Andie: What about prom, Blane?
Blane: Andie, I’m having a bad day. Can we talk later?
Andie: No. What about prom?
Blane: Why don’t we meet after school?
Andie: No! What about prom?
Some films stick with you a lot longer than they probably should. You return to them to capture a feeling, a sense of something lost, or perhaps something you never found. You revisit and review not because they meet a set of criteria that you now apply to films that are ‘great’ but because they connect you to a physical time and emotional place, they remind you of the person you used to be and the person you secretly know you still are.
Pretty in Pink (1986) is one of those films for me.
It’s a film tangled up with my own teenage story. Pretty in Pink reminds me of old friends, good times, sleepovers and my first love. It was the best of times and the worst of times and everything in between.
While Britannia ruled the airwaves on my stereo, my favourite films were from the American John Hughes, a writer and director who made being a teenager in films interesting again.
John Hughes is the king of teen films. The anxieties of teen life are all there in his directorial debut, Sixteen Candles (1984) and in the wacky Weird Science (1985). And they continued in The Breakfast Club (1985) – which actually made me wish for weekend detention because it looked like a fun way to meet interesting people – Some Kind of Wonderful (1987, written by Hughes and directed by Howard Deutch), and to a lesser extent in the iconic, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).
But it was Pretty in Pink – also scripted by Hughes but directed by Deutch – that has absorbed many a rainy Saturday afternoon and to which I connect my own teen history.
Molly Ringwald plays Andie Walsh, a girl from the wrong side of town, with a kindly loser for a father (Harry Dean Stanton), a mother who took off years ago, and a confidence to stand apart from the pack. She has a best friend/stalker, who suffocates her with adoration (‘May I admire you again today?’), called Phil ‘Duckie’ Dale, played by Jon Cryer. He’s in love with her. They are outcasts at their school and are regularly mocked and abused by the rich kids. Then Andie throws a spanner in the works when she falls for one of them – Blane McDonough (Andrew McCarthy) who lives in a beautiful house, drives a BMW and has obnoxious friends who party like extras from Porky’s or Animal House. The film plays out the trials involved in overcoming these social differences to be together within the hell that is the American high school experience and climaxes with the fall out from Blane’s broken promise to take Andie to the senior prom.
Hughes’ world presents an exaggeration of the adolescent discontent at my own high school. It was never that dramatic; probably not really that interesting. We had geeks. We had outsiders and basket cases. We had guys interested in sport, but no such thing as ‘jocks.’ Social status wasn’t an issue as far as I knew; it wasn’t something we clocked.
Going to high school where I did (deepest, darkest suburbia), when I did (the mid-to-late 80s and early 90s), what we did have were divisions marked out by what you liked, namely the music you listened to and therefore the ‘tribe’ you unofficially belonged to.
My tribe was made up of a couple of semi-Goths who loved The Cure and wore a lot of black eyeliner, devotees, like me, of The Smiths, Joy Division and New Order and anything that came out of Manchester, a couple of Paul Weller clones and a ska boy. We all loved The Beatles and 60s soul. We wore Doc Martens, cardigans and mostly black (on the outside, ’cause black was how we felt on the inside), we read real literature (Keats and Yeats were on our side), and felt quietly superior to those other students who just didn’t seem to get it.
I saw this tribalism in Pretty in Pink and so I put myself in the story. Blane’s stuffiness magnifies these divides. When he buys a record he randomly picks up the middle-aged Steve Lawrence, a singer more likely to be heard on your parent’s stereo. At lunchtime, the rich kids stay indoors, sheltered, while the outsiders, dressed in punk and new wave attire, smoking, reading and listening to music, are sequestered outdoors. When Blane ventures outside, into the dark unknown to see Andie, he appears nervous and threatened by these tribes. As he says, ‘I’m not into all this shit.’ Shit? Music? That’s the shit that meant the most to me when I was growing up.
