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In 'Brats,' '80s stars grapple with a label that defined their early careers

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In 'Brats,' '80s stars grapple with a label that defined their early careers

St. Elmo’s Fire cast members Rob Lowe, Ally Sheedy, Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez, Mare Winningham, Judd Nelson and Andrew McCarthy.

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How you feel about Andrew McCarthy’s searching, earnest, frequently self-important and occasionally clueless documentary about Hollywood’s so-called “brat pack” of actors — titled, somewhat self-consciously, Brats – may depend on what you think about the whole phenomenon in the first place.

Brats does a great job reminding us why we should care about the subject at all. It notes that the success of teen-focused films in the 1980s — specifically John Hughes films like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink, along with Joel Schumacher’s St. Elmo’s Fire – represented a turning point where the film industry began to feature coming-of-age movies, often with the same group of young actors.

McCarthy, who was in both Pretty in Pink and St. Elmo’s Fire, joined a group of burgeoning talents who would become major stars, including Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Demi Moore, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald and Rob Lowe. The films they starred in — often featuring high school-age kids in various circumstances struggling to find love or acceptance — channeled the struggles of youth across the globe, turning them into Beatles–level stars in the process.

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“Hollywood discovered the box office potential of a young audience,” McCarthy says in somber narration over clips from films as disparate as Risky Business, Dirty Dancing, Back to the Future, Footloose and Weird Science. “It seemed that every weekend, there was another movie and another movie and another movie about and starring young people. In the history of Hollywood, it had never been like this.”

Ally Sheedy, Demi Moore, Jon Cryer, Andrew McCarthy, and David Blum at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Ally Sheedy, Demi Moore, Jon Cryer, Andrew McCarthy, and David Blum at the Tribeca Film Festival.

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Defining the Brat Pack

But then journalist David Blum wrote a story in 1985 for New York magazine titled “Hollywood’s Brat Pack,” centered on time spent partying with Estevez, Lowe and Nelson, that cast shade on the group — lumping them together as unprofessional and over-privileged, while sticking them with a moniker which would follow them all around for decades. (One line described them as “a roving band of famous young stars on the prowl for parties, women, and a good time,” shortly before noting none of them had graduated from college.)

McCarthy, who admits he aspired to be a particularly serious actor back then, really bristled at the term, refusing to talk about it publicly very much. In another delicious irony the film fails to explore, Blum’s original article refers to McCarthy in a way that implies the author may not have even seen him as a bona fide member of the Brat Pack back then — despite the actor’s insistence that the term affected how he was perceived in Hollywood.

Which why it is surprising to see footage of him at the start of Brats, calling up actors he was never very close to but has been professionally linked with for nearly 40 years — suggesting they get together in front of cameras for a documentary he is directing and will star in — to actually talk about this Brat Pack thing.

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Estevez, who the article called “the unofficial president of the Brat Pack,” seems wary even in talking for the documentary, while eager to get some things off his chest. Relatively quickly, he apologizes for refusing to star in a movie with McCarthy shortly after the article was published, for fear of feeding the narrative.

“It was naïve of me to think this journalist would be my friend,” Estevez admits, while noting he had never participated in a major magazine profile before Blum’s story. “I had already seen a different path for myself. And I felt derailed.”

Jon Cryer, Molly Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy on the set of Pretty In Pink in 1986. Molly Ringwald was not involved in the Brats documentary.

Jon Cryer, Molly Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy on the set of Pretty In Pink in 1986. Molly Ringwald was not involved in the Brats documentary.

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A movie with two messages

Scenes like this allow Brats to work on a few different levels at once. Through McCarthy’s own words and his catch ups with other Brat Packers like Estevez, Sheedy, Moore and Lowe, we get a sense of the people at the heart of a massive pop culture phenomenon.

This is a burgeoning genre in the documentary world: films and docuseries looking back at gigantic pop culture moments from decades ago, to reveal the unexplored cost for those at the center of things (think recent documentaries on Britney Spears and child stars on Nickelodeon). And there is value in hearing these performers, held up as legends for so long, grappling with the very understandable feeling they were stereotyped just as their careers were taking off.

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“Why did we take [the term Brat Pack] as an offense?” Moore tells McCarthy earnestly in one moment. “I felt a sense of it being unjust. I just felt like it didn’t represent us…But I don’t know if I took it as personal over time as you did.”

Sheedy, Pretty in Pink co-star Jon Cryer and others talk about seeing the enthusiasm around these emerging stars suddenly curdle into insulting assumptions that dismissed their talents. And one of the elements which fueled their success — appearing together as a pack of friends in films — suddenly disappeared, as they all fled the stigma of the term.

