There was a time when the late writer-director John Hughes was widely praised as the voice of American youth, thanks to a string of popular teen comedies and dramas. That reputation has dimmed somewhat over the past decade or so, mainly because audiences and critics today are a bit more aware of social realities and diversity. While Hughes may not represent the kids of America, he arguably remains the voice of middle-class white teens in the Chicago suburbs. A less impressive achievement perhaps, but at least it is more honest.
Pretty in Pink (1986) marks the third and final instalment in Hughes’ unofficial “Ringwald trilogy”. Along with Sixteen Candles (1984) and The Breakfast Club (1985), it stars Molly Ringwald as a high schooler struggling with familiar challenges for suburban teens at the time. Here she plays Andie, a young working class woman raised by a single parent (Harry Dean Stanton) and attending a high school where the bulk of the students are more affluent than she is. Attracted to the well-to-do Blane (Andrew McCarthy), Andie faces resentment over her relationship from both her friends (Jon Cryer) and his (James Spader).
The aesthetic elements that made Hughes’ teen films so popular are in full evidence here, with strong 1980s fashion throughout and a particularly impressive soundtrack of pop and independent hits. (OMD’s “If You Leave” was a particular commercial success at the time). These elements can be found throughout Hughes’ oeuvre of the time, and represent a similar level of creative success across the board. In the case of Pretty in Pink – itself named after and featuring a Psychedelic Furs song – Andie works part-time at a local record store. This fully embeds the popular music not only in the soundtrack and the narrative as well. Her best friend appears to be Iona (Annie Potts), the owner of the store and a sounding board for her teenage angst.
Hughes’ screenplay focuses on a working class versus upper class divide. Andie is poor – the script places her house literally on the wrong side of the railroad tracks – but Blane is rich. Blane’s friend Stef (Spader) disrupts their romance because Andie is poor, and Andie’s friend Duckie does the same because Blane is too rich. Interestingly, both friends have an underlying motivation in wanting to date Andie themselves. All in all, it is fairly primitive stuff, but taken in the context of American teen drama it seems a little impressive that the issue is raised at all.
While John Hughes wrote the film – and his authorial signature is all over it – Pretty in Pink actually marked the directing debut of Howard Deutch. He demonstrates a solid sense of pace and draws particularly good performances out of his cast. There is particularly strong work among the supporting players: while Ringwald and McCarthy are amiable enough, other performers around them constantly threaten to steal the limelight. James Spader does a wonderfully venomous job as Stef, Harry Dean Stanton is a heartfelt and likeable single father looking for permanent employment, and Annie Potts’ turn as Iona is a comic delight that demonstrates just how much Hollywood has under-utilised her since (seven seasons of Designing Women notwithstanding).
Of course there is also Jon Cryer as permanently friend-zoned hopeful Duckie. Cryer’s comedic talents made the character shine, because certainly some of his less admirable behaviours and jealousies can make him difficult to like. In a contemporary remake he would almost certainly be re-imagined as Andie’s gay best friend, and were it not for a few minor plot points he almost occupies that role in the original. Watching the original film with the benefit of hindsight there are actually more than a few toxic behaviours expressed that have dulled Duckie’s original shine. Debate has raged among Pretty in Pink fans for years over whether or not the studio-enforced conclusion was the right choice. In all honesty I think that debate needs to be reconsidered.
Age has not diminished Pretty in Pink, but it has transformed it from a popular drama to a nostalgic curio. It represents the style, music, and attitudes of the American middle class at a particular place in time. I think there is worth in that.