Molly Ringwald’s oldest daughter Mathilda was six years old when she first exhibited some unusually sophisticated musical tastes for a child. “I would ask her, ‘who do you like better, the Stones or the Beatles?’, and she would say ‘actually, I prefer the Kinks’,” says Ringwald, over lunch at a bistro in Venice Beach, California. After exploring the canon of 1960s rock, Mathilda fell into a Top 40 rabbit hole, getting lost in Lady Gaga and Katy Perry for some years. Then one day she woke up and realised - she was bored. She had outgrown pop music... she missed the Kinks; she found herself increasingly drawn to the work of slick multiinstrumentalist Andrew Bird. Mathilda’s tastes run unusually hip for the average ten-year-old. She is without doubt her mother’s daughter, her mother being one of the hippest kids America ever produced.
With her head of rust-coloured hair and plump lips that she was perpetually biting, Ringwald ruled the multiplexes in the 80s, in three movies made by writer/director/producer John Hughes. They were classic films about youth, made for youth: Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985) and Pretty in Pink (1986). Sixteen Candles, about a girl whose family forgets her sixteenth birthday, launched Ringwald as a serious box-office attraction, leading to The Breakfast Club, which mined five classic American high school stereotypes – the brain, the jock, the kook, the princess (played by Ringwald) and the criminal. The movie was quickly hailed a classic of the “Brat Pack” genre. Last in the trio was Pretty in Pink, starring Ringwald as Andie and Andrew McCarthy and Jon Cryer as her two suitors: Blane (the rich kid) and Duckie (the lovable desperado) respectively. But Ringwald was always the main draw, and by the time Pretty in Pink came out, grossing a smash $12.4 million in just ten days, Ringwald was fully established as the poster child for an entire generation of Gen X youth, elevating high school prom politics into a metaphor for the injustices of society. Her young female fans (one critic called them “the Ringlets”) copied her post-punk flapper style, and lusted after the lace-up equestrian boots she wore in The Breakfast Club.
“Do you want to know my dream man, my favourite colours or what I read on the John?” she asked a People magazine reporter visiting the set of Pretty in Pink. Barely 18, she was already bored of the press asking her questions that insulted her keen – and as-yet unappreciated – intelligence. It was a media feeding frenzy. When Time magazine ran their 1986 cover story on Ringwald, “movie star and exemplary California teen”, they quoted Molly’s mom Adele talking about the obsessive fans who would track them down at their ordinary suburban home in northern Los Angeles. “Sometimes (they) get the address and drive by real slow and stare, but then, I guess, they say, ’Naw, that can’t be Molly Ringwald’s house.”
By the late 80s, Ringwald was pursuing more adult roles and venturing quite naturally into the next stage of her career. Her impressive performances in post- Hughes productions garnered critical acclaim, such as her role as Frannie Goldsmith in the 1994 television mini-series The Stand and her interpretation of Sally Bowles in the Broadway production of Cabaret from 2001 to 2002. But the public simply wasn’t willing to let Molly grow up, and the media frenzy subsided. Luckily, Ringwald retained a sense of humour about it all, gamely playing along with parodies of the 80s teensploitation films that she had come to represent. Not Another Teen Movie (2001) drew heavily on the most popular American teen films of the 1980s and 1990s, in particular the Hughes films. Ringwald makes a cameo appearance as a flight attendant who appears at the film’s climax, in which Jake (Chris Evans) is attempting to convince Janey (Chyler Leigh) – a character modelled on Ringwald’s Andie Walsh - not to leave him to go to France (where Ringwald moved in 1992). When the two lovers make up their differences, Ringwald’s character turns to the camera and breaks the fourth wall. “We all know where this is going,” she deadpans. “Fucking teenagers.”
Fast forward to the present, and Ringwald’s spectral 1980s persona continues to exist seemingly independent from who she is today, which is a mother, author and singer. In 2010, she published her first book, Getting the Pretty Back: Friendship, Family, and Finding the Perfect Lipstick, in which she sagely outlines her philosophies on hair, make-up and such. “I have a theory of hair colour that is not unlike my overall theory of life. There is a magical colour that you have around the age of five. If you can, never stray too far from this colour.” In her second book, When it Happens to You, she ventures into literary fiction with a series of interconnected short stories that are a pleasure to read. Widely acclaimed, the book earned her a new hypenate – Molly Ringwald, “teen icon” was now Molly Ringwald, “literary ingénue”. Set in Los Angeles, the story’s interweaving eight chapters deal with betrayal, estrangement and reconciliation, its characters moving in and out of each other’s lives in deft and surprising ways. She wrote the book because, as her therapist commanded, “stop dating writers, and just write!” (Her husband, Panio Gianopoulos, is an author, as was her first husband Valery Lameignère.)
“I’ve always written,” she explains. “I never knew I was necessarily going to do it professionally. I think being in New York and being around so many writers, it just was calling to me. And then I thought, well, I’ll just write non-fiction.” It took her a while before she felt confident enough to share her writing. “A lot of it had to do with the idea of an actor writing. I thought that was going to be unacceptable to people. Then it got to the point where I was like, ‘I don’t give a fuck. Why do I care what other people think?’”
She had felt confined by her film career, nervous about being taken seriously as anything other than Molly Ringwald, the actress. “In show business particularly, people can’t wrap their heads around the fact that we might be able to do more than one thing.” Both books have sold well, and the second has been widely praised. Renowned novelist A.M. Homes said “not many people can advance a narrative so invisibly” , as reported in the New Yorker. Close on the heels of When it Happens to You was the release of Ringwald’s jazz album Except Sometimes, which she has been touring through art centres and jazz clubs around America. Comprised of Ringwald’s sultry interpretations of jazz and Broadway standards, the closing track is a cover version of Simple Minds’s “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” which John Hughes fans remember as the closing song on The Breakfast Club soundtrack. She dedicated her recording “to the memory of J.H.”.
