“I’d have died for you!”
One of the cultural landmarks to be firmly welded to the era of the 1980s has to be the film work of writer and director John Hughes. In particular, his 1985 angsty teen drama The Breakfast Club cleverly zoned in on a broad number of schoolroom subcultures and types which meant that the film had a wider appeal to a teen audience. But it also spoke to an older generation who could recognise their younger selves in the characters – or at least grasp the everyday drama of trying to find your place in the world.
The Breakfast Club also served as a perfect vehicle to launch Simple Minds onto the American music scene care of ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’, demonstrating the importance of music to these films – and the market they were being aimed at. Following up that film’s success was not going to be an easy task, but John Hughes was sparking with ideas – much of which had been culled from his own youth. It was that authenticity that gave his characters a realism that people could identify with – and that concept certainly resonated with audiences in his next film.
John Hughes had initially taken inspiration from the Psychedelic Furs’ 1981 song ‘Pretty In Pink’. Molly Ringwald had been a big fan of the band and brought the song to his attention as a possible film idea. However, the themes of the song are a lot darker and sleazier, so it’s no surprise that the filmmaker took the film’s plot off in a different direction.
“It’s about a girl who sleeps around a lot and feels like she benefits from it” commented the Furs’ Richard Butler on the song, “whereas in reality people are talking and laughing about her behind her back. “All of her lovers all talk of her notes and the flowers that they never sent” – they have no respect for her. The line “she loves to be one of the girls” suggests she’s living the way she thinks society tells her to, but it doesn’t make her happy.”
Pretty In Pink also marked Howard Deutch’s directorial debut. Originally, John Hughes had presented Deutch with two scripts. One of these was titled The New Kid and was drawn from Hughes’ own experiences in Arizona. The other was Pretty In Pink. Deutch didn’t waste time in choosing the latter, immediately captivated by the emotional rollercoaster that the script offered in its simple yet robust telling of a love story.
The film’s crucial dynamic runs through a love triangle in which Andie (Molly Ringwald) is pursued by Blane (Andrew McCarthy), while Andie’s best friend Duckie (Jon Cryer) deals with his unrequited love for Andie. It’s made more complicated by the difference in class between Andie, who comes from a blue collar family and Blane, who comes from a wealthier one. That element is explored several times over the course of the film, particularly in the tension between Blane and best friend Steff (James Spader) in which women are considered a commodity – and less well-off women rank even lower on the social strata.
However, Pretty In Pink’s initial steps were hampered by some casting dramas. Hughes had originally wanted Anthony Michael Hall to star as Duckie. Hall had enjoyed a significant career boost from his roles in Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Weird Science. But Hall had wanted to break from that nerd stereotype to explore other roles, leading Jon Cryer to step into his place (Robert Downey, Jr. had also been up for the role at some point). Luckily, Cryer’s manic energy really sells the character of Duckie and it’s tough to imagine another actor in the role.
But Pretty In Pink also benefits from a rich supporting cast, including Annie Potts as Andie’s work friend Iona. Much older than Andie, Iona acts as the confidante for the younger girl’s relationship worries. Potts carries this off in style, but there’s also a spark and a charm to Iona that jumps off the screen for every scene she’s in. Meanwhile, established character actor Harry Dean Stanton gives as suitably tragic turn as Andie’s father in the film (there’s a lot of similarities between the character Stanton plays here and his role in Wim Wender’s 1984 drama Paris Texas).
As a film, Pretty In Pink could have easily dropped into the neat pigeonhole of a quaint yet dated teen drama. But it still stands up surprisingly well today. The themes of heartbreak, isolation, disappointment and social hierarchies are still relevant today. Unfortunately, test audiences didn’t really agree with Pretty In Pink’s original ending. “When we test-screened it, the audience loved it” commented Howard Deutch in an interview for Vulture, “The movie was cooking on all cylinders until the last five minutes, when they booed it. They did not want Andie to end up with Duckie.”
That put synth-pop outfit OMD in an awkward position. Having already penned a composition for the film’s dramatic prom finale, they were now faced with the conclusion that the song they had penned suddenly didn’t fit the new ending. They opted to write and record a new song for the film and, as a result, found themselves in a small private cinema in LA to watch a rough cut of the new edit of the film. It’s interesting to note that at this stage, the film’s prom scene finale had the cast dancing to ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’, which gave OMD a template of sorts to adapt to on the basis that the song had to be 120bpm. Andy and Paul then whisked themselves off to Larabee Studios in Los Angeles.
