Sixteen Candles is my favorite movie of all time. I was 14 when it came out, and I went to see it with my mom and my best friend Jaime at the local cineplex in Bremerton, Washington. We saw it twice in the theater and once a week on VHS for probably a good year. Afterwards, we wrote notes to each other and signed them “Jakie” after Jake Ryan, the hunk that Molly’s character Samantha lusts after in the movie. I promptly got a job working at the only video store in my town, dusting VHS boxes for five dollars an hour, in part so I could watch Molly’s movies over and over again. And by her movies, I mean the holy trinity, the three she did with writer-director John Hughes: Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), and Pretty in Pink (1986). (Later, I paid my meager wages to be disappointed by The Pick-Up Artist, For Keeps, and Fresh Horses.)
I was 26 when I wrote 10 Things I Hate About You with Karen McCullah, who shared my enthusiasm for teen flicks (her go-to movie was Grease). I don’t remember actively thinking it at the time, but in some ways, the character of Kat (Julia Stiles) is the love child of the three Mollys: Samantha, the girl next door; The Breakfast Club’s snotty Claire; and Andie, the indie-music-loving outsider from Pretty in Pink.
I can’t tell you how many times a studio exec has invoked the Ringwald/Hughes trifecta when talking about a script for a teen movie that they’d like to develop, encouraging us writers to recapture that magic—which is like telling someone to design a building by looking at the Eiffel Tower (a reference I think Ringwald, who lived in France for many years, would appreciate). And, let me tell you, it’s impossible. Molly, like Hughes, is singular. In 1986, she graced the cover of Time, a magazine that really MATTERED in the grown-up sense. She was THE teen queen. With three consecutive roles, she managed to become the most iconic teenager of a generation, and created some of the most authentic high school characters ever to grace the screen. Why do I love her so much? Let me count the ways:
1. She effortlessly bridged the gap between nerd and goddess, outlier and insider. She went from an average girl (Sixteen Candles) to a popular prom-queen (The Breakfast Club) to a shabby-chic misfit (Pretty in Pink), and she was totally believable as all three. As a teenager watching her, I felt like she was saying, Actually, you can be whomever you want to be. Don’t limit yourself. Even as unconventional Andie, she was relatable in her individuality; she was never tyrannical about her uniqueness. In this post-Gaga era, I sometimes feel like being “different” means you have to be “weird,” the architect of your own over-the-top eccentricity. But what if you don’t look good wearing a dress made of meat?!
2. Her clothes, duh. Some people might remember the deconstructed prom dress in Pretty in Pink or the pink cotton top and brown skirt she rocked in The Breakfast Club, but for some reason, it’s the layered, gauzy pink dress with the jagged hemline that she wore to the dance in Sixteen Candles that I coveted the most. It seemed casual and feminine and soft and sexy, and not as stiff as the Pink dress. I loved that she carried a matching pink clutch. I never carried a clutch. I was never as sophisticated as Molly, but man, how I wanted to be.
3. Her taste in music. As Andie, she hung out in a record store and listened to the Psychedelic Furs, Echo and the Bunnymen, and the Smiths, but in real life, she was just as savvy. She dated Dweezil Zappa and the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz—and, as the daughter of a jazz musician, I got the sense that her taste was not faddish or circumstantial. When she interviewed John Hughes for Seventeen magazine in 1986 and asked him how he came up with the story for Pretty in Pink, which he wrote but didn’t direct, he responded, “You told me about the Psychedelic Furs’ song. And the title just stuck in my head.” And she said, “I just love that song,” as if influencing directors to write movies based on her favorite song was the most casual thing in the world. (According to this article, her creative opinion was so valued that Molly was the reason Andie didn’t end up with Duckie, but we won’t hold it against her!)