Though the album was released in April 2013, in fact Ringwald had been honing her voice since the age of three, when she would sit on her blind jazz pianist father Bob Ringwald’s lap, and sing along. She recorded her first album at the age of six. There weren’t that many printed, but she has a copy. “Then the other day someone came to a gig with a bootleg recording of me aged three, singing with this band called “Sugar” Willie and the Cubes. It blew my mind that I could have been that girl.” Long before she became an actress, she considered herself a singer. When she was nine years old a musician friend of her father’s suggested that she try out for the first West Coast production of Annie. She auditioned and got a part in the chorus – her first professional job. After Annie, she auditioned for a show that would become The Facts of Life, got an agent and landed her first movie at age 13. When she was 15 she met John Hughes, and the rest is history.
To this day, every time she does an interview, the conversation inevitably returns to the work she did as a teenager. They ask whether she secretly wished that Andie, her character in Pretty in Pink, had gotten with Duckie instead of Blane (“I am Team Spader,” she says, referring to the film’s yuppie creep, played by James Spader). They ask which was her favourite film of the three Hughes movies (she says The Breakfast Club to watch; Sixteen Candles to make). They still ask about her style inspirations in the 80s (she was a big fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald and used to scour vintage clothing stores to find clothes she thought his heroines would wear). But what is the question she hears most of all? “Do I still stay in contact with the people that I made the movies with,” sighs Ringwald. And what’s her stock answer? “Um, you know… no. Occasionally we run into each other, but people have this feeling because they see the films all the time on television that we are just like hanging out still. Sometimes I feel like I am sort of disappointing people in a way, because we have moved on and we all have different lives.”
Her words echo the promotional poster slogan for Sixteen Candles: “It’s the time of your life that may last a lifetime,” or the thoughtfully penned New York Times obituary Ringwald wrote for John Hughes when he passed away in 2009. “I will always be the girl whose sixteenth birthday is forgotten”. “You have to understand, I am asked about those movies every single time I do an interview,” she says. “It’s hard because people want to focus so much on what I did as a teenager, because that was what propelled me to this sort of icon status. But it was a long time ago and I have never really been that interested in the past as much as I am in the future. “It’s also really hard to remember exactly what happened, even. It has been written about so much, and as we now know, the more you remember something, the more the memory changes. I don’t know how much I actually remember, and how much has just gone into this popular mythology. It’s really hard. I think one day when I sit down and write my definitive memoirs I am going to have to get in there and try to remember that time, because right now it feels so polluted with everyone else’s memories.”
Writing in the Cultural Studies Review, scholar Christina Lee analyses the Ringwald phase of the 1980s thusly: “It carries such emotional gravity for the youth of then and now that the actor has transcended her own existence to become a rare phenomenon, an image that encapsulates a moment so deeply that it has literally shaped pop culture history and is crucial to how it is remembered by the youth of that era. Nostalgic strolls down the 1980s memory lane are traced through the trajectory of a Ringwald-Hughes plot like a geographical map. Molly Ringwald meant something more than just a teenage takeover of the multiplex. Popular culture, popular memories and fandom have grounded the actor’s identity, fictional and real, in time and her place within it in which she is no longer just an abstraction of the 1980s. Molly Ringwald was the 1980s… it is a stalemate that consigns her to reliving her teenage years over and over again.” Ringwald understands that it’s hard for fans to adjust as the star they love moves on, changes. She’s even guilty of it herself. “It’s funny, I was looking at Viva, the actress who was a Warhol superstar, on Facebook. I’m friends with her daughter. Anyway I had the same sort of feelings, wondering if she was still best friends with any of the people she met at the Factory, like do they just all hang out together and talk about Warhol? I just assume that because they were part of this moment in time that they must have just stayed really tight. And of course, that’s so rarely the reality.”
She’s glad she grew up when she did though, and suspects that life for contemporary teenagers might be even more complicated than it was for Gen Xers. “Just watching my own kids grow up with the internet, how they are real digital natives, I just wonder how that is going to be. Learning how to negotiate that sense of living out loud. Living in the public eye. It’s a choice they make, and most kids today just make that choice without even thinking. It’s like Big Brother but they are choosing it and they don’t see anything wrong with that. And that’s kind of hard for me because I’ve always been very protective. I have a public life and a private life and they have been pretty separate, by choice. That’s been a very important part of maintaining my sanity and my dignity. But that’s a hard thing to teach.” She asks people to turn their phones off during her shows because technology can get in the way of a real connection, she says. “I can’t create a connection with an audience that is watching me through a screen. You can’t. They’re not there. I really find when everyone puts their cell phones away, it’s a much better show. You feel it in a room. And I have to remember that when I am with my kids. If I am experiencing them through that little box then I’m not in the present. There’s a disconnect. Even though there is a temptation to document every moment because I know that they are not going to be that age again.” Ringwald truly believes that. One of her most famous quotes is “you can’t be 16 forever”. Even if the whole world wants to believe otherwise.
“I don’t believe in this reinvention that people seem to be obsessed with. I don’t feel the need to reinvent myself, it’s about evolution more so than reinvention. I have grown and I have changed and I am a different person than I was when I was 16 years old. Mainly, I’m just a lot smarter. More stuff has gone into my brain. Like, duh.”
When it Happens to You: A Novel in Stories is published by Harper Collins