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Brats Explores How a Nickname Forever Shaped the Legacy of the Brat Pack

8 minute read

In 1985, journalist David Blum wrote a New York Magazine cover story that simultaneously anointed and damned a small group of hot young actors who had performed together in the then-recent hit The Breakfast Club and would, in various permutations, go on to anchor other young-adult hits like St. Elmo’s Fire and Pretty in Pink. The headline, Hollywood’s Brat Pack—a sideways reference to the clique of urbane rebel entertainers, including Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., who cool-strutted through Hollywood and Las Vegas in the 1960s—had the catchy élan that editors have always strived for, even before the clickbait era. But the subjects of the article—and even those who were pointedly not its subject—took umbrage, some carrying their mini-grudge well into the present day.

One of those grudge-holders is Brat Pack member Andrew McCarthy, and his a documentary, Brats—which premiered at the Tribeca Festival and is now playing on Hulu—examines how one clever headline nickname has, for better or worse, stuck to this group of actors for nearly four decades. Brats is so winsomely entertaining that it could have been made by one of the archetypically guileless characters McCarthy played in the ‘80s, like principled rich kid Blane of Pretty in Pink, or the sculptor-turned-window-decorator of Mannequin whose goddess-like creation comes to life. At the height of the Brat Pack’s popularity, McCarthy was always the soulful one, the one hanging at the outer edge of the circle, the one Most Likely to Read Actual Books. In Brats, there’s something both comical and endearingly earnest about the way McCarthy, in his attempt to parse the sociological implications of the term Brat Pack, seeks the counsel of wise man on the mount (and Tipping Point author) Malcolm Gladwell. Is there anything more Andrew McCarthy than that?

But McCarthy himself knows it’s kind of funny, and that’s what makes Brats so enjoyable. The movie’s lo-fi vibe is part of its charm. It’s structured something like this: We see McCarthy pacing the streets of his home city, New York, musing aloud on the way he and his old friends have come to be lumped together in this monogroup, rather than being considered artists in their own right. He bravely rings up his comrades, one by one, leaving friendly, hopeful messages. These are people he hasn't spoken with in several decades. When one or another of them gets back to him, he asks, jauntily, “How’s your life been these past 30 years?”

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McCarthy meets up with Lowe to discuss their movie-making days in the '80sCourtesy of ABC News Studios

This is how McCarthy sets up on-camera conversations with Emilio Estevez and Rob Lowe, two of the key figures of Blum’s original article; the third of Blum’s subjects was Judd Nelson, who turns out to elude McCarthy, though he may, in absentia, end up getting the movie’s best laugh. McCarthy sets up the movie by establishing the Brat Pack label as one that essentially tarnished these actors’ reputations, in addition to just generally hurting their feelings. His journey takes him from New York to numerous locations that are most decidedly not New York: He travels to Estevez’ spare, elegant house, where the two chat amicably from opposite sides of a spacious kitchen island. He drops in on the forever-and-always likable Jon Cryer, who also has a very nice kitchen. It takes a while for Lowe to return McCarthy’s calls, but the two of them finally do meet up, in yet another nice kitchen.

The subtext is that these guys haven’t done badly for themselves. But what McCarthy learns is that everyone who was either in the Brat Pack or Brat Pack-adjacent (that latter category would include actors like Timothy Hutton and Lea Thompson, also interviewed in the film) has a slightly different take on what the Brat Pack designation meant at the time, and each of them carries their current-day baggage differently. Estevez still feels stung; he was the chief subject of Blum’s article, and he feels it ended up creating “the perception that we were lightweights.” Cryer notes what he saw as the article's main thrust: these young actors were riding too high and needed to be knocked down a peg. Lowe has taken it all in stride, reminding McCarthy, rightly, that the group was part of a great wave of movies geared to 18- to 20-year-olds, a marker of the era and one that changed the industry. His observations segue into a delightful story about the night, circa St. Elmo’s Fire, he and McCarthy met Liza Minnelli at Spago’s and later ended up at Sammy Davis Jr.’s house. At this point, even McCarthy has to admit: Being part of the Brat Pack was cool.

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Although Molly Ringwald, arguably the grande dame of the Brat Packers, declined to talk to McCarthy—she prefers not to look back—it’s the two other notable women of the group, Ally Sheedy and Demi Moore, who bring the healthiest perspective. Moore, speaking not from a well-appointed kitchen but from a massive, luxuriously landscaped yard, makes the point that Blum, in coining that unforgettable moniker, was just doing what any person doing creative work for hire has to do. “It was about the person who wrote it trying to be clever and get their next job,” she says. But McCarthy's meeting with Sheedy, who played the recessive Allison in The Breakfast Club, is the best of all. She has the most realistically comfy and cheerful digs of all, which appear to be somewhere in New York: its features include a squishy blue couch, a dresser whose blue paint is chipping off, and a half-dead poinsettia perched on a table. From that comfy couch, she speaks with unalloyed affection about The Breakfast Club and her association with this group of actors. “I finally belong somewhere,” is what she thought at the time, she says. “And I have friends.” If that seems like something The Breakfast Club’s Allison would say, it’s also the observation of a person who recognizes that a twist of fate that changed her life for the better.

Moore and McCarthy reminisce in BratsCourtesy of ABC News Studios

After watching Brats, the only reasonable thing to do is to go back to Blum’s original article. How damning was it, really? For one thing, it focuses almost exclusively on Estevez, Nelson, and Lowe, depicting them as somewhat clueless rising stars who aren’t taking their professions as seriously as their forebears Brando or Pacino did, but who instead like to get drunk and—stop the presses—pick up beautiful young women. It mentions none of the Brat Pack actresses at all, save a brief reference to Moore and what’s referred to as her “on-again, off-again” relationship with Estevez. And McCarthy is barely mentioned, beyond a sideswipe: Blum notes that unlike most of the other Brats, he’s based not in Los Angeles but in New York, which automatically makes him something of an outsider, and goes on to quote another Brat Packer, anonymously, as saying, “He plays all his roles with too much of the same intensity. I don’t think he’ll make it.” Ouch.

You can understand why the Brat Pack actors would have been upset by Blum’s article. It’s human nature to be sensitive about anything a journalist writes about you, and in the 1980s, before the advent of the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle, a seemingly derogative observation could stick for a long time. McCarthy is obviously still feeling the sting—maybe even the sting of his barely being mentioned in Blum’s article in the first place, though he doesn’t articulate that. And so his odyssey eventually brings him right into the lair of the dragon. He meets with Blum himself.

If Blum was once a hotshot New York writer, he’s now just a past-middle-aged guy in an office full of books, trying to make the journalism thing work in an era when no one seems to care about it. McCarthy doesn’t say as much, but he seems to sense this. Their conversation is, at first, a little prickly on McCarthy’s part and a little defensive on Blum’s. Then they settle into a kind of accord. Blum was 29 when he wrote the Brat Pack article, still practically a kid himself. Now these two are just a couple of aging guys, reckoning with obsolescence, which eventually comes for us all. As McCarthy makes his goodbyes, he marvels that Blum is actually a really nice guy. What he’s learned is that the nickname you hate—and the one that sticks—may also be the thing that keeps you alive forever in the public’s imagination. There are worse legacies.

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