But the other, perhaps unintentional effect of watching Brats, is revelation of how the sometimes clueless privilege these so-called Brat Packers enjoyed back then has stuck around, barely examined, decades later.


‘BRATS’ | Official Trailer | June 13 on Hulu
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Balancing regret with gratitude

Making an impact in Hollywood is difficult. Starring in big movies, even more so. But starring in massive movies that are considered the voice of a generation? That is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

But, instead of feeling gratitude for landing in the right place at the absolutely best time to land parts in films like Class, Less Than Zero, Weekend at Bernie’s and other hits, McCarthy seems to have spent way too much time fretting over whether the Brat Pack label kept him from larger stardom or more serious work. And it doesn’t seem a coincidence that the most successful Brat Packers McCarthy could get on camera — Moore and Lowe — long ago made their peace with a term that has evolved into a more endearing label, softened by nostalgia and filled with respect.

McCarthy asks a lot of good questions, including one that should be simple but really isn’t: Who is in the Brat Pack? Is it just the people Blum cites in his story — including Tom Cruise and Matt Dillon — or should it also include performers who worked with them around the same time, like Jon Cryer? (In Brats, Cryer tells the camera emphatically, “I am not in the Brat Pack.” It’s tough to tell if he’s joking.)

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This film also breezes past something that was always a big sticking point for me when it came to Brat Pack movies — the decided lack of racial and ethnic diversity.

McCarthy talks to several fans, critics and experts about the Brat Pack phenomenon. But there is just one Black person who speaks briefly and very soothingly about these films’ lack of diversity, before author Malcolm Gladwell — who is biracial — pops up to assure the director that it made perfect sense for Hughes to center so many of his hit movies on angsty white kids in suburban Chicago.

For fans of color like me, there was always a double edge to the success of Brat Pack-style films. Many themes were universal, but there was a nose-pressed-to-glass element of watching celebrated characters in an environment light years removed from my own experience.

Characters of color, when they did surface, could be the butt of jokes. It would take the rise of Black directors like Spike Lee, Matty Rich and John Singleton to bring the Brat Pack’s youth revolution to Black-centered stories in much smaller films.

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Bottom line: actors considered part of the Brat Park were packaged together in big budget films by producers and directors looking to tell certain stories and reach certain audiences. As several people tell McCarthy in the film, even after the article was published, lots of people thought the Brat Pack were still the cool kids in Hollywood – and wanted to be part of that club.

Many other talented performers got left out of that process. And complaining about what you didn’t get — when you did receive massive fame, wealth and career opportunities at an early age — feels a little uncharitable, especially so many years later.

Quizzing the guy who started it all

But then McCarthy actually sits down with the author of the New York piece, David Blum. And your sympathy for the actor and all the other Brat Packers rises again.

That’s because Blum mostly refuses to admit that his article was intentionally negative or sought to take down stars like Estevez and Lowe. He takes pride in creating the phrase, noting that he perhaps should have gotten credit for building the wave of publicity which helped make movies like St. Elmo’s Fire a hit.

But Blum takes little responsibility for how the piece’s negative tone might have impacted his sources — or the implications of writing, without any real warning, a story that seemed quite different from the original feature he had told Estevez he was assembling.

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It’s obvious that the actors featured in Blum’s original piece have mostly done well for themselves, crafting careers that outpaced the label he gave them. But even as he’s ending the interview, McCarthy can’t help pushing for an apology — asking the writer, almost plaintively, “Do you think you could have been nicer?”

Nearly 40 years later, it still seems tough for McCarthy to admit that accepting the label and living well — both because of and in spite of it — is likely the best possible response. (He seems to handle it all much better in a recent guest essay for The New York Times.)

It’s also obvious that watching him inexorably led to that conclusion while making this film — a journey brimming with nostalgia, pop culture potency and a bittersweet look back at youthful times — makes for one seriously compelling documentary.

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8 hot new love stories from a stellar lineup of Black authors

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8 hot new love stories from a stellar lineup of Black authors

When the Essence Festival of Culture celebrated its 30th anniversary in New Orleans earlier this month, organizers showcased a stellar lineup of Black romance authors — from trailblazing pioneers like Beverly Jenkins and Brenda Jackson to newer stars Kennedy Ryan, Natasha Bishop and Danielle Allen. In spite of barriers, optimistic, swoony love stories by African American authors are an increasingly sought-after commodity, as we’ve been tracking, finding audiences outside of traditional pathways.

