In a special feature running all this week, Alex Williams counts down his Essential Actor / Director Partnerships…
Molly Ringwald and John Hughes
Sixteen Candles (1984)
The Breakfast Club (1985)
Pretty in Pink (1986)
In the mid 80’s, there was no one in movies who could make a better teen film than John Hughes. In his three films with Molly Ringwald (Hughes didn’t direct Pretty in Pink – Howard Deutsch did – but Hughes wrote it and had a large degree of input into the film), Hughes explored in honest and realistic terms what it meant to be a teenager and, in Molly Ringwald, he found a versatile actress perfect for the centrepiece female roles of his mid 80’s films.
Sixteen Candles found Ringwald as Samantha Baker, a girl low on the social ladder at school and distressed at the small amount of attention being paid to her sixteenth birthday. Due her to sister’s wedding the next day, Samantha struggles through a day of mishaps, embarrassment and eventual happiness at the film’s finale, sharing a kiss with her crush Jake (Michael Schoeffling).
Acting as the central cog in the film, Ringwald imbued Samantha with a believable, engaging persona which saw the film receive high praise from most quarters and was enshrined as an essential teen / coming of age film. Throughout the film, Hughes knows exactly when to ramp up the adolescent feverishness of young romance, when to hold back in a character’s time of crisis and when to let the camera share in moments of intimacy. His directing is not at all tentative and he knows how to frame scenes of conflict with a hard, unfurnished style that can act as the flipside to Ringwald’s sometimes fragile air.
For Pretty in Pink, Ringwald played the opposite of her role in The Breakfast Club as poor, wrong side of the tracks girl Andie Walsh, who exists on the fringes of high school society with her best friend Duckie (Jon Cryer).
Ringwald wasn’t first choice for the role and it had passed through the hands of Jodie Foster and Justine Bateman before she was cast. It is fortuitous then, that she landed the role in Pretty In Pink, as it provided the perfect end point for a trilogy of Ringwald-starring, Hughes-created teen movies that would forever establish John Hughes as one of the pre-eminent chroniclers of American youth.
Whilst Andie attempts to juggle her interest in Andrew McCarthy’s Blane McDonough and deal with her crumbling father – the always brilliant Harry Dean Stanton, she also has to try and protect the feelings of her best friend and would-be boyfriend Duckie. Alongside this, she has her boss Iona (Annie Potts), who attempts to guide Andie as best she can.
Ringwald portrays Andie as a girl who is trying to process her world being thrown off it’s axis. With the rush of romance and the adult decisions that come with it, she must also deal with the petty politics of the factions in her school. As Blane belongs to the rich kid set, Andie has no social right to be interested in him and vice versa, and James Spader’s character Steff puts it in cold, elitist terms: “It’s not worth it, man. I told you it wasn’t gonna work. The girl was, is and will always be nada.”
Nothing – that is the brutal, cold estimation of Andie in the eyes of Blane’s friends. In this high school, as with many others (Including the Shermer High School of The Breakfast Club), the perceived but actually meaningless terms and labels used only serve to create unnecessary and cruel divisions. Andie is seen as nothing because she is working class, Blane is seen as an arrogant rich boy because of his background, designating their true personalities as secondary and insignificant.
Hughes attempts to reconcile the need for Andie to accept the harsh realities of encroaching adulthood and her desire to retain her individuality by having her combine a dress given to her by Iona with a second-hand dress her father bought for her. By stitching together the two into a new dress, Andie makes a statement about how two halves of different origin can co-exist and create a better whole.
1985 saw the release of The Breakfast Club, with Hughes directing and Ringwald as Claire Standish, a rich girl with serious disdain for her fellow detainees. Following the course of a day, where five disparate students find themselves in Saturday detention, the film functions as an ensemble with the characters slowly revealing their true selves as the day wears on and emotions run high. Ringwald’s most entertaining and intense scenes came opposite Judd Nelson’s John Bender, a playful, mischievous drop out with a heart of gold.
Again, Hughes uses the juxtaposition of rich and poor, refined and rough hewn, to highlight the common and unmistakable commonalities between his characters. Emilio Estevez’s Andy and Ringwald’s Claire seem to be the most socially popular of the group and sit next to each other. But as the film wears on, they lose their facades of seeming perfection and crumple, admitting the same inhuman pressures experienced by ‘nerd’ Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) and Ally Sheedy’s ‘freak’ Allison. John Bender is the most brutally frank about his home life, which revolves around physical abuse and neglect. Bender, once the layers of aggressiveness and self-protecting wisecracks have been peeled back, reveals a scared young man.
As with many of Hughes’ earlier films, adults primarily play the role of oppressor and are largely responsible for their children’s despair. Even Principal ‘Dick’ Vernon (Paul Gleason) cannot resist bullying and threatening Bender, mocking him for his lack of toughness in the face of real aggression in a scene, which by looking at John Bender’s face, has been played out all too often already in the young man’s life.
As with Pretty in Pink, the downtrodden kids provide their own solutions and make peace with one another, and finally draft a letter to their principal, letting him know that his definitions of them are reductive, misinformed and cruel, mirroring the David Bowie lyrics from Changes that open the film:
Essential Actor / Director Partnerships: Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog
Essential Actor / Director Partnerships: Kurt Russell and John Carpenter
Essential Actor / Director Partnerships: Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson
Essential Actor / Director Partnerships: Steve Martin and Carl Reiner