Friday, December 3, 2010


My friends hate me now.
Emilio Estevez

Will it ever end?
Rob Lowe

When I saw it, I just knew, that's it.
Judd Nelson

Needless to say, not many participants came away from this film unscathed.

The term “Brat Pack” originated with this film and not – as the popular misconception runs – with The Breakfast Club, also released earlier that year. The term first appeared in the June 10, 1985 issue of New York magazine, two weeks before S.E.F. was released. Unfortunately, as we will see, Hollywood’s Brat Pack was the cover story that week (alongside the eerily similar “Ronald Reagan’s Great Right Hope"), which may have helped cement the moniker in the pop culture arena. The phrase had 19 days to sink into the consciousness of the American republic, which makes S.E.F. the quintessential Brat Pack film not through merit but through sheer perfect timing -- the kind a magazine editor dreams about.

David Blum (pictured above), a writer from Queens not much older than his subjects, was originally assigned to cover the rising career of Emilio Estevez. Estevez invited Blum to hang with him, Lowe and Nelson as they held court at the newly built Hard Rock Café in West Hollywood, much in the same way the original Hollywood Rat Pack (Humphrey Bogart, Erroll Flynn et al) held court in Holmby Hills and the Polo Lounge. Unlike the second and best-known version of the Rat Pack (Sinatra, Sammy, Dino), the young actors were not seasoned Hollywood vets who could get away with the privileged behavior of their antecedents. Observed Blum: “What distinguishes these young actors from generations past is that most of them have skipped the one step toward success that was required of the generation of Marlon Brando and James Dean, and even that of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino: years of acting study.” Estevez (“the unofficial president of the Brat Pack”) was the son of established Hollywood actor Martin Sheen and was already on his way to building his pseudo-auteur writer-director-actor persona. (He was already at work at his scripts for That Was Then, This Is Now and the terminally idiotic Clear Intent -- later flopping in theaters as Men At Work -- and the bargain-basement vanity project Wisdom.) According to Blum, Estevez “stands as a vivid prototype of the Brat Pack he seems to lead. Barely 23 years old, he is already accustomed to privilege and appears to revel in the attention heaped upon him almost everywhere he goes..He is living the life that any American male might dream of—to be young, single, and famous.” These words would come back to haunt both writer and subject.

The young stars' universally negative reaction to Blum's profile was certainly understandable. If you are woefully unprepared for the demands of instant (or even gradual) fame, you will certainly be unprepared for anything not remotely worshipful that pops up about you in the press. But then again: Remember how invincible you felt when you were young? Now multiply that times 100 and add in agents, limos, parties, media buzz, hotel-elevator fellatio, pushy parents and everyone telling you “You’re It!!!” Blum adopts a by-now identifiable tone; today, this would be described as “snarktastic,” but it's really as old as newsprint itself: the adopting of a sort of big picture glibness that acts as a journalistic wedge between you and your subjects. It’s also the way a journalist “sells” a story to a reader, by taking a sort of removed-yet-commanding tone (e.g., America’s trust in newsman Walter Cronkite seemed to increase according to how stentorian he made his voice). After all, one of the first thing they teach you in Lamestream Media 101 is that it’s a fine line between an article and a press release.

Of course, some writers can – and have – go to far with this distancing technique, but reading Blum’s piece today, it’s surprising how tame it is. Lowe does not come off as a dick but as a fresh faced young kid from Ol’ Virginee who is simply and naively dazzled – like a child gazing for the first time at pretty Christmas lights – by all the hubbub surrounding him and his niggaz. Nelson, however, comes off as the guy who makes celebrity encounters with the common folk an awkward and unpleasant affair. (In one painful frieze, a young girl who is invited over to their table sits down next to Nelson, who ignores her while loudly opining to everyone else: “You can let them get close but you can’t let them sit down.”) When it comes to the actor he terms "the overrrated one", Blum's observations seem stung with the same kind of appropriate indignation anyone would feel as watching an entitled young scrub act like a bitter ass-jack: "And now, in St. Elmo’s Fire, [Nelson] shows—with his role as a congressional assistant—that he was better off when typecast.”