4. Her gift for expressing raw vulnerability. One of my favorite scenes in Sixteen Candles is when she runs out of the auditorium after a humiliating encounter with the Geek (Anthony Michael Hall) on the dance floor. She sprints out into the hall and bangs her fist on the fire extinguisher. (Maybe that’s why Knicks player Amar’e Stoudemire punched that fire extinguisher during the NBA playoffs this year! He was re-enacting this scene from Sixteen Candles!) She then has a slide-down-the-wall crying jag, which I loved. Sure, she was kind of over-reacting, but that’s how it is when you’re 16—small instances of humiliation become huge very quickly. I remember bleeding through some khaki pants in high school and sobbing in the bathroom for a good five minutes. It felt like a catastrophe, when all I really had to do was wrap a sweatshirt around my waist and call it a day. Molly’s tears validated my own. Also, she was 16 at the time. Where lots of movies simulate adolescence by casting people well over the age, Molly looked and seemed and WAS 100% legit.
5. She’s a redhead! At the time, I remember people constantly commenting on this, like she was such an unlikely star because of her hair color, or like she wasn’t traditionally attractive. Her hair was monumentally cool. Personally, I think it may be why Lindsay Lohan was able to briefly court teen queen status in the early aughts (well, and Mean Girls is awesome), and possibly even helped Emma Stone become the go-to actress of her peers.
6. She made creeping cool. OK, let me explain: As an only child, I sometimes clammed up socially. At birthday parties, I felt more comfortable off to the side watching while other girls were playing Truth or Dare. Maybe that’s why Samantha Baker is my favorite Molly character. She spends most of Sixteen Candles wordlessly ogling Jake Ryan. And he actually APPRECIATES her for it. To his jock friend: “I catch her lookin’ at me a lot. It’s kinda cool, the way she’s always lookin’ at me.” Her gorgeously gigantic baby browns made eye contact an art form. I have to confess that the night I met my boyfriend, we were sneaking glances at each other from across the crowded room of a cheesy bar, and I felt a little like Samantha watching Jake at the dance.
7. Her dance in The Breakfast Club. That side-to-side kick maneuver seemed both self-consciously artful and totally free-spirited, with her hair whipping back and forth with every bob of her head. And then she throws in that adorable little spin. I cop Molly’s moves when listening to anything from New Order to Katy Perry, and have been totally busted by my friends for doing so.
8. She could put on lipstick with her cleavage. Or at least Claire did, and it seemed like something Molly could actually do! After seeing the movie, I spent several weeks making failed attempts to do this. I tried just now, again, in the name of research. It is quite difficult and results in uncomfortable chin-strain.
9. Contrary to the infamous Brat Pack moniker, Molly didn’t travel in packs. Unlike a lot of teen movies where the girls grouped together in sets of three or more—Clueless, Mean Girls, Jawbreaker, The Craft—Molly portrayed girls who were loners or had a single best friend, like Duckie, or Randy in Sixteen Candles. Plus, it seemed that Molly would be the type to make friends with people who were interesting, like she did Annie Potts’ character in Pretty in Pink. (Incidentally, I just found out that Annie Potts lived in the house that I own sometime in the late ’80s, when this movie was released, which brings me even closer to Molly’s orbit.)
10. She left Hollywood and moved to Paris. When, sometime in the early ’90s, I read that Molly was moving to France, I remember being impressed. She was doing something unexpected and brave. She was setting herself free from what her audience wanted her to be. She wasn’t letting people define her. Her departure signaled a bittersweet reality: she was going to grow up, and as painful as it was, so were we.
Given the remake-happy culture of Hollywood right now, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before someone sets their sights on rebooting one of these movies. I’ve even entertained the possibility on a few occasions, before coming to my senses and asking myself the question: who could ever fill Molly’s tall, laced-up, brown boots? Absolutely nobody. All I can do is be inspired by the work she gave me at a critical moment in my life, create accessible characters that she could’ve at one time played, and know that I’ll be writing for her forever. ♦
Kirsten Smith is a screenwriter and filmmaker living in Los Angeles. Her credits include Legally Blonde and The House Bunny. She is currently working on Camp Rules. You can find her on Twitter here: @kiwilovesyou.