1985 was a fine year for Hollywood. Icons fell under the stampede for sequels while future classics were created. It’s time to look back.
In the coming weeks and months the HeyUGuys team will focus on some of best from ’85, exploring their legacy and capturing something of their enduring essence.
We’ve already watched a boxer win the Cold War, shone a light on an oft-forgotten Disney outing, hung out in a pool with Steve Guttenberg, endured bad Bond, enjoyed a Cruise Curry, drew First Blood for second time, today we join The Brat Pack on the cusp of adulthood…
If there was ever a film to personify the eighties, St Elmo’s Fire is up there with the era-defining Wall St as a glowing example. The likes of Pretty in Pink, The Outsiders and The Breakfast Club (chock-full of Hollywood’s bright young things of the time) may have been released earlier, but this was the definitive brat pack movie – a term which was actually coined the year of this film’s release.
With many of the key members of that short-lived film clique on board – Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson and Andrew McCarthy – this was costume designer-turned-filmmaker Joel Schumacher’s third feature, essentially launched him on the path to A-list acceptance. The director may have had an erratic career for the most part (reaching its nadir with the lamentable Batman and Robin a decade or so later) but Schumacher’s vision and sensibilities seem keenly attuned to time period he’s working within here.
St. Elmo’s Fire certainly struck a chord with audiences at the time. Ranked 23rd in the biggest box office films of that year (and in an era when cinema-going was still very much a robust pastime), like many of its cinematic counterparts of that decade, it also spun off a hugely popular theme song in the form of English musician John Parr’s anthemic St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion). That it was actually crafted as a touching tribute for Canadian wheelchair athlete Rick Hansen was beside the point. The song is grandiose, faintly ridiculously and unabashedly corny – much like the film itself.
Unsurprisingly, critics at the time were less than enthused by Schumacher’s efforts. Variety labelled the characters ‘obnoxious’ and Lowe went on to pick up the Razzie for Worst Supporting Actor (rather unfairly, it must be said) for his turn as the responsibility-dodging, skirt-chasing sax player Billy Hicks – a role that Robert Downey Jr. was allegedly considered for at one point.
Containing many ingredients which were equally embraced and reviled in that era, St Elmo’s Fire was released in the height of Reaganomics and as the MTV age was in full swing. It also captured the capitalist ambitions and lofty career aspirations of the latter part of the baby boomer generation. The film is riddled with many character archetypes of that decade and it’s true that the main figures are a little unappetising on the surface.
Recent college grads struggling to make their way in the world, they’re a self-absorbed, largely shallow bunch, equating financial prosperity as the ultimate sign of success and, most importantly, a crucial sex magnet. Nelson’s cocky, philandering social climber Alex is an aspiring politician who is only too happy to switch allegiance for a bump up the career path, quitting his job as a Democratic House member to work for a Republican Senator. Estevez’s listless graduate Kirby has the serious hots for a doctor he’s convinced is way above his social standing (Annie MacDowell), yet he believes that procuring a high-profile job will be enough to make her fall for him.
But the materialistic and lavish lifestyle pursuits of that decade are perhaps best illustrated in Demi Moore’s decadent cokehead Jules (a character which apparently wasn’t much of a stretch for the actress at the time). She’s sleeping with her married boss, owns a flashy 4×4, and somehow manages to afford and maintain her oh-so-fabulous bubblegum pink apartment (complete with a huge Billy Idol centrepiece mural). This monstrosity was created by her male interior designer neighbour (a broad stereotype even for that time, and even more puzzling that he was cooked up by the openly gay Schumacher) whom Jules is desperate to hook up with Kevin, the shy and retiring wannabe writer of the group (McCarthy). She’s under the mistaken assumption that he’s interested in the same sex, but unbeknown to all the friends, Kevin is actually deeply in love with Alex’s cuckolded girlfriend Leslie (Sheedy).
If this all sounds very contrived and soap opera-y, that’s because it unashamedly is. As soon as David Foster’s stately, syrupy score (replete with Kenny G-esque sax noodlings) opens the film, it’s immediately clear this is a glossy and unmistakably Hollywood rite of passage tale, packed with pretty faces whose life predicaments and romantic entanglements could only happen in the movies. Jules’ breakdown in her flat towards the end of the film is particularly telling of this. The film’s art director has shimmied in there and composed as artfully looking shot as possible, complete with large lilac curtains twisting together and billowing in the wind.
But for all its aesthetic pretentions and artifice, it’s still an immensely enjoyable film, even more so in hindsight, where it’s morphed into a fun sociological study of the decade in question.
Like Moore’s character, it turns out that many of the group’s hubris masks a much more vulnerable side. Even Alex, the unofficial leader of the pack, is brought down a peg or two and receives his rightful comeuppance, causing him to utter one of the greatest lines of the eighties when an embittered Leslie moves out of their love nest with her belongings in tow (“No Springsteen is leaving this house!”).
The film’s overarching theme of friendship, both strengthened and strained, has seen St Elmos’s Fire chime with audiences throughout the many years since its release. It’s easy to get sweep up in the pomposity of it all. A key moment which see’s the group attend a Halloween bash at their favourite college hangout, St. Elmo’s Bar (their version of Central Perk, if you will) features Lowe’s sax player in the headlining slot and is a wonderful realisation of 80s kitsch in all its garish glory.
Like the actor’s neon yellow bat-decorated vest and stringy headband combo in that scene, it’s a film which is incredibly hard to resist.
Read on about other classmates from 1985…
Most Likely to coin the phrase ‘One-Man-Army’:
Most Likely to make an inappropriate joke while arching an eyebrow: