCarthy be cast because he ended up skewing Hughes’ original vision.

After the first ending tested predictably badly with audiences, they reshot it with Andie ending up with Blane – and it almost works, but not entirely. For a start, McCarthy had to wear a wig during the re-shoot as he had since shaved off all of his hair for a new movie and the obviously synthetic nature of his bouffant in this film is a little distracting. But the main problem is Blane’s little speech about how the reason he ditched Andie was because she didn’t believe in him. Dude, the reason Andie didn’t believe in you is because you suddenly stopped returning her calls and lamed out on taking her to the prom as you couldn’t handle the prospect of Steff making fun of you. The cause happened before the effect, Blane, not vice-versa! But because McCarthy was blessed back then with those sad eyes, this rather shameless blame-shifting (and somewhat weak re-writing by Hughes) comes across as sensitive and deep. Ladies, learn a lesson here.

Funnily enough, Ringwald later came up with another reason for the changed ending of the movie that had nothing to do with McCarthy’s puppyish looks but rather that “Duckie is gay”: “Duckie doesn’t know he’s gay. I think he loves Andie in the way my gay best friend always loved me,” she said in an interview earlier this year.

Cryer responded with the passion of an outraged nerd who has just been unfairly bullied in the school canteen: “I respectfully disagree. I want to stand up for all the slightly effeminate dorks that are actually heterosexual. Just cause the gaydar is going off, doesn’t mean your instruments aren’t faulty. I’ve had to live with that, and that’s okay.”

I’m with Cryer on this one. I don’t see Duckie as gay at all (if anyone could be gay in this film it’s Steff who quite possibly has a bit of a crush on Blane – and who could blame him?), and as glad as I am that Andie ends up with Blane at the prom, there’s a part of me that will always believe she marries Duckie ten years later.

Shall we have a brief word about the feminism in this movie? Well, I’m afraid it does fail the Bechdel test as the only thing Andie and Ilona ever talk about together is men. But I give them both props for wearing clothes that are distinctly 80s, yes, but have absolutely nothing to do with looking sexy, unlike so many of the kinds of things worn by their contemporaries (cropped tops, mini skirts, giant hair, etc.)

Yet my favourite thing about this movie – beating even Steff’s “JAZZZZED” and Ilona’s Chinese gong doorbell  – is that Hughes took the trouble to slip in the reason for Steff’s hatred of Andie, and it has nothing to do with her being poor, or a nerd, or different, but because she knocked him back. It’s a subtle but very instructive message about hurt pride and misogyny often lying behind male bullying of women, and it’s one that always stayed with at least one audience member.

The plot about Andie’s father is a classic 80s movie ploy of not just giving some heft to the film but emphasising that the movie sees the teenagers as adults in their own right, and in some ways they are more grown up than the parents. Movies like Pretty in Pink, Say Anything (in which the father is convicted for tax evasion) and Dirty Dancing (in which Baby’s dad is forced to confront his short-sighted snobbery) are, as these plot details emphasise, on the side of the teen audience and that is why they weren’t necessarily accorded with respect from the adult film critics at the time but why they are still appreciated by those who first watched these movies as teenagers and are now the grown ups.

Pretty in Pink is a flawed, funny, open-hearted, hyperactive, solemn but silly, confused but confident little film, made just when its creator was on the crest of his creative maturity. It is, in other words, like a teenager and that’s what makes it so lovely.
Next week’s film: Young Sherlock Holmes


47 thoughts on “Pretty in Pink

  1. Great review! I was late to the Pretty in Pink party (only caught up with it a few years ago), but the one thing that really bugged me, and I’m glad you mentioned it, is just how godawful the dress is! I’m all for expressing one’s individuality, but man…the dress was so unflattering. If I was Annie Potts I’d be horrified.
    Also, you are so on the money with your description of Steff – I hadn’t noticed the now blindingly obvious homage to American Gigolo. And I’m definitely going to try and use “I wouldn’t be too JAZZED if I were you…” were appropriate!

    • I have always wondered what Ilona’s reaction was to the mutilation of her beloved prom dress, especially as she could still fit into it. Or maybe, being a fellow vintage fan, she would have appreciated Andie’s display of ingenuity? Another PIP puzzler.

  2. I think you’ve nailed it – it’s not John Hughes best film, it is a bit flawed but also has some classic moments (mostly involving Duckie, it has to be said) and a great soundtrack. And I second Amy above, the dress is truly awful and every time I watch it I’m still quite shocked about how blasé Andie is about asking Iona for the dress and then ripping it up to create, well, that. The computer chat scene also makes me snigger a bit, the 80s graphics seem kind of quaint! The very first time I saw the film I wasn’t aware of the reshoot/wig story but remember thinking that Andrew McCarthy’s hair looked pretty weird – I assumed he’d had a dodgy pre-prom barbershop visit.

  3. This is way outside my usual comfort zone (memories of Dirty Dancing still terrify me beyond the capacity for rational thought), but I’m fully bought in to the 80s movie project so I’m going to give it a go. I’ll report back.

