[December 12th will mark the 100th anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s birth, and since Sinatra was as well-known for his famous group of friends as for his individual achievements, I wanted to spend the week AmericanStudying such circles of friends. Leading up to a special weekend post on the Rat Pack!]
Three layers to how we can AmericanStudy the mid-1980s circle of young film actors.
1) Two Iconic, Complementary Films: Lots of films have been nominated for inclusion in the Brat Pack register, usually because they starred at least two of the group’s core members; but it’s really two 1985 movies, The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire, that form the center of this film history narrative. And what’s particularly interesting about this pairing is that the two films, starring many of the same actors and released in the same year, focus on two very distinct settings and stages of life: with Breakfast highlighting the social and identity issues faced by a collection of high school students; and St. Elmo’s portraying the turning point moments for a group of friends graduating from college. Neither film is perfect by any means, but each pays nuanced attention to these youthful stages of life—and taken together, they offer a compelling portrait of late teen and early twenty-something identity in the 1980s.
2) The Brat Pack Narrative: The two films coming out in the same year certainly contributed to a developing narrative that linked this group of young actors to one another. But the most influential voice in that narrative was that of a single journalist, David Blum, who wrote a June cover story for New York magazine that coined the phrase. Perhaps not surprisingly, the actors didn’t much care for the term, nor did they necessarily see themselves as a cohort at all; “the media made up this sort of tribe,” Andrew McCarthy would later argue. Moreover, Ally Sheedy would claim (as quoted in this book) that the article helped destroy whatever coherence they did have: “I had felt truly a part of something, and that guy just blew it to pieces.” Which makes the “Brat Pack” (not the group, but the phrase) a complex case study in how communal identities are created and how they can affect those defined within them.
3) Looking Back to Look at Us: Each of those prior two frames offers one compelling way to look back at this mid-80s cultural moment and see what it has to tell us. But while such historical lenses are of course important, I would argue that just as significant to an AmericanStudies approach would be to consider as well how we can apply those lessons to our own moment and culture. What can we learn about our own cultural representations of teenagers and young people from these iconic films? How can studying the role of media and collective perceptions in the development of the “Brat Pack” narrative help us think about our own cultural and communal categories? I don’t pretend to have all the answers to those questions (and would love to hear yours in comments!), but here are two interesting starting points for such comparisons: the Brat Pack compared to the Fast and the Furious and the James Franco/Seth Rogen cohorts, two 21st century communities of young actors that have been developed purposefully by the members themselves over many linked films.
Next friend circle tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
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