For a long time, I wanted to be Molly Ringwald. I adored the film’s opening scene when she dresses for school, with its attention to every detail of her ‘volcanic ensemble.’ I was obsessed with those floral stockings and desperately tried, to no avail, to locate a similar pair. I convinced myself that the pink prom dress she patched together was beautiful because it was unique. That was reason enough. She was different and I liked that. The other girls in the film wear big. lacquered hair, frosted lipstick and a wardrobe of gelato colours, but Andie makes her own clothes or buys them at thrift stores and turns them into something spectacular. Andie also had balls. When Blane’s best friend, Steff (the deliciously creepy James Spader), harasses her she gives as good as she gets:
Steff: C’mon, I’m talking about more than just sex here.
Andie: No you’re not.
Steff: You know, I’ve been out with a lot of girls at this school. I don’t see what makes you so different.
Andie: Well, I have taste.
Steff: You’re a bitch.
Andie may have been from the wrong side of the tracks but she worked on the right side in a record store called Trax for an eccentric woman called Iona (Annie Potts). It’s a cool space and exactly where I wanted to be after school instead of standing behind a supermarket checkout.
But what I loved most about Trax was the poster of The Smiths draped over the door that led out to the backroom. Whenever Duckie set off the fire alarm to use the bathroom or Andie wasted good lip-gloss as she waited for Blane to arrive for their date, the doors would be dramatically flung open and I’d be treated to a close up of my favourite band. Believe me, I know this sounds lame but at fifteen this made me feel special, like I was in on the secret. That poster made Pretty in Pink feel even more like my film.
Strong contemporary soundtracks were always a feature of Hughes’ films and the Pretty in Pink soundtrack was one of the first albums I bought with my own money. It was an ear-opener – great tracks by The Smiths, New Order, Psychedelic Furs and Suzanne Vega – and laid the foundation for everything that matters to me with regard to music.
There’s only one song by The Smiths on the soundtrack. ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’ plays as Duckie sits alone in his room miserably contemplating the situation with Andie – but that poster at Trax elevates them to a god-like position. Everything that makes The Smiths important collides in Pretty in Pink’s world.
The Smiths were the soundtrack to my youth. As the supreme purveyors of subversive, witty, knowing songs about the doomed romanticism of youth, I was addicted from first listen. Expressing an intense yearning through an emotionally urgent canvas of lyrics and music, they sounded like nothing else coming out of Britain for that too brief time when they were releasing records (1982-1987). The Smiths shunned gimmicks and synthesisers and big hair like Duran Duran. Their style and visual imagery was distinctly from another time, their record covers adorned with wistful black and white photos of cultural icons from the 50s and 60s, including Elvis Presley, Truman Capote, Joe Dallesandro, Alain Delon, Sandie Shaw, Candy Darling, James Dean and Shelagh Delaney.
Back then, The Smiths felt like a secret only a few of us had uncovered and so they always felt like they belonged only to you and no one else. When you declared you loved them it was, as one critic has noted, ‘tantamount to sticking a piece of paper on your own back that read: please beat me.’ And despite some of today’s hipsters claiming The Smiths as their own, they still feel like they belong to me. Sharing them with people is always a risk. There are only so many beatings (metaphoric) I can take.
Like punk, The Smiths made music for outsiders, for anyone who felt a little left of centre or like the world wasn’t listening to them. Lyricist and singer, Steven Patrick Morrissey had some first-hand experience of this awkwardness. He spent most of his formative years sitting alone in his bedroom listening to punk and 60s girl groups, writing songs and gazing at a life-size cardboard cut out of his idol, James Dean, in a pose from Giant.
But The Smiths didn’t sound like punk. Johnny Marr mixed musical styles and many of their songs were painfully beautiful, luscious. They sang about books and writers and things that could break your heart in two, about dreaming someone loved you only to wake up and discover they didn’t, about feeling sixteen, clumsy and shy, like only half a person, about knowing it’s over but hoping it will last forever. My favourite song, ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’ from The Queen is Dead (1986) manages to capture this full spectrum of desire and disappointment in under 5 minutes.
