The Brat Pack that took Hollywood by storm in the 1980s consisted of the young actors who starred together, in some combination, in films such as St. Elmo's Fire, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Less Than Zero. For a few years Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, James Spader, Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore and Robert Downey, Jr. were the hottest items in Tinseltown. (Some film scholars claim the Brat Pack should also include Charlie Sheen, Matt Dillon, Sean Penn and Tom Cruise.) These flamboyant and sometimes self-indulgent stars made headlines on and off the screen. They lived life in the fast lane. They had the Yuppie Look and Attitude down pat. According to Mike Dilien, they wore designer jeans and cool sunglasses, shopped Rodeo Drive, cut deals at Spago's and drove sports cars.
In their films as well as their lives, the Brat Pack represented the dreams and dilemmas of young adults in the Eighties -- how to reconcile youthful idealism with a desire to realize their share of the American Dream in a decade when conformity and materialism were once again in vogue. Their film work displayed what scholar Michael J. Palmer describes as "the socially apathetic, cynical, money-possessed and ideologically barren eighties generation." But film critic James Thorburn claims that "Eighties teens drew instruction and inspiration" from Brat Pack films and "had their faith in society reinforced, and their moral fabric strengthened."
In The Breakfast Club (1985), Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy starred as high schoolers who must deal with the issue of conformity. They struggle with their ambivalence about the world of their yuppie parents, in which style and money are the symbols of success. The encounter-group plot throws students from different walks of life into all-day detention. Sparkling dialogue and fine acting were required to keep audiences engaged in a film that was all talk and no action. The Breakfast Club delivers on both counts.
Another hit teen movie, Pretty in Pink (1986) portrays the love affair between Andie, a poor girl (Molly Ringwald) and Blane, a rich kid (Andrew McCarthy), whose feelings for each other help them overcome a number of obstacles, chiefly the way Blane's snobbish friends treat Andie. Blane briefly succumbs to peer pressure to dump a girl who isn't "good enough" for him. But in the end the two are reunited, proving that, in Blane's case, wealth and privilege do not always corrupt.
St. Elmo's Fire (1985) takes the up-and-coming yuppies out of school and thrusts them into the real world. Judd Nelson, Andrew McCarthy, Rob Lowe, Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez and Demi Moore star as good friends, college grads who find their faith in one another severely tested by the complications that love and commitment bring to the yuppie lifestyle. Alex (Judd Nelson) becomes so consumed by the pursuit of success -- and women -- that he loses the love of his life, Leslie (Ally Sheedy). Estevez plays Kirbo, whose obsession with an older woman (Andie McDowell) leads him to quit his job as a waiter and concentrate on law school. Billy (Rob Lowe) is the only real rebel in the bunch, and his nonconformity leads to heartbreak and failure. Jules (Demi Moore) seems at first blush to be a real yuppie success story, but in reality a high-pressure lifestyle is pushing her into financial crisis and cocaine addiction.
Another film, Less Than Zero (1987) elaborates on the perils lying in wait for those who don't have what it takes to succeed in the fast-paced business world. One such failure is Julian (Robert Downey, Jr.), who turns to cocaine. The drug destroys him despite the best efforts of his high school buddy Clay (Andrew McCarthy) to save him. Clay is rich and cool and savvy enough to realize the value of a college education; undoubtedly he has the "smarts" to succeed where Julian has failed. Less Than Zero is a disturbing foray across the thin line that separates the glitzy excitement of the "material world" and its seedy, corrupt, dark side.
The yuppies portrayed in these films often live on the edge. Life might be a real "high," but success can be fleeting -- and too much, too fast could spell disaster. The personal lives of the Brat Pack members seemed to prove that life often does imitate art. Judd Nelson starred in bothSt. Elmo's Fire and The Breakfast Club, but his movie career hit the skids, and in the mid-Nineties he was appearing in NBC's sitcom Suddenly Susan with Eighties icon Brooke Shields. Emilio Estevez also appeared in the two abovementioned hits, then tried to carry the Brat Pack movie formula into the western genre with 1988's Young Guns, in which he played Billy the Kid. Like Estevez, Rob Lowe was catapulted to stadom in 1983's The Outsiders and appeared in St. Elmo's Fire. Lowe went on to star in Sex, Lies & Videotape (1989); ironically, he nearly scuttled his career by engaging in sex with a minor and videotaping the crime.
Robert Downey, Jr. earned an Oscar nomination for his performance in the bio-flick Chaplin and was impressive in Less Than Zero as Julian, who let his cocaine habit destroy him. In 1996 Downey was arrested on drug and weapons charges. Placed on probation, he indulged in a four-day drug and alcohol binge in 1997 and went to jail. Like Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez and Ally Sheedy, Andrew McCarthy was born in 1962; he studied acting at NYU and the Circle in the Square Theater. In movies like Pretty in Pink, Less Than Zero and Fresh Horses he was cast as the rich kid with an enigmatic smile and a heart of gold. Like Downey, McCarthy continued his movie career into the Nineties, but unlike his fellow Brat Packer, he kept a low profile and stayed out of trouble. Demi Moore was the only member of this group of talented actors who went on to even greater fame in the 1990s. (Rob Lowe and Molly Ringwald made a modest comeback in the 1994 television production of Stephen King's The Stand.)
Superstar status may have been fleeting for most of the Brat Packers, but they left an indelible imprint on the film history of the 1980s as the idols of millions of kids seeking guidance as they traded adolescence for young adulthood during the Yuppie Decade.