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Brat, Unpacked

In Andrew McCarthy’s new memoir, the "Pretty in Pink" idol reflects on being an avatar for Gen X nostalgia / BY Nathalie Atkinson / May 7th, 2021


At his first Hollywood premiere for Pretty in Pink, Andrew McCarthy sat near the aisle in Mann’s Chinese Theatre and slipped out as soon as he could. The teen drama would become a hit in 1986 and make him a famous crush. If there are any photographs of him on the red carpet, he’s never seen one. He’s there, but not there.

The actor, now 58, uses this story to set the tone of his introspective new memoir Brat, which explores the coming of age of an insecure young man trying to find his place in the world, as he becomes part of the pop-culture zeitgeist.

“Over the years, it wouldn’t quit,” he says in a phone interview from his home in New York about the association that has defined him since his heartthrob heyday and through his successful second career as a travel writer and television director. “Looking under that rock was the whole point of the book.”

What’s In a Name?

As many Brat Pack members have spent decades explaining, there never was any such group. While it’s true that in the mid-1980s several emerging actors like Demi Moore, Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy and Anthony Michael Hall did appear in movies together, they were by no means an off-screen social set, unlike the Frank Sinatra Rat Pack that inspired the name.

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Accordingly, Brat unpacks the reality and the effect of the construct. Journalist David Blum came up with the nickname in his infamous 1985 cover profile of Emilio Estevez for New York magazine after a raucous boys’ night out. It was infamous because the piece cast McCarthy’s pals Estevez, Judd Nelson and Rob Lowe in an unflattering light and the backlash to the smug moniker was almost immediate. “It’s a pretty scathing indictment of these young actors,” McCarthy recalls. “It’s scathing about me and I’m not even in the group.” As a result, the actors – and the movie industry – recoiled. “I think everyone ran from it and tried to distance themselves from it to varying degrees of success.” Ringwald has a mixed view and Estevez, once again, disavowed his ascribed role as unofficial Brat Pack president in a profile last year.

“It’s a fantastic name, really,” McCarthy admits now. “You say or hear it once and you don’t ever forget it. But anytime you’re sort of labeled like that? No one wants that about themselves.”

 

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The St. Elmo’s Fire gang. Top, left to right: Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore, Rob Lowe; Bottom row,  left to right: Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Mare Winningham and McCarthy. Photo: Courtesy of Andrew McCarthy

 

Drowning in Nostalgia

His 1983 feature-film debut in Class led to Pepsi commercials and Afterschool Specials, as well as self-doubt and self-sabotage, but, eventually, the unlikely loner landed his now-classic trio of movies with filmmakers John Hughes, Joel Schumacher, and Canadian Ted Kotcheff.

“I’m an avatar for people’s youth,” McCarthy says. “That’s what I’ve come to accept about it.” The fandom of Pretty in Pink, St. Elmo’s Fire and Weekend at Bernie’s is less about the movies than the intense memories associated with who we were when we watched them, which is being felt more acutely as Gen X approaches middle age. “There’s nothing more powerful than that moment in life, when your whole future is a blank slate in front of you,” he adds. “You can write on it any way you want – and that’s a thrilling exciting scary time.”

So how did no one in the so-called group think to claim the perfect and most obvious title before? The book is enthusiastically blurbed by Demi Moore, author of the bestselling 2019 memoir Inside Out. Has McCarthy read any of his peer’s books to see what – if anything – they’ve said about him? No, he has not.

“He is aloof and observing – Holden Caulfield come to life,” Rob Lowe writes in Stories I Only Tell My Friends, which came out in 2011. They may not have clicked as friends, but Lowe, who starred with McCarthy in Class and St. Elmo’s, nails the outsider quality that permeates the memoir. In those days McCarthy hung back, but he doesn’t spare himself from scrutiny now in this unflinching, emotionally honest book.

One Upon a Time in Hollywood

 Sure, there’s the night out at Spago that unexpectedly ends at Sammy Davis, Jr.’s place and a lift home from Liza Minnelli in her Rolls Royce. Later in the book, he describes a debauched evening out with James Spader that, far from being sprinkled with Hollywood stardust, ends with the actor covered in glitter from a West Hollywood stripper. Aside from a brush-off from Elisabeth Shue and a lingering off-screen kiss from Jacqueline Bisset, his May-December Class co-star, salacious details are scant and the revelations don’t add up to much of a sizzle reel. Spoiler alert: McCarthy is frustratingly discreet. Chatting on the eve of Brat’s publication, we agree that anyone interested purely in gossip is bound to be disappointed. “It’s not a tell-all of this or that—it’s a tell-all about me. But not about stuff.”