This summer’s most exciting new releases take us from the streets of 1816 London to the NASA Space Center in Houston to Athens. The challenge is whittling your reading options down to a manageable number of contenders. Relying on bestseller lists, algorithms and TikTok means you might be missing some of the best the genre has to offer. Fortunately, we love the process of discovery. We’ve compiled a list of some hot new romance novels by Black authors, starting with a timely debut that finds readers at the Olympics.

Let the Games Begin

With the Paris games fast approaching in July, this Olympics set comedy is the perfect prelude. Rufaro Faith Mazarura is a British Zimbabwean writer making her debut with a story about two 20-somethings in Athens. Olivia and Zeke are British citizens and the high achieving offspring of Zimbabwean immigrants. She’s a focused college grad with a dream internship with the Olympics that she hopes to parlay into a permanent position. He’s Team Britain’s popular track star shooting for gold after previously earning silver. While they run headfirst into their attraction, neither one can afford the distraction. Vibe: Sweet and inspiring.

A Love Like the Sun

Beautifully blending beloved tropes and smooth, often lyrical prose, A Love Like The Sun by Riss M. Neilson, centers childhood friends fake dating their way toward a deeper connection. The magic of this convention is in the permission it conveys to go with attraction under the guise of doing it for show. “Always braver together,” Laniah and Issac have been ride-or-die besties since they were little. Now in their 20s, Laniah is struggling and Issac is GenZ’s perfect internet boyfriend: a mixed media artist/model /brand ambassador/influencer with an enviable online following and clout to spare. Part of his appeal is that “people love watching a beautiful shirtless man use his hands to make sculptures while listening to music.” The other ingredient is uniquely Issac: a sweet and handsome guy who “believes firmly in soulmates” and is in touch with the feminine perspective. Facing the loss of her business she runs with her mother, Laniah agrees to give her natural hair care business a boost through their “fake romantic association. Along the way, the two lovers navigate challenges related to mental health, racial identity, grief, and a chronic illness. Heightening the tension, despite being bffs with an electric attraction, Laniah and Isaac are kind of opposites. She’s a hermit uncomfortable with public attention; he lives his life on the internet and his fans think they own him. I had a hard time letting go of these two! Vibe: Unabashedly swoony, angsty and pining.

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A Gamble at Sunset

Blending history and fairy-tale like romance, Vanessa Riley’s latest centers a wealthy Black family teetering on the edge of ruin entangled with England’s most unusual duke. When the 19th-century Black daughters of a self-made “King of Coal” fake an engagement to avoid ruination, their champion is a duke connected to Russia’s Peter the Great. As grand as that sounds, like most of Riley’s work, the first novel in her “Betting Against the Duke” series is sweepingly romantic and grounded in the hidden Black figures of Europe’s past – real people, who, as Riley explains, defy expectations and are often forgotten. Marriage to a titled aristocrat was supposed to be the Wilcox sisters’ golden ticket to respectable London society. Instead, eldest sister Katherine’s noble husband, an inveterate gambler, lay waste to their fortune. On his deathbed, Viscount Hampton tries to turn his vice into virtue, challenging his long lost friend the Duke of Torrance to one last wager: “Jahleel. Bet . . . five pounds you can’t love ’em like I.” The plea draws the part Russian, part British, part African duke (a fictional descendant of the real Gen. Abram Gannibal) and his friend Lord Mark Sebastian close to the family. While the widowed Katherine spars with the duke, Sebastian is fascinated with middle sister Georgina. Mark and Georgina’s risky behavior leads to a fake engagement to save Georgina’s reputation, but there’s nothing false about their attraction. This is striking return to historical romance after Riley’s stint consulting for The Hallmark Channel’s multiracial adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and three critically praised novels including Island Queen. Vibe: Brontes meet Bridgerton: light on steam and high on thought-provoking twists and juicy drama.

The Kiss Countdown

In this sweet and steamy romance by first-time author Etta Easton, the sparks are undeniable as a nerdy, sexy astronaut enters into a mutually beneficial arrangement with an event planner in need of a fresh start. When Houstonite Amerie Price loses her boyfriend and her job in a dismally short space of time and runs into that ex at a cafe with his shiny new girlfriend, she’s so desperate to save face that she pretends to be dating the nearest handsome stranger. The cooperative bystander turns out to be a real life hero, who needs his own kind of rescue. Their town is home to the billion-dollar Johnson Center, NASA‘s Mission Control headquarters, and every guy in Houston seems to claim he’s an association. But Ahmad is really an astronaut. They strike up a friendship and a bargain– she’ll pretend to be his girlfriend to thwart his matchmaking mama while he preps for a major mission, and he’ll provide a rent-free refuge where she can get her event planning business off the ground. That win-win situation gets complicated when red hot attraction and feelings get involved. Vibe: Sweet and sexy — fake dating and close proximity are a stellar recipe for love.

