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REVIEW: 'Brat: An ’80s Story'

CIRCA 1988: Actress Molly Ringwald and actor Andrew McCarthy pose for the movie " Fresh Horses ", circa 1988. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
June 6, 2021

Helped by luck, good writing, and a talented director, an actor can streak across the national attention span so dramatically that, for a while, they come to represent certain human types to the culture at large. Their face may even become the face of certain hard-to-define but historically important characteristics—just as Humphrey Bogart’s soft-lidded, half-smirking mug seems to personify the World War II generation’s dry wit and stoicism, or as Glenn Close’s beaked, steely-eyed visage brings into focus the dark side of female ambition in our time.

Andrew McCarthy never loomed so large as those screen legends, but in a handful of movies made in the 1980s he played, rather skillfully, a certain kind of sensitive young man and, through good acting, helped to describe a newish version of the American nice guy: introspective, vulnerable, and trying not to be a jerk.

The most popular and consequential of the movies in which McCarthy appeared were Pretty in Pink (1986) and St. Elmo’s Fire (1985). In the former, he was the preppy rich kid Blane who falls for artsy, sad-eyed Andie, from the wrong side of the tracks and played, unforgettably, by Molly Ringwald. Written by John Hughes, the movie boasted a superb cast (James Spader, Jon Cryer, Harry Dean Stanton) and an influential aesthetic of vintage-inspired fashion and British New Wave music. Despite a somewhat formulaic script, the movie triumphed through its careful stormtracking of the adolescent heart.

Prior to the arrival of Hughes, writes McCarthy in his memoir Brat: An ’80s Story, "few films had treated the overwhelming, all-consuming power of teenage emotions earnestly, depicted teens with respect for their struggles, or given them a sense of genuine dignity on-screen."

Around the same time, McCarthy played the cynical young writer Kevin Dolenz in St. Elmo’s Fire, delivering a brilliant cascade of one-liners against love, marriage, and bourgeois norms in another strong ensemble cast, featuring several of the hottest young actors of the time: Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, and Rob Lowe. Along with Pretty in Pink, St. Elmo’s Fire, co-written and directed by Joel Schumacher, marked the zenith of McCarthy’s career and pretty near the zenith of these coming-of-age movies, though the best of the bunch is almost certainly the Hughes-written and Hughes-directed The Breakfast Club (1985).

What these movies had in common was a great sympathy with the point of view of young people, a sympathy that was not so universal in the popular culture as it is now. By inverting the adolescent pecking order to shine a light on nerds, weirdos, and creative types, they exposed some of the hypocrisy and hollowness to be found in the world of adults. All this was not entirely new. The rebellious American teenager was something of a postwar creation, played to perfection by James Dean. And it was far from the first time a young person was set upon a stage. Huck Finn was only 13 when he changed the course of American lit. Jane Austen’s young heroines were in their late teens and early 20s. Hamlet was a college kid. Still, the movies of John Hughes seemed new. Richly entertaining in their own right, they gave moody teenagers a new handbook of language and manners for their roles as disaffected youths.

The vogue for these particular movies passed, of course, as it had to eventually, but this time the obituary was written while the movies were still box office gold. In 1985, David Blum of New York magazine rode shotgun with Emilio Estevez and some other hot young male actors as they hit the town. The candid portrait showed Estevez, Rob Lowe, and Judd Nelson shamelessly holding court at the Hard Rock Café in Los Angeles, and Estevez scamming free movie tickets while everyone talks a little too big and casts sideways glances at some of their fellow actors, including Andrew McCarthy. Boorish behavior was made to seem egregious, however, through the application of an otherwise deserved nickname, "the brat pack," which caught on in a big way. Soon after, these actors and their movies were on the "not hot" list.

The New Jersey-born McCarthy, in his telling, was a different kind of brat. An underachieving student, he discovered a love for the stage in a high school production of Oliver! and, given his awful grades, had to sneak into the acting program at New York University. He studied method acting, and some of the best writing in his memoir covers how, with the help of a few teachers and coaches, he developed his own emotional memory and put it to work on set.

For a short memoir, this one contains a decent haul of backstage stories. McCarthy would not have gotten the part in Pretty in Pink if Ringwald had not told Hughes that he was exactly the kind of guy, sensitive and poetic, a girl like her would have a crush on, sealing the deal for our young hero. In Heaven Help Us, one of McCarthy’s best though less remembered movies, he played a Catholic school student who in one scene is disciplined with a paddle to the hands. Only the foam paddle chosen for the job didn’t look real enough, so it was switched out for an actual wooden paddle. McCarthy’s hands were thus brutally and repeatedly smacked. Instead of yielding a single tear, the actor’s eyes showed the full waterworks of a person in very real pain. In one of a handful of interesting bold-name anecdotes, McCarthy was introduced to one of his heroes, Dustin Hoffman, who waxed eloquent about how the secret to understanding and playing a character began with getting their shoes right.

The more personal parts of the memoir deliver different lessons in drama as McCarthy’s father, a shady operator, repeatedly begs money from his famous son and then hates him for giving it to him. McCarthy’s own bad behavior revolves around alcohol, to which he turns for relaxation, for solace, and for whatever, whether he is working in the morning or not. An interesting tension develops between McCarthy’s genuinely studious approach to his craft and his utter weakness for drink.

As his acting career declines (he is unapologetic about Weekend at Bernie’s, by the way, but properly shamefaced about the sequel), McCarthy becomes interested in directing and goes on to direct a number of excellent television shows, including, recently, several episodes of Orange Is the New Black and, before that, Blacklist, starring his old castmate James Spader. He also, in the mid ’90s, began a second career as a travel writer and has become a pretty good one. Is he as good a writer, then, as he was an actor? As an actor he was quite good in a short list of major roles. What he does as a writer, at least in this memoir, is not so rare, but he is serious about it, clear in presentation, thoughtful, and never stinting on the good parts. He is a measured writer, a mature one, and not at all a brat.

Brat: An ’80s Story
by Andrew McCarthy
Grand Central Publishing, 223 pp., $28

David Skinner is an editor and writer who writes about language and culture and lives in Alexandria, Va.

Published under: Book reviews