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Pretty in Pink at 25: Still a Class Act

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This week marks the 25th anniversary of Pretty In Pink, the poignant tale of a very poor, very brave girl (Molly Ringwald) and a wealthy, sensitive boy (Andrew McCarthy) struggling to make their romance work in spite of clashing backgrounds. The movie, released in 1986, is now considered a modern classic: Pretty In Pink airs on cable on what seems like a never-ending loop; it is homaged (and spoofed) on culturally-relevant shows like Family Guy and Gossip Girl; it remains one of the top-selling romance DVD's of all time; and people still dress up as Duckie (Ringwald's wacky, lovelorn best friend, played with unforgettable panache by Jon Cryer), for Halloween.

Undoubtedly, much of the film's iconic status is owed to its lively and deeply touching script by John Hughes, its stylish direction by first-time filmmaker Howard Deutch, and its passionate performances from Ringwald, McCarthy, Cryer, James Spader and Annie Potts. But there's another element of the movie that I believe has most contributed to its staying power: Pretty In Pink captured the pain of class distinction in teendom with a startling honesty almost unheard of in a mainstream Hollywood film. That made it relevant then, in the decade of decadence, when the chasm between rich and poor was stretching ever greater, and when a tale about a boy who drives a Beemer (McCarthy's Blane) falling for a girl who wears second-hand clothes (Ringwald's Andie) seemed particularly appealing. And it makes the movie relevant today, in the despair and uncertainty of the recessionary '10s, when, once again, there is much hope to be found in a story about love overcoming the harsh reality of economic differences.

Hughes wasn't afraid to show teenagers with real problems (we get the unsettling feeling that Andie's afterschool job at a record store is the only thing keeping food on the table for her and her perennially unemployed father, played by Harry Dean Stanton). Rather than shying away from class differences, or giving them a sideways nod as so many teen films have done and continue to do, Pretty In Pink addressed these differences head on, with compelling results so rooted in truth that many scenes are painful to watch (like the one in which Andie bursts into tears while telling Blane why she doesn't want him to drive her home after their first date: "I don't want you to see where I live, OK?" she cries).

John Hughes was so fascinated by the notion of class distinction amongst teenagers that he actually came up with idea for Pretty In Pink when he himself was still in high school. As a teen, he was quite aware that his family lived "on the lower end of a rich community," as he told The New York Times. "You absolutely sensed that [Hughes] came from the other side of the tracks, at least in his perception," Jon Cryer told me when I interviewed him for my book You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation, (for which I was also fortunate enough to have interviewed Ringwald, McCarthy and Deutch).

Though Hughes grew up in a comfortably middle-class neighborhood in the '50s and '60s, he was singularly gifted at capturing onscreen the experiences of teenagers in the 1980s -- kids who were grappling not only with the challenges of adolescence, but of finding one's place in the world during the era of "greed is good." In 1986, not only was wealth celebrated, but all the trappings of it were as well. It was a time when celebrities could flaunt their ostentatious lifestyles to Robin Leach without a trace of faux guilt, a moment when we luxuriated in the lavishness of the Carringtons and the Trumps. A lyric in the song "Wouldn't It Be Good," featured on the seminal Pretty in Pink soundtrack, captured the opportunistic times well: "Wouldn't it be good to be on your side? The grass is always greener over there." It was a time when there was "a dramatic divide between the wealthy and the poor," as cultural historian Neal Gabler said to me when I spoke with him for my book. "Intuitively, the Hughes movies are addressing that increasing divide," he continued. "Everything is a signifier of class when you are a teenager. So what Hughes was doing, in using teenagers to address class issues at a time when class was increasingly important in America -- there was a certain kind of brilliance in it."

To be sure, today's teenage audiences live in a different world -- they are rocked by Gaga, romanced by lovelorn vampires, feel more comfortable chatting with each other on Facebook than they do in real life ("IRL"), and they know Jon Cryer as the other Two and a Half Man. And yet, today's teens relate deeply to Pretty in Pink -- watching the film has become almost a rite of passage for many adolescents (and for their parents, who eagerly wait until their kids are old enough to watch it with them). And unfortunately, thanks to our current economic climate, many of today's teens can identify with Andie's fiscal struggles more than they would like. In 2010, 19% of children under 18 lived in poverty. Teens today find themselves profoundly concerned about their parents' financial situation, some even suffering from a condition called "recession anxiety." And whereas previous generations of teens could round out the family budget (while also making a little spending money for themselves) with an afterschool job, today's youths face one of the highest ever periods of teen unemployment.

"The numbers are incredible," Northeastern University's Andrew Sum told Time. "Proportionally, more kids have lost jobs in the past few years than the entire country lost in the Great Depression."

Any true Brat Pack devotee knows that the ending of Pretty in Pink was changed -- originally, Ringwald's character ended up with her adorably dweeby best friend, Duckie, who came from a similarly challenged economic background. But a test audience of booing teenagers wanted to see her end up with her crush: McCarthy's cooler, richer character, and so, despite the filmmakers' personal misgivings, the film's ending was re-shot. The "Duckiegate" controversy has simmered for a quarter-century, and whenever someone falls in love with the movie for the first time, the debate is rekindled. (Just read the Youtube comments on OMD's "If You Leave" video, or the Pretty in Pink trailer.)

Cryer himself eventually came to understand the logic behind the ending change. As he told me: "You can't send a message that interclass romance just can't possibly work." And although many Pro-Duckie-ites are still wounded by what they see as a glaring flaw in the film's moral character, the message that the new ending did send -- that a poor girl from a troubled home could be loved by a rich, handsome boy because she is smart and kind and has an inherent grace -- was an undeniably hopeful one. As Molly Ringwald once said, "These movies are Cinderella stories. If Cinderella doesn't get Prince Charming in the end, it's a bit of a bummer, don't you think?"

We have learned many things from Pretty In Pink over the last 25 years. The film reminds us that a person's innate worth has nothing to do with her net worth; that an awesome pink prom dress can be crafted from hand-me-downs; that, even in the face of '80s consumerism (or '10s recession-anxiety), anything is possible. As Andrew McCarthy told me, the great '80s youth films like Pretty In Pink "captured a fantasy -- of how people thought their lives could be." But in spite of the film's fairy tale ending, the story's unflinching portrayal of class distinction in teendom is the reason that Pretty In Pink packed such an emotional wallup during its original, Reagan-era run, and the reason it still affects people so deeply in today's economically challenging times. Because, for better and for worse, as the Cyndi Lauper song from the same era goes: "Money changes everything."

Susannah Gora is the author of You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation. Visit her on the web at www.susannahgora.com, and join her on Tuesday, March 1 as she hosts a special Facebook event celebrating the 25th anniversary of Pretty in Pink.