      • I hope you appreciated it, I’m of the view that if you don’t crowbar a gratuitous quote into a conversation then you’re not trying hard enough. Sometimes it’s tough and ends up looking a bit clunky but that’s just the way it crumbles. Cookiewise.

  4. Thanks Hayley for initiating this, and great review!
    Oh my god that dress! I watched the film for the first time last night and I was hoping until the end that something would happen and she had to change out of that monstruosity….
    I cannot say I loved the movie, but I was mesmerised and entertained by the 1980ness of it…those clothes, those hair, that music, those computers…it was like looking at pictures of my mum at that time!
    I really dislike the end, you are so right about rich-guy-she-ends-up-with, I couldn’t belive he put the blame on her and got away with it!! I am glad to read that originally she was going to end up with Duckie (and a bit sad they didn’t keep that ending).
    Finally, I thought that Gossip Girl had invented the “super rich immoral kids who hate normal people” ecosystem, but here it is….

    • Picking up from Chiara’s reference to Gossip Girl (any fans in the film club?? speak now :)) has anyone else noticed that Blair’s mum in GG (Eleonor Waldorf) is played by Margaret Colins is the teacher in Pretty in Pink?

  5. Good review: I guess I know what I’ll be watching tonight, though I’m sure that dress will harm my suspension of disbelief. Girl, no. Admittedly, at the time the film was released I’d have been mostly rocking the double denim look, sometimes accompanied by a bright orange shirt, so it’s just possible my fashion nous might be questionable.

    More film reviews should mention the Bechdel test, IMO.

  6. When I watched the film in my teens (late 80s) I was delighted when Andie and Blane got together at the end. When I rewatched a couple of years ago (35 and maybe too old for this kind of thing), I was just disappointed. Why would Andie want Blane over the simply fabulous DUckie? Duckie is not gay, just fabulous. The posh girl he is paired off with in the final moments does nothing to right this wrong.
    Still a great film and McCarthy is just beautiful.

  7. Duckie is way too much of a Nice Guy. There, I said it. I LOVE that for once the female protag gets with the eye candy instead of the geek.

    • That is a good point – why shouldn’t the nice girl get the hot guy for once? But, unfortunately, the hot guy turned out to be an unreliable douche and the nice girl deserves better. So, really, arguments on both sides there.

  8. I agree with jennymarps about seeing it again at 35 (no WAY too old for this kind of thing – impossible!) and feeling Blane’s soulfulness was suddenly looking a bit drippier than I’d remembered. Though I like Duckie ending up with Kristy Swanson (the original movie Buffy, no less!) in the end. I’ve read somewhere that Robert Downey Jr was mooted to play Duckie, and although I think Jon Cryer is great, I do think an ending where him and Andie ended up together would have been more convincing/sexy if RDJ had been given the part! And I LOVE the dad in this, and hadn’t really noticed that parents going through A Tough Time is an 80s theme – so true! Great review and great idea Hadley, yay!

    • That’s so fascinating – I can totally imagine RDJ as Duckie, and you’re right, Malore, that then would have made it much easier to imagine Andie ending up with him (sorry, John Cryer.) I love those near casting stories from 80s movies. For example, John Hughes originally wanted Anthony Michael Hall to play Ferris Bueller and never forgave him when he turned it down.

    • Hall as Ferris would have been a tragedy. RDJ as Duckie feels like an opportunity missed. It would have prevented the whole (mis)reading of Duckie as gay, but would have made the ending unbearable. I feel almost angry at those initial test-screening audiences who didn’t approve the original ending. Surely the original edit must exist somewhere?

  9. This film club is genius! I too am totally addicted to 80’s films, although I have to say I love all 80’s: music, fashion, TV shows, magazines. I love pretty in Pink because it sums up the spirit of the 80’s and the clothes are amazing. I have to say I love the prom dress too (I’m sad, I know!).

  10. Love this feature and love this movie, but must take issue with a couple of things. Firstly evil, bitchy, snobbish Stef is the hot piece of man stuff in this movie. Blane’s way too whiny.

    Also I hold Hughes responsible for the way that creepy, stalky behaviour by geeky boys is portrayed as super-romantic. Duckie is always following Andie about and hanging out on street corners waiting for her. It’s just weird.

    Still love this movie though, love Ringwald and Potts, and Harry Dean Stanton just breaks my heart every time.

    • You’ll never hear from me, Mianoi, that James Spader is anything but a fine hunk of man. However, you can’t say that Steff is sexy and Duckie is creepy. Yes, Duckie is a bit, er, persistent (and point well made about the weird celebration of stalker behavious), but Steff is a bullying, alcoholic misogynist. To be honest, none of the guys in this film behave brilliantly, including poor heartbroken Harry Dean Stanton.

  11. I agree that PiP is a fine film. But wish that Hughes was in his ‘mature character’ phase because Harry Dean Stanton is wasted as Andie’s dad.
    Of course, it’s not about the adults, but Stanton makes the most of his time on screen.
    If only he could ave afforded a decent dress.

