“…and of Andrew McCarthy, one of the New York based actors in St. Elmo’s Fire, a co-star says ‘He plays all his roles with too much of the same intensity. I don’t think he’ll make it.’ The Brat Packers save their praise for themselves….”
- From David Blum’s “Birth of Hollywood’s Brat Pack” article, published in June 10th, 1985 issue of New York magazine
By James Kenney
A teenager in the latter part of the 80s, I steadfastly tried to get my dad to assent to whatever qualities I could find in the films where my heroes were now being exposed as mere mortals, starring in indifferent productions that were unsuccessful at the box office– Molly Ringwald is pretty good in For Keeps, yes? Well the second half of Judd Nelson’s From the Hip, when John Hurt shows up, that’s good, right? Sure, Blue City with Nelson and Ally Sheedy, is crap, but it does feel kind of like a Walter Hill film, no? Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen’s Men at Work has a few chuckleworthy moments, doesn’t it, pops?
Indeed, these movie stars that 1980’s youth like me found so palatable, that were on the covers of the magazines, found themselves on the outs alarmingly quickly, just as we too, their audience, were being thrust into a cold, inhospitable world. Anthony Michael Hall did Out of Bounds and found himself Out of Work. Judd Nelson could not survive From the Hip and Blue City and soon was a serial killer in a William Lustig film and a second banana in New Jack City. Ally Sheedy was in straight-to-video nonsense like Maid to Order and Emilio Estevez was keeping a straight face while fighting animated trucks in Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive. Molly Ringwald was the vulnerable but insouciant face of the 80s with Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink but For Keeps, Fresh Horses and The Pick-up Artist all stiffed, and she was a mere mortal doing straight to video thrillers by the 90s.
Indestructible Rob Lowe did pretty good, doing leads in damn good films Masquerade and Bad Influence, but they were flops at the box-office and even he spent time in purgatory, aka taking the lead in an Albert Pyun shot-in-Eastern-Europe lunacy entitled Crazy Six before resurfacing in The West Wing.
But many of us identified with Andrew McCarthy, who wasn’t so good looking it was scary like Rob Lowe, wasn’t aggressive and snotty like Judd Nelson, wasn’t Hollywood royalty like Emilio Estevez. American youth like me reveled in his projected sensitivity and his thoughtful performances, while recognizing the fragility of both. He could be very good, as in Heaven Help Us and St. Elmo’s Fire, but could look out of his depth when not handled right in Kansas and Year of the Gun. Still, he did theater regularly and did well to outlast several of the other brat-packers by having unexpected comedy chops, revealed in the rather large dopey-comedy hits Mannequin and Weekend at Bernie’s in the late 80s.
McCarthy didn’t sustain as a Hollywood lead any more than the other Brat Packers, but he avoided severe calamity despite a serious drinking problem, sobering up and becoming a published travel and young adults author while continuing to act and direct in films and television and on stage. However, he does not spend substantial time on those post-1990 endeavors in this book, which shrewdly fixates on a certain fascination for 80s culture that holds for many of us, with McCarthy spending time in both New York with its grime and integrity, and in Hollywood with its colors and youthful energy. McCarthy has written a most readable, fast-paced memoir of the times, brat: an ‘80s story, and it is an essential read for those of us who remember. Which are legion!
The lowercase lettering of the title echoes McCarthy’s ambivalence about the era – he doesn’t feel himself a genuine part of the “Brat Pack,” as the other male actors dismissed him in the famous article that coined the phrase. While fellow Brat Packers rejected him at the time (the above quote was unattributed, so we will never know if it was Lowe, Nelson or Estevez who bad-mouthed him), he nevertheless was a part of it while outside it, and the book reflects that. Lowe, Ringwald, Demi Moore, Jon Cryer, they are all there on the pages, but he does not really socialize with any of them (maybe he should have, as the unnamed friends he does associate with have a tendency to spit on his apartment floor once he’s famous).
The lack of capitals also reflects the rather subdued colors of his tome, as he is largely an observer from a distance, or at least presents himself as one, a guy who would dance around the edges of whatever was going on instead of plunging in. McCarthy’s aloofness is reflected on every page, as he doesn’t seem to really get along very well with most of the stars he worked with, nor directors, and doesn’t share in any detail a single romantic relationship he had during this heady time.
None of this throws me; we actually related to McCarthy because of this aloofness; his separate-from-the-crowd, observational quality is what charmed viewers in Elmos’ Fire and the underrated classic Heaven Help Us, and made his rather passive rich kid palatable in Pretty in Pink –he was taking it all in, observing, like the viewer, and we could identify with his guarded, cautious nature. Most of us weren’t ready to relate to the most-amiable but self-absorbed Rob Lowe (who in a telling anecdote in McCarthy’s book, looks at himself in a mirror while eating a salad, but also laughs at himself when someone calls him on it), but McCarthy, sure.