 

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McCarthy admits he was using cocaine when he filmed the 1987 adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis’ book Less Than Zero with Jami Gertz. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

 

“It’s my experience of things and it’s not about anyone else,” he reasons, “and I didn’t’t think it was my place to talk about people. That’s not the kind of book I was interested in writing.” What does interest him is laying bare what it’s like to feel your way in the profession, blowing auditions and eschewing false camaraderie while wearing the mask of youthful arrogance – or as he calls it, “habitual nonchalance.” He’s candid, too, about drinking and smoking pot as a young teen and, as he rose to fame, how his substance abuse escalated. Life imitated art when he was high on cocaine while making Less Than Zero, and either drunk or hung over for much of Pretty in Pink. He talks about the strained relationship with his father, who structured tax shelters, chiefly over newfound fame – and money – and the 1992 stint in rehab that finally got him sober.

The Eighties, Revisited

I did some revisiting of my own, looking at notes from our conversation about his 2012 bestselling memoir, The Longest Way Home: One Man’s Quest for the Courage to Settle Down.

 By that time, Gen X’s onetime movie boyfriend had become a writer with wanderlust, more interested in far-flung forays than auditions. A 500-mile walk across the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain set a decade of travel in motion, and he became an editor-at-large of National Geographic Traveler, won awards and even guest edited The Best American Travel Writing anthology. The book chronicled McCarthy’s internal journey as he wrestled with the reason why he still feared commitment after four years with his fiancée, screenwriter Dolores Rice.

Back then, his reply to the obligatory Brat Pack question was polite but weary. “The minute anybody said it, before they finished their sentence I was saying no,” he laughs when I remind him. ’Would you write a book about the Bra – No.”

When an editor approached him a couple years ago about writing another memoir, to his surprise, his response was less visceral. After wondering whether he had anything to say for about six months, “I just started writing – I wrote the whole thing for myself before I tried to sell it.”

“I find out what I’m thinking by writing,” I prompt, reminding him of the Joan Didion quote he told me last time. “That is really true,” McCarthy says. “That’s why I wrote this book. In the first book I found out what I felt about intimacy versus solitude and how to reconcile them, and I learned a lot about myself. And I wrote this book to find out what I felt about the Brat Pack.”

After decades of bristling at the sobriquet, when he was done the book McCarthy was happily surprised to realize that he’s come to “a sort of peace” with it. “Ultimately what I learned was that I have great affection for this thing that was attached to me and I’ve carried around for lo these many years.”

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McCarthy and Mary Stuart Masterson messing around between takes while filming Heaven Help Us at Coney Island in 1985. Photo: Courtesy of Andrew McCarthy

A New Direction

By the 2010s, McCarthy’s infrequent acting credits had dwindled so he shifted focus again, this time to episodic television. He’s since directed dozens of major shows such as Gossip Girl, Orange is the New Black andThe Blacklist, which stars Spader, his preppy 1980s frenemy and real-life friend. There has also been a stint in Toronto as an executive producer and director on Condor, the series based on the 1975 Robert Redford/Sydney Pollack conspiracy movie, and this spring, he directed an episode of comedy Norah from Queens.

While directing Good Girls this season, McCarthy stepped out from behind the camera to play Mr. Fitzpatrick, a sophisticated hit man. “I hadn’t acted much in the past long time and hadn’t really missed it,” he explains. “And I’d say writing the book in some way liberated me a bit – I’m not entirely sure how yet. But picking up acting again in that particular part was much more fun than I remembered or anticipated it being.”

He may yet return to it. “It was interesting to notice, after having not done it for 10 years or so, that it was easier and I was less strained by it. I felt like I could do more by doing less,” he adds. “I’m the same and yet I’m different than the last time I’ve done this, and that’s interesting. It startled me … so we’ll see what happens.”

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McCarthy is still friends with Claude Chabrol, who directed him in the 1990 French production of Quiet Days in Clichy, where he played writer Henry Miller. Photo: Claude Chabrol

Family Affair

Unlike Estevez, his St. Elmo’s co-star, McCarthy didn’t grow up in an entertainment household, but he sure lives in one now. “Life is cruel,” he says ruefully. “The last thing I ever wanted is for my kids to be actors.”

Rowan, 7, his youngest with Rice, whom he married in 2011, isn’t acting yet. But Sam, 19, has appeared on Condor and stars as Christina Applegate’s son Charlie in Dead to Me. (Fun fact: In Sam’s feature film debut All These Small Moments, his mom was played by Ringwald, his father’s former romantic lead.) Daughter Willow, 14, made her professional debut in the Broadway musical Matilda. “But I don’t think they harbour any illusions about show business,” he says. “They see it as a job.”

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