A Little Kissing Between Friends

Chencia Higgins (The Vow and Wolves of West Texas) is a dynamic young writer who has amassed a following and a healthy backlist as an indie author of contemporary and paranormal romance. Her lauded traditionally published debut D’Vaughn and Kris Plan a Wedding featured two women faking an engagement and falling in love on a reality TV show. In A Little Kissing Between Friends, longtime friends are reluctant to risk their connection on a chance at love. Cyn is a successful Houston-based music producer with a big supportive family. Single mom “Jucee” Juleesa is the best friend Cyn has been crushing on. Having seen each other through health crises and breakups, there’s a lot on the line. That said, this is a quintessentially summery read — more heart and positive vibes than conflict. Vibe: Sweet and steamy. Undistilled Black joy.

Looking for Love in All the Haunted Places

At Hennessy House guests are greeted with five rules. One is a warning: “Do not explore the house for any reason.” To secure her dream job on the set of a haunted house reality show, Lucky Hart has to survive in the eerie dwelling, adhere to those five simple prohibitions, and avoid catching feelings for the show’s empathetic star Maverick Phillips. That’s easier said than done when “meeting him felt like the thrill of a lifetime.” Lucky is gifted; she has a kind of extra sensory perception that enables her to read people, and her reaction to him is shocking: “Hearing him say her name like that threatened to send her gasping into the afterlife. So strange. So bizarre. So dangerously against her nature that she felt a little lightheaded…” Claire Kann’s first adult contemporary romance, The Romantic Agenda, was equal parts poignant and frothy and frequently named as one of the best romances of 2022. A tender and specific writer with broad appeal, Kann explored the challenge of finding love when you’re deeply romantic and also asexual. Her new novel recreates that winning formula while adding a haunted house setting and magic to the mix. Vibe: Swoony and spooky.

Curvy Girl Summer

Indie publishing’s Black romance queen Danielle Allen is among the best and most beloved to wield a pen or laptop. Hotter than the sands of Negril, her first traditionally published novel delivers big — big spice, big hair, big hips, big laughs and BIG heart. More Michelle Buteau than Bridget Jones, Curvy Girl Summer is fat-positive and complicated. When IT professional Aaliyah makes it her mission to find a long term romantic partner and squash her family’s constant carping on her single status before her 30th birthday, her parade of dates are more comic relief than romantic connection. Great for a laugh; not so much for the heart. More and more, what she looks forward to is what happens after the dates are done: spending time with her favorite bartender and friend Ahmad. Vibe: Unabashedly sexy and grown. The literary Survival of The Thickest.

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One and Done

Determined to be America’s first openly gay Black university president, the last thing Dr. Taylor James needed was a handsome, sharp-dressed diversion from his goals. A one time only, no-strings attached tryst is what the doctor wants, and the guy hitting on him at his usual brunch spot is giving all the wrong signals. Dustin McMillan is handsome, professional and complicated. He has a tortured relationship with the Oakland family he worked so hard to escape. But hiding that past cost him a chance with this man who seems tailor made for him. With this romance set in academia, author Frederick Smith is writing what he knows. By day he’s a senior university administrator and it shows in the convincing characterization of the workplace and consistently crisp writing. This Bay Area romance is addictive reading. Vibe: Deliciously messy. A wry grown-up take on academia by way of The Office: It’s Looking meets The Chair.

Carole V. Bell is a cultural critic, researcher of media, politics and identity, and co-host of Season Four of the Black Romance Podcast.

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L.A. Affairs: I was on a date with my husband when I spotted a guy who was just my type

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L.A. Affairs: I was on a date with my husband when I spotted a guy who was just my type

The light was low at the Echo as Elliot Moss started playing his new single. The distortion kicked in, and my jaw dropped. It was a departure for someone I typically describe as an electronic music singer-songwriter. I was there on a date with my husband. We loved the new sound.

I was holding my husband’s hand when I looked to my right and saw a guy who caught my attention.

He was so focused on the stage that he never noticed me. He was at the show by himself, and I desperately wanted to start a conversation. I’m polyamorous; my husband and I date and have relationships with others, so a conversation wouldn’t have been out of the question. Despite several attempts, I couldn’t even catch his eye. After a few more songs, I realized that I had to take a risk and give him my number. The regret of wondering what if would have been too strong.

