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When discussing movies from this decade of big hair and MTV, it doesn’t take long before two names begin to dominate the conversation. Writer-director John Hughes was prolific in this era, churning out hit after hit that moved audiences with what seemed liked the Midas touch of comedy and emotion. And much of his success came paired with fresh-faced, redhead, Molly Ringwald, who defined the times with her signature look, heartbreaking smile, and gift as a multitalented actress.
After her career-making turn in Hughes’ Sixteen Candles (1984), which she followed-up by the even more popular and groundbreaking Hughes’ ensemble film The Breakfast Club (1985), she joined Hughes one last time for Pretty in Pink (though the film is directed by Howard Deutch), the most mature of the three. Ringwald plays Andie, a mostly invisible girl at school who works at a record store and takes care of her dad who hasn’t really recovered from the sudden abandonment of his wife a few years earlier. She’s creative and intelligent but feels like she’s on the outside. Her school is run by the rich kids, one of which is Blane (Andrew McCarthy), a rich boy who literally lives on the other side of the tracks and has taken a genuine interest in Andie, much to the hateful dismay of his friends, especially Steff (James Spader) who himself hides a lust for her along with a built-in bigotry for her social standing. Thing is, Blane is a little different and isn’t caught up in the whole snob-war and accepts Andie for who she is, but more importantly, want her to accept him on the same terms.
Then there’s Duckie (Jon Cryer). He’s been Andie’s best friend forever and has a not-so-secret love for her that he displays in fun but means genuinely. He really doesn’t really fit in with anyone at school, being a bit of a clown, a bit of a rebel, bit of a nerd and a whole lot of awkward. But he embraces that difference, though the confidence on the outside hides a bit of sorrow and insecurity that suggests he might be pretending to be someone he isn’t in order to hide his fears.
It is the relationship between Andie and Duckie that remains the heart of this somewhat contrived but ultimately satisfying story. While Blane is a decent character, he is overly-sentimental and obvious, whereas Duckie is an enigma, performed with real heart by Cryer. It is because of this that the film’s most pivot moment derives from him. Let’s take a closer look.
Some set up first. We’ll start with Andie. She has a lot going for her but gets bullied by the “richie” kids, led by Steff, who constantly reveals himself to be a smarmy yet very attractive guy who puts the moves on Andie. He’s a ladies man, the big man on campus, and isn’t used to not getting his way. When she rejects him so begins his public antagonism that is toxic and hateful, and spreads through his ranks with ease.
His best friend is the aforementioned equally rich and attractive but far less arrogant Blane, who Andie likes a lot but is too afraid and embarrassed to approach. Blane likes her too, and has initiated some exploratory flirting and then, despite the resistance from his social circle to ask her out, ventures to the side of the school where Andie’s groups mingle and invites her on a date. It’s a big step and proves a little of his worth.
She accepts, happily, and makes plans to meet him at TRAX, the music store where she works. Duckie is there, waiting, like he always does. And when she confesses to him that she has a date, and then when he sees who it is, the heartbroken Duckie pulls her to the backroom for talk. And so starts the moment.
Duckie is in shock, that’s to be sure. He knows Andie wants to date but isn’t interested in him that way, yet love is a curiously blinding thing, and has left him feeling like there will be a time when she’ll come around. The thing is, she’s never really gone out with anyone and Duckie’s has felt safe that he is the only one in her circle, the only true choice she has. He tries to play it cool at first, in clear denial, shrugging off the obviousness of the situation.
His voice cracks a bit when he uses the word ‘date’ in referring to Blane and when she tries to appease him, saying that Blane is not like the other guys, that Duckie would even like him, it pushing on him like a blanket of fire, reeling him farther into the backroom where he spins in anger. He then lashes out.
He puts on her first, saying he can’t believe that she is being so stupid, to think that Blane won’t hurt her because that’s what all his people do. Of course, she fights back, saying that she’s better than that and won’t let them hurt her, though he further claims that Blane is only going to use her for sex and then throw her away. To emphasis that he himself would not, he breathlessly tells her that he would have died for her. It’s a raw, vulnerable statement that comes from somewhere Duckie has kept secret for a long time.
Andie feels the hurt but sends it back. She likes Blane. What is she supposed to do? To hate on Blane would be no different than what Duckie sees as happening to them. What Duckie doesn’t see is that he too is not right her Andie, only engaged in his own feelings and not recognizing the needs she has for herself.
This is why when she needs him most, right now, he simply can’t see it. Instead, in his pain, panting in agony, he tells her that he lives to like her but can’t like her anymore if she does this to him. When her heart gets broken as it surely will, for the first time in her life, Duckie says he isn’t going to be there. It’s a savage moment.
That’s the hardest thing when facing rejection though, believing that there is no other reason other than that someone just doesn’t like you. Duckie dodges that, trying to make excuses that very well may be true, but there’s no denying what he surely already understands. That is the reveal of this moment. Duckie finally gets it. He isn’t dumb, but he’s also proud. His love for her is as pure as anything the young man has ever experienced, and with no context and no filters for coping and examining those feelings, when it crumbles around him, it’s devastating.
His confession that “I live to like you and . . . and I can’t . . . like you anymore,” speaks more about himself, a kind of self-admonishment for years of blind dedication. His feelings of sudden betrayal are natural but that’s only because the fantasy of what a relationship with Andie could be like has consumed him so deeply.
What’s truly great about this moment is how effective Cryer is in his delivery. Until now, Duckie has been the comedy, the source of jokes and laughs, but suddenly, he is a person. A very real, highly identifiable person. Watch how he shifts from the jokester to the brokenhearted and notice how well Cryer carries that torment. When he initially prods her for an answer about whether she will actually go out with Blane, you can see the anguish as he expects the worst. And when she admits she will, look how he spins and rushes away from her but is blocked by the wall in the next room. It forces out the words he has no control over and the two engage in a real–perhaps for the first time–adult exchange. That’s where Hughes finds the magic in his films, giving his well-crafted characters the space to grow.
This record store moment is a high water mark in the film, as it shifts the dynamic and creates the larger conflict. We don’t lose sight of Andie but now we have the secondary path that up to this confrontation seemed innocently comical. Duckie represents the sacrifice we sometimes make in choosing our own road . . . even if that road leads us back in a circle.
Molly Ringwald, Jon Cryer, James Spader, Harry Dean Stanton