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