  12. I am incredibly JAZZED at how many pictures of Andrew McCarthy you managed to link to in this. Great piece Hadley, looking forward to more!

  13. Oh yes, I love Desperately Seeking Susan! Next week’s film, Young Sherlock Holmes, is a lesser known 80s movie (despite having big names behind it) but it deserves wider recognition which is why I’ve included it in the 80s Film Club. I hope you all enjoy it. And then there are all the Bill Murray films to get through, Woody Allen ones, Steve Martin, Schwarzenegger, Dolly Parton, Michael Douglas… So many great movies, only one decade.

  14. Ok, DVD purchased, watched and nestling proudly on the shelf between Taxi Driver and Full Metal Jacket (maybe I can do eclectic).

    The first thing that struck me was how much like the early series of Buffy it was (same atmosphere in school, cool underground club seemingly not in need of any patrons of legal drinking age). No vampires obviously, a remake these days would no doubt correct that oversight.

    I could have used more Harry Dean Stanton (particularly enjoyed the big chat with Andy towards the end when each time it cuts to him his hair is doing something wildly different) and James Spader, but really enjoyed Annie Potts (even though every time she opened her mouth I wished she’d say ‘Ghostbusters, waddaya waaaant?’).

    Overall, a lot of fun.

    • Not only is it like the original Buffy, did you notice that the original Buffy herself is in the film? Kristy Swanson plays the girl who goes off with Duckie in the end.
      Very pleased you so enjoyed the film, and I feel that between Taxi Driver and Full Metal Jacket is its proper place in the canon. Are you going to give Young Sherlock Holmes a go? I reckon you might enjoy it, especially if you’re an Indiana Jones fan

      • Big Indiana Jones fan (apart from the rubbish one, obv), big Young Sherlock Holmes fan! I’ll save detailed thoughts on that until Friday (don’t want to mix things up, 80s movie commentswise) but suffice to say I gave the bear/all southern view riddle a number of run outs back in the day.

  15. I did find the fashion a little confusing though (as I do most fashion it’s fair to say). Andie’s supposedly ridiculed for making her own clothes, yet I can’t say I’d have noticed that she looked any worse than anyone else?

    That said, even I could see that the dress was lacking a certain something and, to re-iterate a point made above, I’m reasonably sure her friend lent it to her with the expectation of getting it back. Presumably still in its original form.

  16. watched this film for the first time in donkey’s years today – I’d have been around 16 when seeing it originally – and enjoyed it as much as ever. The ending does jar a bit now though, when viewed through, ahem, more mature eyes. Talk about shifting the Blane.

    A couple of other things: I’d forgotten quite how marvellous the PIP soundtrack is: The Smiths, OMD, Echo & The Bunnymen, Psychedelic Furs (natch) and three – count ’em – New Order tracks. Quite why they felt the need to get someone I’d never heard of to cover the Nik Kershaw song on the soundtrack, though, I don’t know. Punishment for the snood, maybe?

    Also, a minor thing, but how marvellous to be able to read the end credits without having to squint at the screen. Absolutely crystal clear. Why don’t they do that with films any more? Why?!

    Really enjoying this film club, by the way. Will you be issuing membership cards at all?


    • Indeed, an impressive amount of British bands on the soundtrack. I guess they are supposed to be further reflections of Andie’s admirable quirkiness?
      Thank you! Membership cards are unlikely to be forthcoming but a secret handshake will soon be announced.

  17. I think British bands were all the rage generally in the US in the mid-80s – UK acts enjoyed ten Billboard Hot 100 #1s in 1985 and a further nine in ’86. But yes, the bands Andie liked would definitely fall in the quirky category! (You’d have been more likely to hear a Smiths song on a John Hughes soundtrack at the time than on, say, any given daytime Radio 1 show.)

    Have ordered my copy of Young Sherlock Holmes. Not actually seen this one before!

  18. Hadley F. you have so much power. PiP is in Sky right now (sky 304). Oh, and how about covering ‘The Sure Thing’ starring John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga? A sweet road movie/live story from Rob Reiner.

  19. Hadley you might be shocked that in good ol’ 2014 I searched and searched to see if anyone pointed out the fact that in the movie Blane blamed Andie for his copout. You are the only one that pointed this out! I cracked my brain trying to find justification for this to which I came up with the fact that early on Andie did not want him to see where she lived because she feared his rejection…I think the movie should have focused on this a lot more instead of the peer pressure. But then again, who can really blame Andie? Tough as she is unfortunately in this world money can buy (almost) anything.

  20. Just discovered the film club – I’m yomping my way through the articles and I’m love, love, loving it! Been reading your stuff ont he Guardian for ages and never knew this was here.

    Just one tiny thing – I always thought at the end of PiP Blane says to Andie “I always believed in you, I just didn’t believe in me.” Huge difference!

    After reading this, I thought maybe I was wrong, so I went back and watched the scene []. McCarthy’s delivery is pretty mumbly, but I’m still sure on this one – he’s not saying she didn’t believe in him, but that he didn’t believe in himself.

    Other than that, spot on article and blog too.

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