As a courtesy, I asked my husband if I could slip someone my number. He looked around and instantly identified the recipient. After six years of polyamory, he knew my types. This recipient was my tall, nerdy, earnest type. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

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The bar sold popcorn, so I asked for a bag and fetched a pen out of my purse. On a torn piece of paper I wrote, “You have great taste in music. I’m not single, but I’m available,” and I left my number. Despite trying to catch his eye all night, I was suddenly nervous, my heart pounding out of my chest. I’d only ever given one person my number, and it led to a rather mediocre date.

As I approached him, I suddenly wanted to hide. Earlier I had tried to catch his eye, but now I couldn’t stand to feel the weight of his gaze. I tapped his shoulder, gave him the folded note and immediately ran to the restroom. At 42, I felt like a nervous teenager. There was just one song left. I didn’t see him as I walked out.

An hour later, he texted. “Thanks for your kind note. That was quick, I couldn’t really catch a vibe.” We started to chat. I shared my dating profile, but he wasn’t on the apps. He was curious but just getting out of a relationship. Not single, not available.

Soon, his status changed: single, but still not available, working through a breakup. We kept in touch. I wasn’t in a rush. All the texting only added to the feeling of being a teenager, the anticipation building.

As we started talking about a first date, I admitted to already planning multiple dates with him in my head. The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City was the perfect place for me to gauge just how weird someone was. Or maybe one of my favorite L.A. dates: the Broad followed by Angels Flight to dinner at Grand Central Market. I also had a surprise date option: something he would have to trust me on — no hints. He chose the surprise date. I beamed at my phone; he was also adventurous.

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I told him to buy a bottle of Pinot Grigio that we might not drink. “I need to ask a Virgo question: Will you have glasses for us?”

“It doesn’t matter if I have glasses.”

“If we drink it, it does matter!”

I asked him to trust me.

I picked him up at 5:30 p.m. Having talked about our shared feminist identities before the date, I opened the car door for him. He blushed, realizing how nice it felt. He had brought two bottles, so we could choose. I did not bring glasses.

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I pointed my Prius toward Echo Park. When I started driving into the neighborhood, his curiosity piqued; he’d never been up the hill before.

We parked and found “Phantasma Gloria” by Randlett King Lawrence, an artist who uses the sun and vessels filled with water as his medium, turning his entire yard into an object lesson of how our perception of reality is subject to change with a simple shift of perspective. Randy warmly welcomed us, generously offering to share the bottle of Pinot Grigio with us using his own glasses.

Following dinner at Bacetti, we planned two more dates for that week. I also invited him to a polyamorous meetup I was hosting in downtown L.A. He accepted. My heart fluttered; he already wanted to be a part of my life. He already wanted to meet my people. He felt as strongly about me as I felt about him.

The second date felt as easy as the first.

When I wrote to confirm our third date, he canceled.

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When I wrote to confirm the meetup, he declined.

It stung. It felt like it was over even more quickly than it began. Polyamory is not a relationship orientation or style that is best for everyone. He was curious, but maybe it wasn’t right for him. Or maybe I wasn’t right for him.

The night of our canceled date, the Annenberg Community Beach House was having an ambient electronic concert. Underwater speakers were placed in the heated pool. I paid $10, slipped into the water, closed my eyes and floated on my back listening to Colloboh play. As the sun dipped farther down the horizon, I walked upstairs and meditated to a sound bath.

In that moment, enveloped in sound, I tried to let go of my attachment to the relationship that was not meant to be — to let those other imagined dates sit unscheduled. As the crystal bowls sang over the waves of the Pacific, I realized that perhaps the most important dates to plan were the ones that I planned for myself.

The author works in higher education and lives with her family in Pasadena. She hasn’t given up on finding love again and again and again. She’s on Instagram: @valinda.weeee

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L.A. Affairs chronicles the search for romantic love in all its glorious expressions in the L.A. area, and we want to hear your true story. We pay $400 for a published essay. Email LAAffairs@latimes.com. You can find submission guidelines here. You can find past columns here.

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'Twisters' has us spiraling : Pop Culture Happy Hour

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'Twisters' has us spiraling : Pop Culture Happy Hour
Twister was one of the biggest disaster movies of the ’90s. Now, it’s finally got a sequel — one with an all-new cast, state-of-the-art effects, and a whole lot of tornadoes. The new film stars Glen Powell and Daisy Edgar-Jones as rival storm-chasers who have a habit of running into tornadoes while everyone else is fleeing. Twisters was directed by Lee Isaac Chung, who also directed the Oscar-nominated Minari.
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