(Originally published in DVD Review, September 2004)
It’s 1987, and the man who’ll one day be known as Jack Bauer is riding high at the Cinema Box Office, resplendent in leathers, punky blonde haircut, glowing eyes and fangs. Starring Kiefer Sutherland and a host of hot new acting talent, comedy horror flick THE LOST BOYS swept all in its path, combining the angst of adolescent rebellion with gothic vampire cool. Thanks to the film’s massive success, the ensemble cast were the latest actors to join the “Brat Pack”- the group of young stars who had conquered 1980s Hollywood, and all of whom seemed set for long, prosperous careers.
Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. THE LOST BOYS’ success should have been a shot in the arm for the Brat Pack, but instead turned out to be one of their last bows before their cinematic reign came to an end. They may not have been the greatest actors in the world, but they were cinema’s first teen stars- a group of performers who appeared in a multitude of movies during the 1980s, and ended up representing both the best and worst of the ambitious, materialistic “Me” generation.
Whether they were playing geeks, jocks, graduates or cowboys, actors like Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald and Rob Lowe were the faces that drove 1980s pop cinema- and they also became the first major example of how quickly it can go wrong for actors trumpeted as the official Next Big Thing™…
WRITING THE GRAFFITTI
To understand how the Brat Pack happened, you have to go back to the 1970s, a world where teen movies didn’t yet exist. James Dean may have defined teenage rebellion in the 1955 classic REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, but Hollywood has always been slow to catch on to new ideas, and terrified of taking risks. As a result, up until the early Seventies, films tailored specifically for a teenage audience were unheard of outside independent B-movies or exploitation flicks. Cinema was a dark, provocative, grown-up place for films like THE GODFATHER and THE FRENCH CONNECTION … until a filmmaker named George Lucas went for a change of direction.
Lucas was still smarting from the failure of his arty, low-budget science fiction movie THX-1138 in 1970, so he took the advice of filmmaker and friend Francis Ford Coppola and wrote a screenplay based on his own life growing up in small-town California. “It had become depressing to go to the movies,” said Lucas in 2000, “so I decided it was time for a film where people felt better coming out of the theatre than going in.” A warmly nostalgic tale of teen life in the early Sixties, AMERICAN GRAFITTI cost 750,000 dollars and earned a then-astounding 55.1 million by the end of 1973. Lucas now had enough money to spend more time developing a bizarre sci-fi script called THE STAR WARS, and Hollywood began realising there was money to be made in the teen dollar.
However, it still took the studios a long time to do anything about it, and a whole series of cheaper, independent successes like HALLOWEEN, NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE and PORKY’S cleaned up at the box office before Hollywood finally got the message. Initially, the only result was a collection of horribly lame copycat comedies that focussed on getting laid and getting wasted at the expense of everything else- but a variety of young actors were getting themselves noticed, and potential stardom was lurking around the corner.
BIRTH OF THE BRATS
All it would take was the right film- and the Brat Pack’s official beginning came in 1983, thanks to GODFATHER director Francis Ford Coppola’s expensive musical ONE FOR THE HEART going belly-up at the box-office. In the wake of this mishap, Coppola opted for a safer project, and bought up the rights to school library favourite THE OUTSIDERS.
An edgy tale of 1950s teen gang members searching for a safer life, Coppola was soon casting his adaptation and, without realising it, he assembled a virtual “who’s who” of Eighties pop cinema. Along with E.T. bit-part player C. Thomas Howell and future KARATE KID star Ralph Macchio in the lead roles, there was Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Patrick Swayze… and a short appearance from a little-known young actor named Tom Cruise.
The film was a healthy success, and soon more eye-catching examples of teen cinema were creeping their way into the mainstream. Between 1983 and 1984, cinema screens were displaying everything from computer thriller WARGAMES and satirical sex-comedy RISKY BUSINESS, to classic “Wax on! Wax off” martial arts drama THE KARATE KID and barking mad Commie-invasion flick RED DAWN.
The film that truly pointed the way to the future, however, was a low-budget drama which dealt with a teenage girl’s difficult birthday. SIXTEEN CANDLES added a much-needed dose of emotional reality and awkwardness to the teen movie, making the characters more relatable and empathetic. The stars were a couple of unknown young performers called Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall, but the film was also the directorial debut of a man who’d end up laying down the rules for teen movies that would be followed for decades to come.
John Hughes fell into writing films thanks to working on the magazine National Lampoon, and after contributing to screenplays like MR. MOM and NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION, he finally notched up his first writer/director credit with SIXTEEN CANDLES. The film barely made an impression at the box office- but for Hughes, it was just a stepping stone to directing another screenplay that he’d set his heart on: THE BREAKFAST CLUB.
