Andrew McCarthy Opens Up About ‘Stigmatizing’ Brat Pack Label, Wearing a ‘Cheap Wig’ in ‘Pretty in Pink’ and the ‘Unfortunate’ Way Virginia Madsen Was Treated on the ‘Class’ Set

It’s often hard to pinpoint the precise origin of a cultural phenomenon. The opposite is true when it comes to Hollywood’s Brat Pack. The catchy moniker that came to define the ’80s cineplex can be traced to June 10, 1985, when New York Magazine published a cover story pegged to the release of “St. Elmo’s Fire.” The piece, written by David Blum, followed three of the film’s stars — Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe and Judd Nelson — over several nights of heavy boozing and douchey antics, like ogling Playmates, encouraging groupies and trash-talking their rivals. Blum dubbed the group of young movie stars the “Brat Pack,” a phrase still recognizable four decades later.

The trio’s “St. Elmo’s Fire” co-star Andrew McCarthy remembers the exact moment when the film’s producer, Lauren Shuler Donner, burst into an office on the Paramount lot waving a copy of the magazine. At first glance, he was disappointed that he had been cropped out of the cover image — a publicity still from the movie, the shadow of his shoulder still visible. After poring over the 5,000-word piece, he was relieved by the omission: No good could come from being anointed a member of this A-list tribe of enfants terribles. But like it or not, he and the other stars of Joel Schumacher’s coming-of-age drama about post-collegiate ennui — including Estevez’s fiancée Demi Moore — would soon be engulfed by the pop culture tsunami.

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“We were in rehearsal for ‘Pretty and Pink,’ and I just remember sitting in that office going, ‘Oh, fuck,’” McCarthy recalls. “It portrayed everybody as these frat boys who just wanted to party and get laid. Is it a good idea to take a journalist drinking with you? Probably not. I think everyone learned that lesson pretty quick.”

Indeed. On a sunny morning in late May, McCarthy is sipping iced tea at a café inside the Museum of Modern Art. Wearing jeans and a button-down shirt, a pair of reading glasses perched atop his graying hair, he looks more like a prep-school teacher than the high school heartthrob who once wooed Molly Ringwald in “Pretty in Pink” and made teens girls across America swoon. He declines my offer to check out any of the museum’s exhibits. “Another day,” he says, a note of impatience creeping into his voice. This location was chosen for convenience, being just blocks away from the Upper West Side apartment he shares with his wife, Irish writer and director Dolores Rice, and their two children, Willow and Rowan. (His older son from a previous marriage, Sam McCarthy, has followed in dad’s footsteps, starring in the Netflix series “Dead to Me.”)

Instead, McCarthy is laser-focused on the topic at hand, revisiting the Hollywood era that spawned such teen-angst classics as “The Outsiders,” “Class” and “The Breakfast Club.” It’s a subject he has ruminated on for years, resulting in the new documentary “Brats,” which he directed for ABC News Studios and Neon. The movie, which bows on Hulu on June 13, features Estevez, Lowe, Moore and others unpacking the pros and cons of the label, with McCarthy serving as a quasi-therapist helping them come to terms with the past.

“All these years later, ‘Brat Pack’ has become this wonderfully iconic phrase, looked upon through rose-colored glasses,” says McCarthy, now 61. “But at the time, it was very stigmatizing and affected all our careers adversely.”

"Brats"/ABC News Studios
"Brats"/ABC News Studios

ABC News Studios head Mike Kelley wasn’t sure what to expect when McCarthy walked into a Lincoln Center conference room in 2023 to pitch “Brats” to him and fellow executives David Sloan and Victoria Thompson. Sloan tried to lighten the mood by noting that he used to dress like McCarthy back in the day, when the movie star’s rumpled blazers and open oxford shirts ushered in preppy chic. McCarthy told him that with “Brats,” he wasn’t interested in merely cataloging his ’80s star vehicles, like “Mannequin,” “Less Than Zero” or the “Weekend at Bernie’s” franchise. Nor did he envision a cautionary tale, even though he and most of his co-stars confronted substance abuse issues after the spotlight dimmed. McCarthy, who has been sober since 1992 and carved out a lane as an in-demand TV director of such shows as “Orange Is the New Black,” “The Blacklist” and “Gossip Girl” in recent years, wanted to take a more sophisticated approach; his goal was to explore the double-edged sword of Brat Packdom and find out if any of his cohorts suffered similarly. The ABC team had just shepherded the Brooke Shields docuseries “Pretty Baby” to the screen and was looking for another project that could contextualize a societal inflection point. Kelley committed on the spot.

