John Hughes was firing on all cylinders in the eighties. His run of films that he either wrote or directed in that period – Mr. Mom, Vacation, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles – remains a remarkable example of a man tapping into a specific cultural moment with great success. These aren’t great films, of course (although I might argue that Sixteen Candles is a perfect film in its own right), but, to anyone who grew up in the eighties, these films spoke directly to them and their experiences.
Of these, Pretty In Pink is easily Hughes’ most troubled film. Hughes was trying desperately to tap into the garbage-chic fashion popularized by Madonna at the time (she’s even mentioned and discussed at one point) by creating a phony story about a poor girl named Andie (Molly Ringwald) literally on the wrong side of the tracks who catches the fancy of some preening rich boy names “Blane” (Andrew McCarthy) while spurning the advances of her best childhood friend “Ducky” (an annoying Jon Cryer).
Despite some nice performances here (both Harry Dean Stanton and Annie Potts do nice work, and Ringwald is at her pouty best), the film is undone by Hughes’ writing, especially the creation of Steff (an oily James Spader), one of the worst characters in movie history.
It’s shocking how badly Hughes whiffs with the high school stuff in Pretty In Pink, especially the “friendship” between Blane and Spader’s Steff. Did Hughes never have a male friend in his life? As written, Steff is completely unlikable (yes, I understand that he’s supposed to be a villain). But then Spader plays him like a coked-out, recently-fired stock broker in his late twenties.
Hughes tried to introduce a false conflict at the beginning of the film; Steff tries to seduce poor little Andie, but she rejects his slicked-back hair, shitty sub-Miami Vice outfits, and wads of cash. You see, she has integrity.
This rejection apparently scars Steff so deeply that he spends the rest of the film possessed by the idea of sneering at Andie and sniveling at Blane to give up on her “because she’s poor.” He strolls through the halls, spying on Blane with Andie in the “bad kids” courtyard and then pestering Blane about it like he’s Blane’s father. Does this guy have nothing else to do?
Which leads me to this: Steff is the epitome of what Hughes gets wrong about high school in this movie. Steff wanders the halls endlessly, smoking cigarettes openly in front of the principal and apparently never going to a class. Steff dresses like he’s ready to go to a golf luncheon for Merrill Lynch instead of Algebra. It’s a ridiculously false stereotype employed by Hughes to get audiences to hate Steff.
Of course, we already hate Steff because he apparently has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Can anyone please explain why Blane has Steff as a friend in the first place? When Steff isn’t talking down to Blane in some slow, condescending way, he’s mocking other people and treating them all like garbage. Steff is so absolutely repellent that nobody would ever associate with him, regardless of the possible social benefits.
Yeah, I get it – the rich kids are forced to stay together to maintain their social standing “by society.” Still, it doesn’t work like that in high school. Kids group together in high school, but usually based on what they bring to school in themselves – good looks, athleticism, personality, talent, fashion, etc. The rich/poor dichotomy is usually enforced by their parents in social situations, not in high school. The exception to this is when a poor kid is SO POOR that they cannot bathe or they wear clothes so visibly distressed that people distance themselves. But that is not the case with Andie and Ducky and their group, so what’s the deal?
So Steff spends his time roaming the halls, crushing out cigarettes on the floor with his ugly loafers while strutting around in his neatly-pressed khaki pants and skinny ties and openly mocking everyone else. We’re supposed to believe this guy has friends? We’re supposed to believe that Blane, who has a heart of gold, has a best friend who is the white suburban equivalent of Uday Hussein?
The ending is also false. We’re expected to cheer when Blane finally mans up and tells Steff to go fuck himself, but our only reaction is “DUH!” Steff is so awful that it actually makes Blane – our “hero” in this film – look like a complete moron for ever associating with him for this amount of time (McCarthy doesn’t help matters, either, with his constant eye-bugging routine that makes Blane look like someone with brain damage). So the big, character-defining conclusion is ruined by one terrible character.
So yeah … Steff … one of the worst characters ever. No doubt about it.