The story of five schoolkids (tagged by their archetypes in the opening narration as “a brain, an athlete, a princess, a basket case and a criminal”) connecting with each other while trapped in a Saturday detention, THE BREAKFAST CLUB was a deeply unappealing prospect to most studios. There were pages and pages of dialogue, only one location and none of the usual standards of teen cinema. One executive looked at Hughes’ script and said “Kids won’t sit through it! There’s no action, no party, no nudity!”, but Hughes stuck to his guns, and unintentionally kicked off the next phase of the Brat Pack’s life in the process.
Bringing together his SIXTEEN CANDLES stars Ringwald and Hall, Hughes also cast Ally Sheedy from WARGAMES, Emilio Estevez and Judd Nelson, and during 1985 the end result went onto earn $46 million at the US Box Office alone- a hugely impressive amount for what was essentially a filmed stage play. Away from the awesomely silly dance sequences, THE BREAKFAST CLUB’s timeless take on social cliques, conformity and loneliness in US High Schools was universal enough for the whole world to relate to, and the film became the blueprint for almost every single teen movie and TV series that would follow.
As if that wasn’t enough for the rising young stars, 1985 was also the year of the ultimate Brat Pack movie;- ST. ELMO’S FIRE. A masterwork of lurid fashions and dazzlingly large hair, this coming-of-age saga followed seven college graduates looking for direction in their lives, and was the perfect chance for the Brat Packers involved to simultaneously flex their acting muscles and wear fantastic clothes. BREAKFAST CLUB members Estevez, Nelson and Sheedy were drafted into the ensemble, along with Mare Winningham, Demi Moore, Andrew McCarthy and Rob Lowe.
With Lowe honking on his Saxophone while wearing a bright yellow vest covered in bat-prints, subtlety was out of the window- but underneath the glitz and glamour, the film at least attempted to make serious points about the negative side of 1980s materialism. Not that the Brat Packers ever took any notice- with the twin triumphs of THE BREAKFAST CLUB and ST. ELMO’S FIRE, they were the toast of Hollywood, splashed across the cover of Time Magazine, and partying hard at every opportunity. Without a shadow of a doubt, the Brat Pack had arrived in force.
WHAT GOES UP…
And then, almost as quickly as it happened, it all started to fall apart. The end of the Brat Pack didn’t occur overnight, but it began as soon as the self-promoting actors involved suddenly started not wanting to be associated with the brand that made them famous. In interviews, they started denying the Brat Pack’s existance and downplaying their partying habits, while starting to distance themselves from the teen genre with more grown-up films like the Rob Lowe/Demi Moore relationship drama ABOUT LAST NIGHT.
Elsewhere, John Hughes was continuing his cycle of teen movies, but had yet to hit the same note as THE BREAKFAST CLUB, with sci-fi comedy WEIRD SCIENCE being too self-consciously wacky to be truly funny. PRETTY IN PINK was a step back in the right direction, with Molly Ringwald again taking centre stage as the high school misfit falling for Andrew McCarthy’s rich kid, unaware of the true feelings of her kooky best friend Jon Cryer. The film was another perfect example of Hughes’ patented brand of teen angst- although studio interference meant his original ending was jettisoned for the fairy-tale climax of Ringwald netting McCarthy rather than the far more entertaining Cryer.
McCarthy went on to appear with future SEX AND THE CITY star Kim Cattral in 1987’s MANNEQUIN, but the final product was a jaw-droppingly unfunny comic mess, as well as the first sign that Brat Packers were capable of making bad decisions. Another major clue came thanks to Anthony Michael Hall, who after starring in WEIRD SCIENCE was hired by Stanley Kubrick to play the lead role in his 1987 movie FULL METAL JACKET- but complained so much about the legendary director’s habit of shooting endless takes that he was unceremoniously fired and replaced by Matthew Modine.
Bad decisions also proved to be Molly Ringwald’s downfall;- there were few young female actresses with as much clout in the late Eighties, but she squandered it on duff, forgotten projects like THE PICK-UP ARTIST, while managing to turn down leads roles in both BLUE VELVET and GHOST. Infamous ladies man Rob Lowe’s career also imploded but for very different reasons- a 1988 sex tape scandal involving Lowe and a 16 year old girl almost landed him in prison, and for the next few years he had to make do with small roles in comedies like WAYNE’S WORLD and AUSTIN POWERS.
THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL
There was yet another blow to the Brat Pack’s fortunes when they lost their firmest ally behind the cameras. After having written and directed the classic high school comedy FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, John Hughes bid a final farewell to the teen genre by writing the screenplay to SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL, a reworking of PRETTY IN PINK with the ending restored to his original non-fairy tale climax. Hughes headed off to eventually strike gold with HOME ALONE, but the Brats were left without his understanding take on teenage life, and their attempts to shift into grown-up movies were haphazard at best.
