Historical Circuit: Pretty in Pink (1986) (★½)


prettyinpinkJohn Hughes had his finger on the pulse of the 1980s zeitgeist, teaching teens how to navigate the often treacherous waters of dating, popularity, and fashion. (Okay, maybe Hughes’ films weren’t as prophetic on that last part.) Hughes also divided girls into two camps: those who loved Sixteen Candles and those who loved Pretty in Pink. (If you were truly cool, though, you went with Some Kind of Wonderful.) Celebrating its 30th-anniversary, Pretty in Pink graced movie screens once more this week to hopefully inspire generations of women, young and old, into realize this movie is a horror film in disguise.

Andie (Molly Ringwald) is a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks who spends most of her time getting her ne’er-do-well father (Harry Dean Stanton) a job and hanging out with friends Iona (Annie Potts) and Duckie (Jon Cryer). When Andie starts dating Blaine (Andrew McCarthy), a wealthy boy, the entire high school social structure threatens to implode.

I got to Pretty in Pink late in my examination of Hughes’ filmography, watching it long after Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and – this film’s ending and gender-flopped remake – Some Kind of Wonderful. The latter, especially, was always going to leave me seeing this as second-best and after seeing it the first time it left nothing memorable in my brain.

Boy, does time change things! In growing older and wiser I’ve discovered John Hughes knows dick about women! Sure, previous works like Sixteen Candles were questionable in their depiction of the fairer sex, but Pretty in Pink illustrates a high school landscape peppered with men who sexually harass or, worse, openly stalk our main heroine, demanding her love and affection out of some misplaced sense of obligation.

Andie responds to all the men who treat her like garbage with differing versions of apathy or irritation, but never outright hostility, saving her witty bon mots for the bitchy girls who make fun of her fashion sense – considering the amount of hairspray and shoulder pads these obviously 25-year-old seniors are rocking, Andie’s clothes are just fine. When Andie does get angry, it’s not a culmination of irritation at the guys who have wronged her, just the most passive aggressive one.

Marking the last of the Molly Ringwald-starring trilogy of Hughes films Pretty in Pink gives the titian-haired actress a chance to truly act with the film’s brightest spots between Andie and her father, Jack. Hughes’ works have always revered the father/daughter relationship, and unlike Sixteen Candles late-night couch pep talk, there’s actual meat here. Andie’s mother’s abandonment has left the family, Jack in particular, in a state of arrested development. Andie’s confrontation with her father, asking why he can’t get over her, is the film’s highlight, showing a maturity in the actress and the situations that Hughes should have maintained.

But, instead, Pretty in Pink devolves to fluff, removing absent mothers in favor of an ambiguous us vs. them discussion involving poverty….well, Hollywood’s interpretation of poverty. Outside of Andie talking about making her own clothes we never witness or hear of anything that could threaten Andie’s home or well-being by being poor. And there’s zero logic surrounding how Blaine would know she’s less than wealthy – it’s doubtful he’d notice she makes her own clothes. This is a similar claim lobbed at Some Kind of Wonderful, although that had a literal crossing of the tracks making some semblance of a point.

What Hughes needed to do was emphasize how horrific Andie’s school-life is and the people she considers “peers.” Outside of Iona, a woman-child desperate for a man, lovingly played by the adorable Annie Potts, and Andie’s father, everyone else takes joy out of making Andie miserable. Some characters are overt about it, such as the bitchy girls and James Spader’s Steff, while Duckie dresses it up under the guise of “caring about” Andie. (Blaine is woefully ambivalent to anything.)

A character like Steff doesn’t hide what an asshole he is – he just is (and, of course, he’s bitter at being unable to devirginize Andie). Honestly, I like his character far more than the other males because he’s written honestly. We aren’t supposed to like him, and we don’t. Although, who can’t appreciate Spader’s lusciously feathered hair in this film and his complete disregard for buttons? (I’m not convinced this isn’t a prequel to the later Spader/McCarthy team-up, Less Than Zero.)

Pretty in Pink disturbs more often than it entices. Much of this horror falls on the feet of the worst John Hughes character ever concocted, Duckie. Originally envisioned for Robert Downey, Jr. – hopefully masking the character’s more disturbing elements with his charm – Jon Cryer sells the character, particularly in the much beloved “Try a Little Tenderness” moment but it’s hard not seeing Duckie for what he is, a prototypical “Nice Guy.” A Nice Guy is a male character fixated on turning his friendship with a heroine into a romantic one whether she wants it or not. He feels the heroine “owes” him for how nice he is by having sex with him and/or embarking on a romantic relationship with him.

Hughes’ assumption with Duckie might have been one of social awkwardness – Duckie propositions strange women and assumes his relationship with Andie is more than it’s worth out of an inability to connect with people. But Duckie’s social ineptitude goes far beyond grossly asking women if they’d like him to impregnate them. He leaves Andie several messages a minute, asks why she’s not home, rides his bike past her house (and uses not doing so as presumed punishment for Andie’s rejection of him), and generally acts as if he should be rewarded for his friendship with a romantic relationship Andie has not encouraged or even alluded to.

There’s also no previous mention of any type of romantic relationship between the two to give us any indication of how Duckie could misconstrue the situation. By the time the big “twist” happens ANYBODY is better for Andie than Duckie. And the fact that Duckie’s “reward” for being a Nice Guy is Kristy Swanson, a “sexy lamp” figure, only furthers the belief that the film believes Duckie’s behavior is charming, a male fantasy above all else.

That’s not to say Andrew McCarthy is any better. Blaine is never clearly defined as a person, short of supposedly being madly in love with Andie and blindly devoted to appeasing his lone friend, Steff. McCarthy never achieves much chemistry with Ringwald, although it’s easy believing he’d bow down before Spader.

Andie ends up as little more than a trophy for Duckie or Blaine to acquire. This is where Some Kind of Wonderful succeeds above its earlier counterpart. Hughes shows little flair for writing women; much of this film is Andie passively hearing Duckie whine about her while doing everything to make Blaine believe she’s “worthy” of him. She has no agency, no anger or resentment for how she’s treated. Nor is there an outlet given for her to find support or sympathy. Even her school principle doesn’t listen when she admits she’s sick and tired of being bullied by the wealthy girls in her class. In Some Kind of Wonderful, Hughes is far more comfortable letting the male hero take the lead, with poor guy Keith (Eric Stoltz) refusing to let the rich kids believe he’s a loser, and thus shows them up by proving his worth only to reject them in the end. For Hughes, Andie’s attending prom is her big “statement” and which male she ends up with defines her.

If you’ve read this far then you’ll know I don’t enjoy Pretty in Pink. Despite some solid acting from Ringwald, Harry Dean Stanton and Annie Potts, the film’s questionable love triangle, disaffected heroine, and an unsympathetic world of male aggression and conquest, Pretty in Pink shows Hughes at his least relatable.