Lumped in with the Brat Pack of the 1980s, this is McCarthy’s story of the era
Most people know Andrew McCarthy from his movie roles in Pretty in Pink, St. Elmo’s Fire, Weekend at Bernie’s, and Less than Zero, and as a charter member of Hollywood’s Brat Pack. That iconic group of ingenues and heartthrobs included Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, and Demi Moore, and has come to represent both a genre of film and an era of pop culture.
In his memoir Brat: An ’80s Story, McCarthy focuses his gaze on that singular moment in time. The result is a revealing look at coming of age in a maelstrom, reckoning with conflicted ambition, innocence, addiction, and masculinity. New York City of the 1980s is brought to vivid life in these pages, from scoring loose joints in Washington Square Park to skipping school in favor of the dark revival houses of the Village where he fell in love with the movies that would change his life.
Filled with personal revelations of innocence lost to heady days in Hollywood with John Hughes and an iconic cast of characters, Brat is a surprising and intimate story of an outsider caught up in a most unwitting success.
I spotted this book in one of the publisher’s catalogues a little while ago, but I couldn’t place the author. The cover photo didn’t call to mind any movies that I’ve seen — although, after reading Brat, that kind of made sense: I have seen surprisingly few of the movies from the Brat Pack era, despite being quite familiar with the actors’ post-1980s work. After checking IMDb, I learned that I’ve only seen McCarthy in two roles (in The Joy Luck Club and two episodes of White Collar). I have, however, seen a lot of the stuff he’s directed. When the book became available for review, I was in-between books, and decided to dive right in. It’s a short memoir, but one that does offer some interesting tidbits for anyone interested in this particular segment of movie history.
In Brat, McCarthy offers a brief account of his early life, what led to his decision to become an actor, his short tenure at acting college, and early movies. He writes about his rather unguided move to New York to attend theatre school: he loved performing and theatre, but retained a considerable lack of confidence and self-doubt. He writes warmly of the teachers/instructors who unknowingly gave him the confidence to stick with it, despite certain obstacles and frequent disappointments. He gives a brief glimpse into life in New York City at the time, his bohemian lifestyle there, and some of the characters he met along his journey.
Throughout the memoir, McCarthy also writes about his relationship with his family (especially his difficult relationship with his father), and also how others reacted to his newfound and growing celebrity. He keeps his book focused on his own experiences, however, and doesn’t try to come up with a grand theory of celebrity or how best to cope with it.
McCarthy’s ascent to the height of 1980s stardom was by no means engineered — he didn’t have the same focus, strategy or drive as Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, or others from that era (or many of today’s stars). He writes about his early, fumbling attempts to get cast in movies, his lack of focus on his “career”, eager mainly to just have the next job. I really like reading about Hollywood in the 1980s-1990s, how often the stories are about happy accidents, unusual paths to success, and so forth. Often, when reading more-recent success stories, it all feels far more corporate and industrialized.
McCarthy includes a few stories from his early Hollywood experiences, including his “brief tenure in Beverly Hills as roommate to an international sex symbol movie icon [Jacqueline Bisset] and her Russian defector ballet star boyfriend settled into surreal Hollywood normality.” McCarthy and Bisset co-starred in Class, and it’s an endearing story of generosity on Bisset’s part.
The Brat Pack
It is inevitable that anything McCarthy writes about the Brat Pack will be of interest. The tag attached to the group of young, up-and-coming stars of the 1980s, McCarthy found himself lumped in with them on account of starring in many of the same movies and other successful films of the era.
This book is an examination of a time that had been willfully ignored by me for so long—albeit a generation of moviegoers would not always make that easy to do. Sometimes things happen, we live with their result, and then occasionally, a long time distant, we try to make sense of them. The following pages are my attempt to do just that.
While writing about St. Elmo’s Fire, perhaps the ultimate Brat Pack movie, given its cast, McCarthy addresses his inclusion in the group. Or, rather, his confusion about his inclusion given that he felt very much like an outsider, or that at times the other pack members “disparaged” and excluded him. He writes about his good working relationships with Demi Moore, Ally Sheedy, and Molly Ringwald (who he starred with in Pretty in Pink), but it’s with the other male members of the pack that things weren’t as smooth as the media picture might have suggested.
There were times he felt excluded by Estevez, Lowe, and Nelson — including for the magazine feature which ultimately led to the coining of the “Brat Pack” phrase. However, McCarthy isn’t offering gossipy criticism of his fellow brats — it’s clear that the exclusion hurt his feelings, but he also paints a clear picture of someone who didn’t have nearly the confidence and sense of purpose as his contemporaries, and this anxiety would have inevitably led him to withdraw and hold something back. In fact, he writes quite generously of them and their talents. He seems to have had a fine relationship with Rob Lowe, who was also in McCarthy’s debut movie, Class — “I was always affectionately bemused by Rob’s self-awareness and career savvy instincts.” In Judd Nelson, he sensed “an edgy ambition” and therefore “circled him warily”. McCarthy’s relationships with Estevez was a little more complicated:
I was friendly enough with Emilio but we never connected in any real way. I always felt his judgment, as if he belonged to a club I could never join. A few years later we were both asked to do a film about the young men who organized the Woodstock music festival. I was excited by the idea, but Emilio wasn’t interested if I was involved. I took it quite personally, but, in fairness to him, this was after the “Brat Pack” moniker had been leveled and Emilio was taking great pains to distance himself from any association with those likewise stigmatized. It hurt my feelings nonetheless, and I don’t think the movie ever got made.
It’s inevitable, as he accepts, that his career will be examined in relation to the other Brats. His memoir, too, will likely be considered in relation to those written by his contemporaries. I’ve read Rob Lowe’s two memoirs, Emilio Estevez’s (a joint-memoir with his father, Martin Sheen), and also Jon Cryer’s. These four books were all excellent. They are also more substantial and digressive, their authors interested in recounting their experiences at greater length.
Had the Brat Pack existed as a tight-knit community, perhaps we might have found a way to band together and withstand the stinging comments from a disparaging media—maybe even been able to laugh it off. Instead, a cluster of young and scared actors trying to make a name for themselves got some mud slung at them and ran for the hills.
McCarthy, by comparison, seems keen to keep moving on, offering much briefer accounts of his time on the sets of his movies. This desire to move on, to distance himself from the group, also led him to work more with European directors. I was interested to learn that this ultimately put him in Berlin when the Wall came down. While walking about on that day, he was pulled aside by someone who recognized him from one of his movies.
After reading Brat, one gets a sense of McCarthy’s shyness back then, which is reflected throughout his memoir. This brevity doesn’t make the memoir thin — the author still manages to provide some interesting insight into his career and life. McCarthy doesn’t wallow in his mistakes, nor does he really crow about his achievements (there’s a sense that he’s a bit surprised by his early successes). He writes about his early and quick descent into alcoholism, and how it affected his work. Here is a short bit about his work on Mannequin:
Smiling drug dealers regularly popped by the set like FedEx deliverymen… while I had tried it before, for the first time I attempted to act while on cocaine. If tension is the enemy of good acting, what part of doing cocaine—which does nothing but create tension—could be considered a good idea?
Overall, then, Brat is a well-written briskly-paced, and engaging read. A must for fans of 1980s Hollywood. I’d also recommend it if you enjoyed other memoirs by Brat Packers.