“I thought the idea of bringing audiences back to those nostalgic moments and then to have them reflect on how it affected these actors’ lives was a really powerful prospect,” says Kelley. “To go back in time for that nostalgia but then to reflect on it in the present is a really effective way to pull on people’s emotions.”

McCarthy hadn’t connected with any of his fellow Brat Packers in more than 30 years, with the exception of Moore, whom he ran into once when one of her daughters auditioned for a pilot he was directing. The last time he saw Estevez was at the “St. Elmo’s Fire” premiere. He was finally ready to look back.

For those who came of age after the Brat Pack reign, there’s no close approximation. New York Magazine dubbed Leonardo DiCaprio and friends Tobey Maguire and Lukas Haas the Pussy Posse in a 1998 cover story. The nickname didn’t stick for obvious reasons. More recent times saw the birth of the tentpole Chrises (Pratt, Pine, Evans and Hemsworth), but they never captured the zeitgeist as a unit. The Brat Pack era coincided with the greed-is-good chapter in American history, when Madonna’s “Material Girl” ruled the airwaves and teens obsessed over class distinctions. Movies like “Class” and “Pretty in Pink” reflected that sensibility, with McCarthy playing both ends of the economic spectrum in the two films. Most important to studio executives, these small-bet movies made money (think “Breakfast Club’s $1 million budget vs. its $52 million box-office haul).

Unlike Brat Pack nepo babies like Robert Downey Jr., Estevez and Timothy Hutton, McCarthy made his inroads the old-fashioned way. As an NYU freshman, he saw an ad in Backstage for an open call for a movie. The ad said, “Wanted: 18, vulnerable and sensitive.” “So I went up to the Ansonia Hotel on 73rd Street. I waited with 500 other 18-year-old vulnerable and sensitive kids out in the hallway for hours,” he remembers.

Casting director David Rubin, who later became the head of the Academy, handed McCarthy the script to “Class,” a comedy-drama about an underprivileged boarding school student who has an affair with the mother of his wealthy roommate (Lowe). “Sixty scenes: I read them, and 10 auditions later, I was doing love scenes with Jacqueline Bisset. It was like winning the lottery,” he says.

The film also mirrored the misogyny of the times. In a 2013 interview, Virginia Madsen, who had a small role in the film, said, “Those guys were assholes” of her “Class” cast mates that also included an up-and-coming John Cusack. McCarthy doesn’t disagree. “It was unfortunate because there’s certainly no intimacy coordinator on set back then, but it’s also a scene about a girl’s top getting ripped open and her breast comes out, and the boys are supposed to react like stupid 15 year olds on camera. I mean, that was the scene,” he says. “Of course that’s going to be humiliating, and I’m sure it was not handled sensitively. And then you have to do that X amount of times. Of course it’s going to be a horrific. But when she was in ‘Sideways,’ she was so lovely in that, and matured into this really lovely being, and I was like, ‘Good on you. Fucking A. Look at you.’”

Despite that now-cringeworthy scene, the film ended up earning more than three times its $7 million budget, and suddenly the genre was red-hot. “Class” paved the way for “St. Elmo’s Fire,” the Brat Pack movie that put the spotlight on the group’s excesses. Moore, fresh out of rehab, was trailed by a sobriety coach 24/7 on set. (“There was always people hanging around her. I just thought it was an assistant,” McCarthy says. “All I knew is that she’d be coming [to set] and it was delicate.”) McCarthy was battling his own demon — namely, vodka — though he never drank during production. “That film’s vibe was kind of great, actually,” he says. “Certainly, no one was doing drugs or drinking on that set. People were there to work.”

Rob Lowe and Andrew McCarthy
Credit: Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
Brats Rob Lowe and Andrew McCarthy Credit: Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

The Brat Pack era reached its zenith with the 1986 drama “Pretty in Pink.” Estevez’s brother, Charlie Sheen, was supposed to play the film’s rich hero, Blane. “It was written for sort of a square-jawed, broad-shouldered quarterback type,” McCarthy says. “They gave me a courtesy audition because I’d just done ‘St. Elmo’s Fire.’ And they go, ‘No, he’s totally wrong.’ Molly read with me. And when I left, she said, ‘That’s the kind of guy I’d fall for. He’s kind of dreamy and poetic, not some fucking jock.’ And John Hughes said, ‘That wimp?!’ But to John’s credit, what he did so well is he listened to young people. And he got on board with it and said, ‘All right, you want him, you got him.’”