The Smiths articulate every feeling of inadequacy we have when we are teenagers and every expectation we have that things will improve. It’s all there in the anthemic declaration ‘I am human and I need to be loved’ repeated throughout ‘How Soon is Now?’ But The Smiths aren’t just a band for teenagers, otherwise they would have dated, and unlike other 80s oddities like Culture Club, they haven’t. It’s just that most of us discover The Smiths at that age when we feel most isolated and self-conscious, when we are first trying to figure out who the hell we are.
Despite the majority view that The Smiths made music for the depressed (a perception those of us who get them know to be absolute crap), what The Smiths really made was music for romantics. Morrissey and Marr wrote songs about love in its many guises – love unrequited, love unfulfilled, love unmentionable. Not many bands can credibly sing the following lines (from ‘Frankly Mr Shankly’) – ‘I want to live and I want to love. I want to catch something I might be ashamed of’ – fusing the desperate need for connection with a witty recognition of the risks.
And that’s it really. It’s that romanticism that sits at the heart of Pretty in Pink and is the reason I’ve returned to it many times even though my adolescence is well and truly behind me. Partly, to see that Smiths poster, but mostly, because it reflects back to me that romanticism, nervousness and hopefulness I felt in those in between days when I had left childhood behind and was staring into the oncoming adult abyss. It was all there in Hughes’ characters, but especially in Jon Cryer’s Duckie Dale.
In many ways, Duckie really is the best part of the whole film. He stands out from the vanilla, pastel landscape like a quirky exotic bird. Duckie’s a mass of awkward moves and goofy expressions, but he feels things, expresses them with unrestrained abandon. He lights up the screen. The scene in which he lip-syncs to Otis Redding’s ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ is a standout. Duckie has all the film’s best lines including ‘His name is Blane? Oh! That’s a major appliance, that’s not a name!’ and ‘It’s called a sense of humour – you should get one – they’re nice.’ He clearly has great taste in music (Otis, The Smiths) and an individual style. And after all, it’s Duckie not Blane who passionately tells Andie, ‘I would’ve died for you.’ Blane’s own mumbled declaration, ‘I love you … always’ is truly lukewarm by comparison.
Over the years I’ve wavered in my opinion about whether the right guy got the girl.
Hughes’ original ending brought Andie and Duckie together but test audiences apparently wanted to see her with Blane. Did Hughes succumb to studio pressure or did he believe that his preferred ending would send the wrong message and that audiences would think poor people and rich people don’t belong together? Maybe the answer to that lies in the fact that in the following year he basically remade the same story as Some Kind of Wonderful this time letting the female Duckie (played by Mary Stuart Masterson) end up with her best friend (played by Eric Stoltz) at the expense of the popular, rich girl.
It should have been Andie and Duckie. Blane is sweet but a little bland, his personality as colourless and inoffensive as his white pants and powder blue polo shirts. Compared to his rival, we actually know very little about him apart from his being wealthy and a nice ‘richie’ compared to his so-called friends. I know that a film that’s trying to make a statement about the inanity of a class divide when it comes to matters of the heart has to end with a coupling that bridges that divide, but it doesn’t feel true. Blane may drive a BMW and ride horses at the country club but he doesn’t have any of Duckie’s moves.
I think the older and wiser Iona saw that too. I can’t recall a moment in the film when she says anything in praise of Blane to Andie. But when Duckie kisses her, in a fervent display designed to show Andie what she’s missing out on, we get this little gem: ‘I know I’m old enough to be his mother, but when the Duck laid that kiss on me last night, I swear my thighs went up in flames! He must practice on melons or something.’
Duckie could be a character in a Smiths song. He’s a charming man and the boy with the thorn in his side all at once. I struggle to accept the man that Duckie Dale grew up to be – Alan on Two and a Half Men. I don’t believe that they are the same person. Let me hold onto that fantasy.