McCarthy’s book is no kiss-and-tell; it’s more fail-and-tell. An anecdote about meeting a young Courtney Cox around the time she shot the “Dancing in the Dark” video for Springsteen: “I chatted her up but [she] wasn’t having me.” Amanda Plummer politely turns him down for a cup of coffee; Jacqueline Bissett kisses him once enigmatically, but never again. He is much more reticent about sharing any success he had romantically or sexually during this period, and his self-effacing ability to reveal he was rejected by a video dancer after already starring in films with Lowe and Donald Sutherland is part of why McCarthy is our brat-packer. He is on the outside looking in, even on his own success story.
McCarthy’s a bit too hard on himself, dismissing much of the work he did and the films he was in; sure Less Than Zero got rather negative press when it was released, but its cult-classic status has since grown (even Brett Easton Ellis has nice stuff to say about the movie now), so he doesn’t need to call it a “hapless hybrid.” Also there are some sloppy bits; he (good for him!) reports on being mesmerized by huge talent Charles Barnett, a black comedian who would perform in Washington Square Park (“for a new kid in town he felt like a friend” McCarthy writes) and ultimately die very young from AIDS born out of drug abuse. Later McCarthy dismisses auditioning for D.C. Cab, calling it a “ridiculous film starring Mr. T” that he was glad he wasn’t in, seemingly unaware that it provided the only starring role for Barnett, who gives in it one of the great unsung African-American performances, a powerful mix of rage and comedy that does a better job of getting across on screen the point of view Richard Pryor expressed in his stand-up but never found an outlet for in his Hollywood career. One assumes McCarthy sincerely doesn’t know Barnett was in the film (which is actually quite good and would have been a feather in McCarthy’s cap had he been cast instead of Adam Baldwin).
As a fan, I earn my bona fides by remembering to this day a 1985 profile in Rolling Stone where the “Brat Packers” all seemed to be trying very hard to sell themselves– Lowe blasting a cassette of Born in the U.S.A. in his convertible, and McCarthy watching a scene from an old Montgomery Clift film, Indiscretion of an American Wife, trying to repeat the graceful moment where Clift folds a coat over his arm and exits the scene. I remember thinking as a 15-year-old that it showed how serious McCarthy was as an actor, being into Montgomery Clift and all that, but also finding it a little self-conscious, like he was trying too hard for the journalist.
Well, he brings up that same anecdote in his book, but not specifically related to that interview; apparently he would show that video over and over to everyone: he writes “the simplicity, the metaphorical significance for the character, and elegance of this mundane, seemingly throwaway gesture screamed out to me. This was the kind of subtle, restrained, yet dramatic, almost poetic and truthful acting I wanted to do.” I do wonder if this is exactly how it happened, or aware that the Clift anecdote was out there, swimming around in the brain of McCarthy fans who read the profile, McCarthy wanted to humanize it as a true obsession as opposed to something staged for a Rolling Stone reporter that he is now self-conscious about. Either way, I like the guy and his earnest effort to really be a good actor, which dovetails with the book ending at the turn of the decade when he’s cast by Claude Chabrol as Henry Miller in a French production of Quiet Days of Clichy (which never opened in the U.S.). His time as a Brat Pack superstar was over, but being cast as the lead in a Chabrol film certainly shows he would endure as an actor (and as it turns out, author and director).
So brat: an ‘80s story isn’t a blissful examination of that heady era. It’s a guarded outsider’s wary look back, replete with alcoholism, tasty formative years in a New York City that had Blondie, thriving off-Broadway theatre, the Erotic Bakery on Christopher Street, downtown dive bars like the Raccoon Lounge and Puffy’s Tavern, and a really dysfunctional father. It is a compelling read; McCarthy seems to not want to delve too deeply into any of the sordid/delightful details of 80s debauchery, but he does present a plausible psychological profile of an insecure East Coast boy thrust into the West Coast spotlight and, if not blowing it, perhaps not fully seizing the moment and squeezing it of all its juice. The 80s seemed like it would never end for all of us teens living in that heady MTV moment, and I suspect it seemed like it would not end for the young stars who soon would be playing serial killers in William Lustig films, either.
This book is a convincing, plaintive look at that brief mid 80s period where Everybody Wanted to Rule the World but Only The Young did, written with the wisdom of temporal and psychological distance. brat: an ’80s story is essential reading for anyone interested in McCarthy or that era, which are more of you than will ever admit it. If anyone of the brat pack has spent his time “dancing alone, baby,” to quote Simple Minds’ Breakfast Club hit forever associated with that generation of actors, it is McCarthy, but I didn’t forget about him, and I’m glad he has shared his level-headed summation of what went down.