Ringwald’s endorsement didn’t stop studio executives from suggesting that McCarthy enhance his physique. “People used tell me I had to go to the gym all the time,” he says. “Like Arnold [Schwarzenegger] and Sly [Stallone] were everywhere. But if I was a bulked-up Blane, it would have been weird.”

The original “Pretty in Pink” ending called for Blane to succumb to the pressures of the rich-bro code and dump Ringwald’s Addie. “I go to the prom with someone else, some extra,” he adds. The test audience just fucking turned on the movie and hated it.”

So the studio scrambled and called for reshoots. The only problem was, McCarthy had shaved his head for the Broadway play “The Boys of Winter.” “So they made me a wig. And I remember it was just a really bad, cheap wig, and it looks like there’s a bird’s nest on my head,” he says. “I just walk up to Molly looking so forlorn with this thing on my head, and say, ‘I love you.’ But that movie was a fairytale. So you have to give the princess what she wants at the end.”

Ditto for America’s teens, who drove the $9 million film’s $41 million in box-office receipts. Author Malcolm Gladwell notes in “Brats” that the ’80s was the one era when audiences across the country were unified and teen concerns mattered. Today, attention spans are fractured, no one watches or discusses the same thing, and teen-led content, from “Euphoria” to “13 Reasons Why,” is aimed at adults, being too dark for kids.

In fact, the Brat Pack train began to derail when the studios opted for dark but couldn’t quite pull it off. The arrival of 1987’s “Less Than Zero” was meant to herald an edgier version of the genre. Based on Bret Easton Ellis’ book about L.A.’s drug-addled upper-class teens, the final product proved to be significantly neutered, even if the set itself was a bacchanal.

“On ‘Less Than Zero,’ there were a lot of drugs happening, and that just was not a secret. It was the ’80s, and that’s what people did,” McCarthy says. “But it was also right when Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ campaign came out, and suddenly we had to reshoot 35% of the movie and have kids flushing cocaine down the toilet. Like, who ever has flushed cocaine down the toilet? If you’ve got to get rid of cocaine, you just snort it all up. The studio executives were like, ‘Not having that.’ And so the film had to have a message: ‘Drugs are bad.’”

For Downey Jr., who plays the film’s spiraling antagonist, life was beginning to imitate life. “Bobby’s a really sweet guy, and he was going through his own self-immolation. He would just come in, do a bunch of push-ups before a scene to get out of breath. That was his process,” McCarthy notes. “‘St. Elmo’s Fire’ was a joyful experience and a bright experience. ‘Less Than Zero’ was a very dark experience.” Downey Jr. later acknowledged that for the first time in his career, he was using during production on “Less Than Zero,” sending him on a decade-long freefall that landed him in jail for six months in the late-’90s before he got sober. Critics, audiences and Ellis himself rejected the film, though Ellis, who appears in “Brats,” says that he eventually warmed up to the film.

“Brats” hits at a time when ’80s nostalgia is cresting. A Broadway musical based on “The Outsiders” nabbed 12 Tony nominations in April. Anticipation is mounting for the fifth and final season of Netflix’s “Stranger Things.” There’s talk of rebooting “St. Elmo’s Fire” as a TV series. And a new generation is discovering Brat Pack films like “The Breakfast Club,” which is now in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

Shuler Donner points to the perseverance of McCarthy and his “St. Elmo’s” castmates and notes that maybe the New York Magazine story got them all wrong. “I know these guys felt attacked by that piece,” she says. “They were 20 years old, and of course they’re gonna party. But they were very serious and accomplished actors. I believe that the reporter was jealous. Over time, they all proved their mettle.”

For decades, McCarthy refused to watch any of the films from that period. But as he began interviewing the old gang for “Brats,” he found comfort in knowing that he wasn’t alone in how he processed the era. Though Ringwald and Nelson passed on being interviewed on camera, Moore was the first to say yes. Then Lowe made the time, as did Estevez, Ally Sheedy and Jon Cryer. McCarthy even tracked down Blum, the man who handicapped their fledgling careers by inventing the phrase and ensuring that Hollywood wouldn’t take them seriously for years to come.

“The biggest surprise for me doing the movie was how much affection we all still have for each other,” says McCarthy. “We had this identification with the Brat Pack. And we were all alone in it for so long. We carried it, and none of us communicated about the burden. And so to finally come back and talk about it, that was a beautiful experience.”

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