Streaming: the best of the Brat Packers

Estimated read time 6 min read

Depending on your age, Andrew McCarthy’s Brats (Disney+, from 5 July) will either be a cosy nostalgia trip or a window into another era of celebrity. As someone who was two years old at their zenith, I’ve only ever known the Brat Pack as a past buzzword: a gaggle of then-young American actors who became a collective cultural phenomenon before just as quickly dispersing into a very different array of career fortunes. To look back on that now, as McCarthy’s documentary does, is to learn more about 80s-era media and publicity machinery than anything particularly crucial about American cinema.

The Brat Pack was defined in 1985 by a pair of coming-of-age films, The Breakfast Club and St Elmo’s Fire — one about high-schoolers, one about college grads, though made months apart with heavily overlapping casts. Neither has aged especially well except as a time capsule: the former is at least distinguished by the signature snarky snap of John Hughes’s writing and the fizzy pulse of Simple Minds’ Don’t You (Forget About Me), but the wispy soap opera of St Elmo’s Fire (complete with John Parr’s uncool title song) really has only the eager charisma of its ensemble to recommend it today.

But you can see how their cumulative impact made many excited about the healthy good looks and not-quite-adult charm of actors like Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez and Judd Nelson — and also how their slick immaturity led the less converted to embrace the somewhat unflattering “Brat Pack” term. In Brats, the now 61-year-old McCarthy makes clear his ongoing resentment of the label. He sealed his place in the club by going from St Elmo’s Fire to the Hughes-written teen romance Pretty in Pink — another once-beloved sleepover favourite that now seems quaintly jejune, marked by retrograde gender politics — but never moved past it in the public imagination. His documentary alternates between gauzy reminiscence and piqued revisionism, and likewise between the self-pitying and the genuinely insightful. His point is a fair one: that these contemporaneous actors, who had little to do with each other beyond a couple of co-starring vehicles, were grouped and branded in a manner that perhaps wasn’t a fair representation of all their individual talents.

The Breakfast Club, left to right: Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall.View image in fullscreen

Interviewing his fellow stars, he finds a mixture of sympathetic frustration and indifference. “It didn’t represent us, but I don’t know if I took it as personally as you did,” shrugs erstwhile Brat Packer Demi Moore — perhaps because she went on to far greater success and celebrity in the 90s than any of the rest (and, with Cannes phenomenon The Substance ahead, has a comeback afoot). Interviewing journalist David Blum, who coined the “Brat Pack” term in a rather critical New York magazine profile, McCarthy angles for some kind of mea culpa and comes up dry. That’s showbiz: no one’s ever going to apologise for making you famous.

Outside the aforementioned titles, there isn’t a concrete set of films defining the Brat Pack phenomenon. Some would include Francis Ford Coppola’s rugged SE Hinton adaptation The Outsiders, which includes solid work by Estevez and Rob Lowe; others would argue it’s too upmarket and, as a period piece, not era-defining enough to merit the label. Hughes’s directorial debut, Sixteen Candles, surely counts: a star-making vehicle for quintessential Brat Packer Molly Ringwald, whose poignantly gangly performance as a teen tiptoeing into first love gives the film a spine. (No Brat Pack albatross for her onscreen love interest Michael Schoeffling: perhaps wisely, he quit acting at 30 to become a woodworker.)

Demi Moore and Andrew McCarthy in a scene from BratsView image in fullscreen

If Hughes’s movies still warm a lot of Gen-X hearts, nobody much remembers such films from the era’s wane as About Last Night — a yuppie romcom heavily sanded down from a David Mamet play, starring Moore and Lowe — or the 1988 Ringwald-McCarthy reunion Fresh Horses, which tried to shift the youthful romantic blush of Pretty in Pink into moodier, more solemnly angsty terrain. They aren’t terrible films; they just didn’t quite capture a brief cultural moment.

Still, some Brat Packers would move on to better things — even if only Moore, thanks to the still-irresistible Ghost, scored a later hit so big it recalibrated her star image. Sheedy may never have shaken the label, but she gave her best performance over a decade later, as a jaded, drug-addicted but alluring photographer, in Lisa Cholodenko’s queer indie High Art (sadly only currently available on DVD), and more recently brought that scorched, flinty energy to Zach Clark’s fine dysfunctional family drama Little Sister (Prime Video).

Ringwald’s film career never delivered on her early promise, but it’s been gratifying to see her on TV recently in The Bear, Dahmer and Feud: Capote vs. The Swans, while Riverdale made her recognisable to a new generation of teens. Lowe, meanwhile, renewed his celebrity on the small screen in The West Wing, but gave the best performance of his career by shedding his vanity to play a venal, frozen-faced plastic surgeon in Steven Soderbergh’s superb Liberace biopicBehind the Candelabra. Some Brat Packers were meant to be character actors all along.

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