Welcome to the ’80s: More than Just a Rom Com


In June 1985, just two months after the release of John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, Joel Schumacher delivered an outrageously underrated spiritual sequel in the form of St. Elmo’s Fire. Sharing stars Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy and Emilio Estevez with Hughes’ movie, St. Elmo’s Fire also cast ‘80s heartthrobs Demi Moore, Rob Lowe and Andrew McCarthy, creating a sweeping relationship drama documenting the love lives of a group of young college graduates.

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Arguably, St. Elmo’s Fire established some of the tropes which would reverberate through later ‘80s movies, notably a whole four years before the arrival of classic When Harry Met Sally, penned by the late and truly great Nora Ephron.

In St. Elmo’s Fire Schumacher and co-writer Carl Kurlander created a roster of characters whose romantic entanglements anticipate the incestuous partner-swapping of US TV dramas such as The OC and One Tree Hill. Among them is Kevin (McCarthy), a shy young man secretly nursing unrequited love for his friend Leslie (Sheedy), the long-term girlfriend of another friend, Alec (Nelson). Such a scenario was to become commonplace, cropping up in two John Hughes’ scripts directed by Harold Deutch, 1986’s Pretty in Pink and 1987’s Some Kind of Wonderful.

The recurring trope actually predates St. Elmo’s Fire, appearing in 1984 Rob Lowe vehicle, Oxford Blues, in which Lowe’s Nick hustles his way into Oxford University to pursue a British socialite but eventually falls for a fellow American student (Ally Sheedy again). St. Elmo’s Fire trumped this earlier instance, by utilising the formula in two distinct ways. Alongside Kevin is good girl Wendy (Mare Winningham) who is in love with her best friend Billy (Lowe), a young husband and father ignoring his responsibilities in favour of partying at the film’s titular bar. Such is the strength of characterisation in St. Elmo’s Fire that on a first viewing it’s easy to miss the fact that the same scenario is playing out simultaneously with two sets of characters.

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This brings us to a further strength of the ‘80s relationship movie; scripts encompass far more than contemporary run-of-the-mill rom-coms. Firstly, unlike films such as, say, What Happens in Vegas (2008), which revolve around a central would-be couple and a same-sex friend for each to whine at, the best films of the ‘80s explore a wider range of characters, making room for meaningful exploration of non-romantic relationships. Despite being famed for the image of John Cusack’s Lloyd holding up a boom box in order to win back the girl of his dreams, Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything (1989) also crafts a credible depiction of the relationship between Lloyd’s love interest Diane (Ione Skye) and her single father in a plot which keeps you guessing at least as long as the old “boy-meets-girl…” schtick.

In Deutch’s Pretty in Pink the frustrated love story between Molly Ringwald’s Andie and Andrew McCarthy’s Blane (a far more confident romancer than his Kevin in St. Elmo’s Fire) is actually one of the film’s least interesting elements. As with the father-daughter storyline in Say Anything, Pretty in Pink gives considerable screentime to Andie’s relationship with her father, an unemployed man still smarting from his wife’s abandonment years earlier. Andie “succeeds” in scoring a date with the wealthier Blane despite the caste system of their high school, where many of the rich kids look down on scholarship students like Andie. Although Blane doesn’t entirely share their prejudices he’s never active enough in fighting Andie’s corner to make him seem a worthwhile catch. Still, the film provides an unsatisfying “happy” ending as the two reunite at the prom.

The resourceful and creative Andie is also the object of unrequited love lavishly (and repeatedly) bestowed on her by her eccentric friend Duckie (Jon Cryer), the film’s most lovable character. Deutch’s follow up, Some Kind of Wonderful, tells a similar story with the gender roles reversed; outsider Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson) looks on as best friend Keith (Eric Stoltz) woos a popular girl (Back to the Future’s Lea Thompson), and gradually realises her affection for him surpasses friendship. There’s another difference though; Some Kind of Wonderful has a better-judged, happier, and perhaps more likely ending.

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The many ‘80s plots in which a friend pines to be more than friends anticipate an idea explicitly articulated in Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally; that “men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way”. This may have proved true for Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan), but as Hadley Freeman notes in her book Be Awesome, Say Anything “sticks up its nose at that nonsense” by depicting Lloyd’s relationship with his female friends DC and Corey.

Say Anything further rounds out its storylines and brings a welcome comedic element in its treatment of Corey’s (Lili Taylor) relationship with her manipulative ex, Joe. As Corey attempts to get over the break-up her emotional states are hilariously rendered in the many, many terrible songs she writes about Joe. But her situation isn’t just played for laughs. In one short scene Joe tries to entice Corey back and the suspense before she answers makes for emotionally draining viewing.

While Some Kind of Wonderful focuses on only a central love triangle, Pretty in Pink, like Say Anything, weaves a wider tapestry. This includes the reminiscences of Andie’s father, the shallow relationships between Blane’s friends and, most entertainingly, allows a narrative to emerge from the snippets of phone conversations we hear Andie’s co-worker make to her boyfriend.

In When Harry Met Sally the relationships of peripheral characters are also explored, adding to the film’s realism as Sally and girlfriends bemoan their love lives over lunch. Sure, the film doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, but why should it? The women, who are named, may only talk about men but the men also only talk about women. This is because it’s a movie about relationships, and it points out one of the many flaws of the Bechdel test; it doesn’t take genre into account.

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The same is true of About Last Night (1986), adapted from David Mamet’s play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, which exploited the chemistry between Demi Moore and Rob Lowe in St. Elmo’s Fire by re-casting them as Deb and Dan, whose one night stand quickly leads to a tumultuous relationship. It’s a chronicle in the vein of When Harry Met Sally, and just as self-aware about the dating world it documents. While you might expect Deb and Dan’s single friends, played by Elizabeth Perkins and James Belushi, to get together like the other attendees of Harry and Sally’s failed double blind date, About Last Night ignores a trope that’s been prevalent since at least Shakespeare; Perkin’s fiery Joan and Belushi’s foul-mouthed Bernie hate each other on meeting and it remains this way.

Moving us from high school territory to the Real World When Harry Met Sally and About Last Night replace the family drama of Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful and Say Anything by probing more than one adult relationship with some detail. These two films, and, to an even greater extent, St. Elmo’s Fire, are a step in the direction of ensemble rom-coms like He’s Just Not That Into You (2009) and Valentine’s Day (2010), yet they stop short of overcrowding the screenplay, allowing each set of characters to drive effective and emotive drama.

The ‘80s relationship film is a fine balance, and sometimes the ingredients don’t quite combine right. But when they do, a timeless gem of a movie is created.

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