DON’T YOU FORGET ABOUT HER
Why Molly Ringwald Spoke Out About John Hughes and #MeToo: ‘Things Have to Change’
The actress talks about her new film at the Tribeca Film Festival and why it’s hard, but important, to reconsider John Hughes’s legacy at this cultural moment.
Throughout her entire career, Molly Ringwald has been escaping clichés.
It’s right there in the script for The Breakfast Club: “You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal,” when, of course, the teenagers John Hughes crafted were anything but those archetypes. There’s her lightning-bolt, Time cover-minted takeover of the zeitgeist, redefining the ingénue movie star for a new generation with what critic Pauline Kael called a “charismatic normality,” encapsulating the new adolescent spirit.
It applies to the way in which she settled, once the flashbulbs stopped going off, into a journeywoman’s acting career onstage and onscreen—a husband and three children off-screen—when cautionary tales abound involving other young stars of her stature.
And it’s in the way she talks frankly about her experience in the industry and her evolved feelings about her work and the message those films sent, most recently in an essay for The New Yorker reconsidering her projects with John Hughes in the wake of the #MeToo cultural moment.
Ringwald, who in recent years has found herself connecting with a new generation playing mother to the leads on teen dramas Riverdale and The Secret Life of an American Teenager, meets me in a downtown New York hotel during the Tribeca Film Festival, where her new film, All These Small Moments, had its premiere.
Amidst a discussion about her decision to write about Hughes, we’re once again marveling at that aforementioned ability to escape clichés, which she does in All These Small Moments, playing mother to a teen boy weathering a tumultuous coming-of-age in New York City.
“I’ve played moms before,” she says. “I’m a mother. I feel very often the mothers are very archetypal. They’re loving and nurturing and they’ll say, ‘You’ll figure it out, honey,’ and pat the kid on the head and leave. This was an opportunity to play somebody who was more complex.”
In the film, her character is in the painful position of realizing her marriage might be over yet still attempting to provide a semblance of routine for her two sons during the dissolution. At one point, her character is busying herself knitting in the kitchen, an attempt to distract from her anger at her husband. Her son asks if he can help her with anything, and she erupts, “Yes, dear, you can knit me a fucking sweater.”
Ringwald does a spit-take when I recount the line to her. “To me, that’s absolutely real,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever actually said that but I might have said something comparable to one of my kids. It’s never your best moment, but we have really great moments, too.”
What’s striking about speaking with Ringwald is that, though we’re meeting in the middle of a festival press day—a gauntlet of photo calls and video hits and speed-date interviews and social media callouts—she decidedly centers herself in our conversation, resisting platitudes and retreads that are systemic of junket press days and eager to engage more analytically with her work.
Because we’re meeting so soon after the publishing of her New Yorker essay, much of our half-hour together is spent discussing points she brings up in her piece—not to mention the trepidation that gave way to catharsis when she decided to write it in the first place.
It’s Ringwald’s second essay for The New Yorker. The first published soon after the Harvey Weinstein allegations came out, recounting her experience with sexual misconduct in the industry. That one came together pretty quickly, Ringwald says. Her John Hughes piece, however, involved reporting, layers of consideration and reflection, and multiple drafts.
She revisits The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Pretty in Pink—the movies that defined her career—through a critical eye sharpened by the conversations going around us today. She recoils at the scenes in which John looks under Claire’s skirt in The Breakfast Club, or when sex with Jake’s drunk girlfriend is bartered in exchange for Samantha’s underwear in Sixteen Candles. She chronicles the hardly veiled racism and homophobia of Hughes’ films, researches into Hughes’ problematic pre-Breakfast Club works, and wonders how she could justify any of this for her teenage daughter.
It’s a remarkable piece of film criticism, hardly the only to reconsider Hughes’ career but the first to be written by his star-making muse. She grapples with the grayness of complex ideas that are too often thought of in the binary; knocks the notion that, because of the hallowed influence of his films, Hughes’ catalogue is sacrosanct; and gives respect and space to her own experiences and relationship to him.
“Those films are incredibly meaningful to me,” she says. “They are so much a part of my personal history and they’re also a part of other people’s history. I wanted to tread carefully about that. I was also coming out at it from it’s not black and white. There are layers to it. It took a long time to write.”
There’s a particular passage of the essay that resonates most.
“How are we meant to feel about art that we both love and oppose?” she writes. “What if we are in the unusual position of having helped create it…John’s movies convey the anger and fear of isolation that adolescents feel, and seeing that others might feel the same way is a balm for the trauma that teen-agers experience. Whether that’s enough to make up for the impropriety of the films is hard to say—even criticizing them makes me feel like I’m divesting a generation of some of its fondest memories, or being ungrateful since they helped to establish my career. And yet embracing them entirely feels hypocritical. And yet, and yet…”
Ringwald tells us it was nerve-wracking to articulate that, but she’s found it gratifying that, rather than be accused of cinematic blasphemy or somehow being ungrateful for the work that launched her career, people actually heard her.
“You always hope that when you write something that it will be understood the way you intended it, and I feel like for the most part it has been,” she says. “All of those movies that I did, I act in them—I didn’t write them. So it’s like I have a certain feeling of ownership, but not entirely. When you write something, for me it’s the closest I can feel to, ‘I did this. This is me. This is how I feel and no one changed it.’ So it’s this feeling of ownership.”
Our conversation turns to the greater #MeToo movement that inspired her to write the piece. “The world feels like it’s shifting a little bit,” she says.
She recognizes how often what seem like hot cultural conversations tend to eventually dissipate as the steam wafts off them, especially in this news cycle, but says, “This has never happened, though. It just feels different…We’re not through. I feel like it’s going to be a little bit messy for a while. People are still figuring out the rules. But also new generations are coming in too, with different political views and different points of view. Things are changing. Things have to change.”
Before we say goodbye, we talk briefly about the next crop of movies being compared to John Hughes films: Every few years, and any time there’s a trend of coming-of-age stories hitting theaters featuring a new generation of actors, the comparisons are made. Ringwald says she’s actually adapting the book When We Were Animals to hopefully direct. “It’s a part I would have liked to play then,” she says. “I wouldn’t necessarily call it John Hughes. It’s a little darker.”
She’s excited for the Chloe Grace Moretz-starring The Miseducation of Cameron Post, a coming-of-age-dramedy set at a gay conversion therapy camp, and was politely enthusiastic while we gushed about Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, both of which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. She’s seen Love, Simon, and explodes in a smile when I bring it up.
“I know they were kind of setting out to make a gay John Hughes film, which I think that alone to me is just great,” she says. “There are no gay characters in his movies, like I talk about in the article that I wrote. Well, let’s it put it this way: there are no openly gay characters. I feel like there’s quite a few closeted gay characters in those movies.” Then, laughing, “But there’s no gay themes. I feel like it’s really time for that, and I want to see that.”
I get the sense that it’s a question she’s been asked before. “I don’t want anybody to set out and try to make a carbon copy of a John Hughes movie, because you can’t. And there’s no reason to. Because that was a particular time and place,” she says, laying out a sort of industry mission statement. “I’m interested to see projects that really capture what it’s really like to be a teenager, where it’s not too slick and doesn’t seem like it was written by adults. I think that’s what John Hughes did so well.”