Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #17: Pretty in Pink

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

 Pretty in Pink (released February 1986)

Pretty in Pink cast (left to right): Andrew McCarthy, Molly Ringwald & Jon Cryer

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: From 1984 to 1987, writer/directer John Hughes executed a half dozen phenomenally successful movies about high schoolers -- Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Pretty in Pink,  Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Some Kind of Wonderful. Hughes, who died in 2009 at the age of 59, had an uncanny knack for making acutely white teenagers interesting enough to watch for 90 or so minutes. Adults are supporting players in these films, regularly presented as world-weary parents or scolding administrators -- until Hughes needs one of them to be inadvertently wise or unexpectedly compassionate about something.

Like the other films on that list, Pretty in Pink is a model of storytelling efficiency. The title was inspired by a Psychedelic Furs song, and just so there's no confusion, it's played right over the opening credits. The first shots of the film reveal a drab, working class neighborhood and some railroad tracks. Cut to Andie Walsh (Molly Ringwald), otherwise known as the girl from the wrong side of those tracks. She dresses for school, donning a combination of thrift store and homemade garb, then wakes her father; his first words are, "Where am I?" In mere moments, sad sack underemployed Dad is coherent enough to praise Andie's ensemble and inquire, "Have you been asked to the prom?" At her motion-picture-perfect high school that's nowhere near the railroad tracks, doe-eyed senior Blane surreptitiously adores Andie from afar, but she's all distracted by her eccentric, doting friend Duckie (Jon Cryer) and the mean girls who tease her about her clothes. After school, she encounters Steff (James Spader), a lecherous classmate who hits on her. Andie resists and Steff calls her a bitch. Then, at her part-time record store job, Andie's quirky, thirtyish boss Iona (Annie Potts) muses that there could be lifelong side effects from skipping the prom. "Don't analyze it," she says. "Just go." Iona barely gets those words out of her mouth before Blane shows up to do a little flirt-shopping and ogle Andie again.

Illustrating the expeditious structure of a John Hughes script, all of that happens in the first eleven minutes. You've been introduced to everyone that matters -- Andie and her father, Blane, Duckie, Steff, Iona and the mean girls. The central question is: Will Blane ask Andie to the prom? You already know the answer. Of course he does. Andie's been crushing on him, too. So, where's the conflict? Blane lives on the very affluent side of the railroad tracks and his rich friends disapprove of Andie. Oh, and Duckie thinks he's in love with Andie because they're both misfits and share a love of fashion, or something. Duckie disapproves of blonde, wealthy Blane, too -- his name sounds like a "major appliance."

Hughes and director Howard Deutch have crafted a flawed but somewhat satisfying film that blends a cliched coming of age story with that tricky rite of passage, the prom. Some sequences absolutely feel forced, and there's barely a subtle moment in the entire thing -- though to be fair, teenage angst is rarely an understated affair. But you can't discount the things Pretty in Pink gets right. As Steff, James Spader throughly nails licentiousness and white male privilege. Annie Potts takes a surrogate older sister role and revels in the opportunity to make Iona a bohemian pixie on the verge of maturation. When we find out why Andie's father (Harry Dean Stanton) is such a dispirited wreck, it resonates with truth and gives the film a real measure of poignancy. Andrew McCarthy is convincingly sweet and conflicted as Blane -- but the story wouldn't work unless he had real chemistry with Molly Ringwald. Yep, he does. And then there's Ringwald. Seventeen at the time she made this, her performance is confident, natural and appealing; her emotional responses feel just about right in any given scene.

Stray Gay Observations: Pretty in Pink's costumes were designed by Marilyn Vance. Andie's clothes have a kind of timeless thrift store elegance -- a style that contrasts sharply with the wimpy pastels worn by her classmates. Her wardrobe, combined with Ringwald's ginger characteristics and poise, make it easy to believe that she'd be regularly mocked and misunderstood in high school. Similarly, Duckie's clothes are vintage, but the look is ostentatious and crowned by a pompadour hairstyle. Combined with his aggressively idiosyncratic behavior, he'd easily attract derision from peers.

About Duckie. This is a character who enters the film by strutting down a school corridor, sizing up Andie's outfit and declaring, "This is a really volcanic ensemble you're wearing." Then he quips about calling the cafeteria for lunch reservations and brashly assures two random girls that he can arrange for one or both of them to be pregnant by the holidays. From Duckie's first appearance, I was skeptical about his heterosexuality. So, I went back and read a bunch of old Pretty in Pink reviews to see if I was the only one who assumed that Duckie was just a queer kid who hadn't quite figured out his same-sex attraction yet. In 1986, Duckie was described as "a whirlwind of loopy energy," "a mad extrovert" and "over-the-top." However, there's a growing consensus in reviews published over the last decade: It's hard not to read Duckie as gay and in deep denial about it. Slant, one of the most popular online entertainment sites, even went so far as to characterize Duckie's love for Andie as "a diva complex only befitting a gay man." I can't argue, primarily because I've known a couple of dozen Duckies in my life. But what does Jon Cryer, the man who played Duckie, believe? He weighed in on the subject in 2012: "And I respectfully disagree. I want to stand up for all the slightly effeminate dorks out there that are actually heterosexual. Just cause the gaydar is going off, doesn't mean your instruments aren't faulty. I've had to live with that, and that's okay."

Incidentally, Blane is the only person who gets called a faggot in Pretty in Pink. By one of the mean girls.

Should You See It? As teenage prom dramas go, I'd probably recommend 1976's Carrie first. But Pretty in Pink is perfectly enjoyable and certainly a less horrific alternative.

Next Week: Barbarella (1968)

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