Some of them were still capable of striking gold, though, as proved by Patrick Swayze when he hit the big time thanks to more 1950s nostalgia and the line “Nobody puts Baby in the corner!” in the 1987 smash hit DIRTY DANCING. The same year, however, saw director Joel Shumacher’s attempt to kick-start another phase of the Brat Pack with THE LOST BOYS fail to go according to plan. The film may have been a smash hit, but out of the ensemble cast, only Kiefer Sutherland managed to go on to anything resembling consistent success, while Jason Patric, Jami Gertz, Corey Haim and Corey Feldman all managed to press the “Career Detonation” button, ending up in Direct-to-Video purgatory, rehab, or- worst of all- the woefully dreadful SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL.
By 1988, the Brat Pack was running out of steam, and too many of their movies were ending up as forgettable wastes of time. It should, therefore, have been the worst possible point to attempt a Western revival- especially since the genre had been definitively dead and buried for over a decade- but Estevez, Sutherland, Charlie Sheen and LA BAMBA star Lou Diamond Phillips found themselves an unexpected hit thanks to the gloriously overblown Billy the Kid romp YOUNG GUNS. The film generated enough money for a sequel two years later, but even Jon Bon Jovi’s macho crooning on the title track couldn’t save YOUNG GUNS II: BLAZE OF GLORY from underperforming.
A NEW DECADE…
In the end, fashion caught up with the Brat Pack. The Nineties arrived, and the world was suddenly keen to leave the tacky excesses of the 1980s behind, while the teen drama was thrown into stasis by jet-black high school comedy HEATHERS, and it wasn’t until CLUELESS in 1994 that the genre got it’s groove back. Some of the Pack members disappeared into straight-to-video obscurity, some headed for the comfortable world of the small screen, while others carved out quietly respectable careers as character actors.
It’s no coincidence, however, that the one Brat Packer to maintain a massively successful career is also the one who jumped ship as soon as possible. The last remotely teen or Brat Pack-oriented movie that Tom Cruise made was over twenty years ago- and since then he’s worked with as many important directors as he can, leaping with unstoppable determination from popcorn fodder like TOP GUN to challenging Oscar-bait like BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, all the while showcasing that cocky, twinkle-toothed grin.
But, no matter what happens, the Brat Pack already have their place in cinematic history. Archetypal teen angst classics like THE BREAKFAST CLUB will live forever, no matter how quickly some of the participants’ careers may have been snuffed out by ambition, unfortunate choices or bad luck. And they’re also a lesson to all the young, up-and-coming, self assured modern day stars who think they’ll last forever. Fame might look like fun- but it’s terribly difficult to hold on to…
Originally published in DVD Review magazine
© Highbury Entertainment 2004
HOLDING BACK THE YEARS…
They were the faces of a generation- but where exactly have the Brat Pack been hiding?
He keeps writing and directing extraordinarily bad movies starring himself and brother Charlie Sheen (MEN AT WORK, RATED X), but Estevez’s only significant success in the last decade came thanks to the three MIGHTY DUCKS movies. He also made an uncredited cameo in the first MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE instalment with old friend Tom Cruise.
After GHOST, INDECENT PROPOSAL, and posing naked for Vanity Fair at the drop of a hat, it seemed like nothing could stop the ambitious Ms. Moore. Then came the dreadful STRIPTEASE, and her career went into freefall. She’s now a successful film producer, but better known for dating toyboy Ashton Kutcher than for her little-used acting skills.
The sweetheart of the Brat Pack scored another big hit with 1986’s robot action comedy SHORT CIRCUIT- but Sheedy’s career soon dwindled, and her only major credits from then onwards were duff horror films like FEAR and MAN’S BEST FRIEND. She was last seen making a brief comeback in 1998 lesbian drama HIGH ART.
The 1988 sex scandal hit his career for six- but then, U.S. television came calling. Eventually, Lowe became a fixture on the massively popular White House drama THE WEST WING (along with Emilio Estevez’s dad Martin Sheen), although he recently quit the drama for his own production- which was quickly cancelled. Ooops…
After the magnificent career high of voicing Rodimus Prime in TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE in 1987, it was all downhill for Judd Nelson. His last major film role was NEW JACK CITY in 1991, and he was most recently seen in a cameo as a sherrif in JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK.
ANTHONY MICHAEL HALL
He beefed up to play Winona Ryder’s bullying boyfriend in Tim Burton’s EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, took the role of Bill Gates in a TV movie and then disappeared for a few years. Hall is now gaining success as the least likely replacement ever for Christopher Walken in the US TV series remix of Stephen King’s THE DEAD ZONE.
Once she’d blown her big chance in movies, most of Ringwald’s 1990s credits came thanks to TV- especially the epic Stephen King miniseries THE STAND, also starring Rob Lowe. She then moved to Paris, and as well as cameoing in films like NOT ANOTHER TEEN MOVIE, she’s also appeared onstage in the West End in the theatrical version of WHEN HARRY MET SALLY.
As a result of making FLATLINERS in 1990, Sutherland ended up one of the many men to have almost married Julia Roberts. Since then, he’s concentrated on quirky character parts or villains, growling menacingly in movies like PHONE BOOTH- but he’s now best known for having several terribly stressful days in smash hit TV series 24.
1990 corpse comedy WEEKEND AT BERNIES was hardly a career highlight- but that was the last major movie credit that he could manage, and McCarthy spent most of the Nineties working in TV movies. Recently, he made a comeback playing opposite a psychic anteater in Stephen King’s bizarre medical horror series KINGDOM HOSPITAL.
C. THOMAS HOWELL
Best known for riding a BMX in E.T. THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL, Howell hit paydirt in 1985 with Rutger Hauer psycho chiller THE HITCHER- but since then it’s been dodgy direct-to-video thrillers all the way. He was, however, recently spotted as a nefarious horse rider going up against Viggo Mortensen in HIDALGO.
The ultimate late-eighties heartthrob hit another peak in 1991 with surfing actioner POINT BREAK, but Swayze soon saw his career vanishing thanks to dull movies like THREE WISHES and FATHER HOOD (Unwisely playing a transvestite in TO WONG FOO probably didn’t help either…) He’s since bounced back with a brilliantly self-satirising turn in DONNIE DARKO.
Emilio’s little brother hasn’t ever vanished from view since 1990, appearing in SCARY MOVIE 3 and BEING JOHN MALKOVICH among many others, as well as a run on TV sitcom SPIN CITY. Unfortunately, he’s now better known for his massive drug appetites, as well as dalliances with Hollywood “madam” Heidi Fleiss, than for having any kind of consistent career.
LIVING ON A PRAYER
The five Brat Pack classics you have to own…
THE BREAKFAST CLUB
One set, lots of dialogue- and an evergreen 1980s classic. Ignore the duff makeover scene or the bizarre dance freakouts- just watch in awe as John Hughes gives the Brat Pack their best ever script, and defines Teen Angst for a whole generation.
ST. ELMO’S FIRE
Director and future Bat-Franchise destroyer Joel Shumacher lights the blue touch paper on the Brat Pack with this brilliantly OTT ensemble drama, as Judd, Emilio, Ally, Rob, Andy, Mare and Demi discover the downside to the 1980s while wearing eye-opening clothes.
Tom Cruise’s career was blown into the stratosphere by this classy, raunchy 1983 sex comedy, which follows Cruise on a wild weekend without his parents, falling for Rebcca DeMornay’s hooker and accidentally sinking his Dad’s porche.
FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF
Matthew Broderick is the smug underachiever putting his all into bunking off school with his friends, and all the while teacher Jeffrey Jones is going through comic hell trying to catch him in John Hughes’ brilliantly madcap teen classic.
THE LOST BOYS
Jason Patric falls in with the wrong crowd in a new town, and soon he’s wearing shades during the day, drinking blood and missing his reflection. Colourfully daft vampire fun, with Kiefer Sutherland on villain duties and a classic 1980s soundtrack.
EVERY ROSE HAS ITS THORNS
Five Brat Pack movies you’d do well to avoid….
It’s the old story- boy meets shop dummy, boy falls in love with shop dummy, shop dummy turns out to be re-incarnated ancient Egyptian princess- but wrapped up with screaming gay stereotypes and some of the lamest gags in Christendom.
Possibly the most unintentionally hilarious and homo-erotic action movie ever made, Patrick Swayze stars in this monstrously dated hymn to country music and big hair, unwisely trying to do an Eastwood as enigmatic nightclub bouncer Dalton.
Another “high-concept” Brat Pack comedy, this laugh-free wasteland stars C. Thomas Howell as a teen who overdoses on tanning pills, turns black and- hey presto!- takes advantage of an all-black college scholarship. Even more reprehensible than it sounds.
Rob Lowe grins and mugs his way through every Brit movie cliché in the book, as a gormless Las Vegas car park attendant who, after to a spot of hacking, gets a place at Oxford University and shows those stiff-upper-lipped Limeys some American know-how.
For anyone who’s ever wanted to see Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen take on the entire Russian Army, John Milius’ staggeringly paranoid war flick is a cinematic car-crash that sees the vodka-swilling commies mount a mainland U.S. invasion for no readily apparent reason.
Originally published in DVD Review magazine
© Highbury Entertainment 2004