Yes, there is a sour vinegary aftertaste to Blum’s observations (“Estevez, who is only five foot six…”; “No one from the Brat Pack has graduated from college…”) but that was nothing compared to the pillorying Blum received from the actors themselves. “You’ve ruined my life! How could you do this to me?” yelled Estevez to Blum on the day the article hit the newsstands, when angry calls from P.R. agents overwhelmed the New York switchboards. Lowe was particularly vicious, running to both the Chicago Sun-Times, where he maintained that the writer had “burned a lot of bridges” and was "not Hunter Thompson or Tom Wolfe, he’s David Blum living in a cheap flat,” and the Donahue show, where he stated that Blum was “jealous of their fame and wealth and success” and joined the other cast members in calling him an “unethical creep.” (In an almost unforgivable betrayal from one of Blum’s peers, Time magazine movie critic Richard Shickel appeared on the same show and defended the Brats by calling Blum “sleazy.”) When jewelry designer Loree Rodkin, at the time Judd Nelson's manager and bed partner, encountered Blum at a screening, she called him a “vile human being” and publicly castigated him until he fled the screening. Schumacher later commented to a journalist that when he met Blum, “smelled about him the person who had never been invited to the party in high school—that he looked at this group of beautiful, talented, perhaps overpaid young people, and…he had found a way to get even.” Producer Lauren Schuler Donner agreed: “This is a guy seeing something that he didn’t have.” Thing is, Blum completely admitted there was a sliver of envy in his writing. But, his point was, so what? “I, like everybody else in America who isn’t a Hollywood movie star probably thought being a Hollywood movie star is a pretty cool thing.”

There is much that is prescient about Blum’s article—particularly his indirect foreseeing of the future of overpaid Hollywood actors like Tom Cruise, who would tip the balance away from directors and command enormous salaries that could make or break a production. But Blum’s most piquant observation comes from how the transistory qualities of fame and success might bite these young cheubs in the ass: “The Brats will be coming to New York this month to promote St. Elmo’s Fire, which all of them seem rather obsessed with. Each new Brat Packer movie carries with it an increased burden – if it is not a success, the young unknowns starring in the hit movie of the moment might come up from behind and replace them. And that would mean the end of the kind of ensemble efforts that created the Brat Pack.” Blum even gives Judd Nelson credit for having such self-awareness: “You can be ‘hot’ and be a shamelessly poor actor. It’s possible, now it’s possible to be at the top for half a second and then disappear. It’s such a strange thing, to try to build a career on this heat.”

If there is a slight unfairness about the article, is that Blum simply profiled three of the St. Elmo stars, and that actors who didn’t hang out with them or were interested in other things than partying got included in with the rest. (Moore, Sheedy and McCarthy were mentioned only in passing -- Winningham not at all.) Ally Sheedy told Interview in 1998: "[The article] immediately started this terrible association with us, that we were these kids who had too much, too fast.” Andrew McCarthy, who wound up nursing a nasty cigarette and alcohol habit much in the vein of his S.E.F. character, told the New York Observer in 1999. "It didn't have anything to do with me!  It didn't exist!”" McCarthy told writer Susanna Gora: "The media made up this sort of tribe. I don't think I've seen any of these people since we finished St. Elmo's Fire."

In some weird way, the “fallout” from the New York article prevented an even-more-embarrassing sequel to S.E.F. Screenwriter Carl Kurlander, who would later go to write and produce Saved by the Bell: The New Class, has admitted that Schumacher started him on a “St. Elmo’s II” script immediately after the first film but that it was too soon and also impossible to get the young cast members together again. Director Joel Schumacher has expressed interest in reuniting the cast for a sequel and claims he gets weekly letters and emails pleading with him to continue the story of our Georgetown urchins.

Evidence of general impatience about this forgettable unforgettable film came last August when ABC annouced it was readying a reboot of the movie as a TV series with Schumacher and New Brat Topher Grace among the producers. This prompted the folks at to imagine their ideal casting choices for the series, which makes all of us who grew up on the original feel mighty mighty old.

What St. Elmo's Fire says about the United States in the 1980s is not nearly so trenchant as what it says about bad art immemorial: that there will always be astonishingly poor taste, and people who shouldn't be succeeding in their vocations succeeding in their vocations to the great frustration of everyone with a shred of talent or sensitivity…The Brat Pack is about being facile little shits on top of the world headed for the painful fall of the rest of their lives--there's poetry, even familiarity, in that, and watching them when the world was their oyster has to it an air of cloying sadness.
Amazon comments by Thomas F. Redmond from Cleveland, OH, 3/31/05

Theoretically, if I could do it over again, I would not have done St. Elmo's Fire. I wouldn't have done it. But I have no regrets about any of it. Fame didn't get to me. I tried to behave myself. Looking back, I wouldn't have gone out as much. I would've stayed home more...I like to call it the exuberance of shame and youth."
Judd Nelson, Cybermutt, 12/01


No comments:

Post a Comment