The band only had three days to produce the song as they were due to resume touring. That produced a challenge as they were still in the process of writing the new song! “We began at 5pm” recalled OMD’s Paul Humphreys, “and just thrashed ideas around all night. It must have ben 4am before we got something that sounded promising.” The rough song, now titled ‘If You Leave’, was played to John Hughes and Howard Deutch, who both loved the song, leading the band returning to the studio to record the finished track (read more about ‘If You Leave’ via our sister site Messages).
Meanwhile, the music used in the film is certainly one of the aspects that make Pretty In Pink work so well. It’s combination of unusual songs that run from Suzanne Vega through The Smiths and New Order to OMD give it a quirky eclectic appeal. Plus, the brassy rock brashness of the title song by The Psychedelic Furs gives the whole thing a weighty foundation (see The Electricity Club feature on Pretty In Pink’s music).
It’s not surprising that the film’s music is still finding critical praise 35 years later. The soundtrack album also featured in Rolling Stone magazine’s The 25 Greatest Soundtracks of All Time listings.
Pretty In Pink sits in the middle of a loose trilogy of films by John Hughes that all share similar themes of love triangles, unrequited love and social awkwardness. Assessing them in turn with a modern eye, it’s clear that for all their charms, Pretty In Pink is the only one that really captured lightning in a bottle.
Sixteen Candles (which also marked John Hughes’ 1984 directorial debut) sits in a strange position of balancing itself between a traditional frat movie and the perfect combination of character and drama that Hughes would excel at in later outings. With Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall, Hughes had found his ideal characters, although the rest of the casting is very uneven (including an incredibly ill-conceived racial stereotype played for laughs). The film also leans uncomfortably into sexual mores that do seem out of place when observed with a modern eye.
1987’s Some Kind Of Wonderful, meanwhile, is essentially a ‘do-over’ of Pretty In Pink. Hughes, frustrated at the new ending of his 1986 Film, felt compelled to run the same plot again (albeit in a gender-flipped concept) so that the quirky character of Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson) wins in love. But this outing, again directed by Howard Deutch, suffers from casting issues. By this stage, Hughes was unable to get his two muses back onboard (Molly Ringwald, afraid of being typecast like Anthony Michael Hall, turned down a role in Some Kind of Wonderful).
Eric Stoltz (whose role the film had specifically been cast for) and Lea Thompson just can’t conjure up the chemistry that Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy managed in Pretty In Pink. It’s probably interesting to note that Stoltz and Thompson had been the original leads for 1985’s Back To The Future, but Stoltz was replaced by Michael J Fox for similar reasons (while Thompson’s services were retained).
It doesn’t mean that Some Kind Of Wonderful doesn’t work as a film, but the leads are consistently outgunned by some of the secondary characters. For instance, Elias Kotias (as Stoltz’s bruiser best friend) steals every scene he’s in.
In a lot of ways, Some Kind Of Wonderful marked the end of that particular Hughes era. Stylistically, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is as close to Pretty In Pink as any other latter Hughes film got, but plot-wise it’s a completely different film (but again, also a film that benefits from shrewd casting).
As the 1980s drew to an end, John Hughes switched mostly to comedy vehicles, such as Uncle Buck and the super-successful Home Alone. He never worked with Molly Ringwald or Anthony Michael Hall again. Hughes sadly died in 2009, leaving behind a film legacy that continues to have an influence today.
In a 2018 essay for The New Yorker, Molly Ringwald gave some shrewd commentary on many of these films in the #MeToo era. “John’s movies convey the anger and fear of isolation that adolescents feel” she said, “and seeing that others might feel the same way is a balm for the trauma that teen-agers experience. Whether that’s enough to make up for the impropriety of the films is hard to say…”
On the topic of Pretty In Pink, Ringwald comments that the role of Duckie was based on a long-term friend of hers and speculates that Duckie was actually gay in the film. Given the period the film was set, it doesn’t seem like the most implausible idea.
Undoubtedly, Pretty In Pink will continue to be analysed and picked apart by generations still to come. But as it stands, it’s still an intriguing and entertaining narrative able to balance all the vital elements that make a teen drama work: writing, casting, music and just the right amount of humour.
Pretty In Pink celebrates its 35th Anniversary today. Read more about the film: