Looking back on life in the Brat Pack: ‘It never existed in any real way’

<span>From left: Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore, Rob Lowe, Mare Winningham and Andrew McCarthy in St Elmo's Fire.</span><span>Photograph: Associated Press</span>
From left: Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore, Rob Lowe, Mare Winningham and Andrew McCarthy in St Elmo's Fire.Photograph: Associated Press

If you’ve ever affectionately referred to Andrew McCarthy and his acting cohort as “the Brat Pack”, just know that they hated that label, which was coined in an infamous and arguably dismissive New York Magazine cover story. That’s what his new documentary, Brats, lays out before turning into something else: an opportunity for McCarthy to catch up with the audience and embrace how the term Brat Pack embalmed them in a seismic and precious pop-cultural moment.

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Brats is a personal journey, with camera in tow, for the actor who played the gentle but daft heartthrob opposite Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink and the forlorn one in the brattiest ensemble of them all, St Elmo’s Fire. The audience rides shotgun as McCarthy reunites with fellow Brat Packers like Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Ally Sheedy and Demi Moore. They therapize themselves and that moment (Moore is especially good at this), while it dawns on McCarthy what he and his castmates meant to the generation of mall rats from the 80s weaned on Pink Floyd and John Hughes coming-of-age movies.

“There’s no more wondrous moment in life than when you’re coming of age and blossoming,” says McCarthy, on a Zoom call with the Guardian. “We represent that for people.”

He’s reflecting on those 80s youth movies – like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Breakfast Club – that grew ubiquitous when Hollywood realized how often teens go to the movies. McCarthy, who made his screen debut starring opposite Rob Lowe in the 1980 movie Class (think The Graduate meets Meatballs), became a fixture alongside his contemporaries for young audiences who saw in those movies some idealized reflection of what they were experiencing at the time. “When they look at me, they see their own youth,” he says.

McCarthy is on the call from his house in New York, his brown eyeglass frames matching the exposed brick wall behind him. We’re talking about how he and his former castmates felt aggrieved by that June 1985 New York Magazine cover story, which was the outcome of Estevez trusting a journalist with a little too much access. Nearly four decades later, McCarthy made a movie about it.

There’s little chance the conversation I’m having with McCarthy will be made into a movie. There isn’t as much room for anything sensational coming out of the more common and rigid confines of our interview – 20 minutes under the watchful eye of a publicist with McCarthy being careful not to let me lead him too far from his comfortable talking points. It’s a far cry from the refreshingly unwieldy circumstances that led to David Blum’s salacious New York Magazine piece. “I don’t think a journalist has been allowed to go out for drinks with a subject since,” says McCarthy.

Brats is a reclamation story, an attempt by McCarthy to wrestle his narrative back from Blum’s piece, which began as a profile on Emilio Estevez and then grew into a witty, incisive and – in parts – cruelly unflattering assessment of a new breed of 80s movie stars.

Estevez invited Blum to join him and his St Elmo’s Fire co-stars Judd Nelson and Lowe for a night on the town. Blum subsequently reported on the way the stars cravenly sought attention and entertained groupies (and a Playboy Playmate of the Month). He observed them as entitled and narcissistic movie stars who had no professional acting or theatre training, who were commonly working together in ensembles targeting young audiences and who (much like their characters) were partying together like the Rat Pack once did. Blum dubbed Estevez, Lowe and Nelson – as well as Tom Cruise, Sean Penn and Matthew Broderick, among others – “the Brat Pack”, articulating that these stars captured the zeitgeist by playing extensions of themselves, members of the lost and unambitious generation portrayed in St Elmo’s Fire.

The story caught fire and the label stuck, but not just to the guys the article was about. Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald and Demi Moore aren’t even mentioned in the male-dominated New York Magazine story but became guilty by association. McCarthy is only mentioned once – in an unkind quote where one of his co-stars who remains unidentified suggests the theatre actor from New York is too intense and won’t make it. Yet he too became a core fixture of the Brat Pack according to a public that largely made it about the actors appearing in The Breakfast Club or St Elmo’s Fire or both – though the defining lines tend to shift.

“The Brat Pack is who people say it is,” says McCarthy, “because the Brat Pack never ‘existed’ in any real way. It’s more an idea of young actors who’d taken over Hollywood – we were the ones that were doing that at that moment, so we’re in the Brat Pack.”

The so-called Brat Pack responded to the article by largely having nothing to do with each other, going their separate ways so that they wouldn’t validate the claims about their insularity. In Brats, Estevez admits kiboshing working with McCarthy on a planned adaptation of Young Men with Unlimited Capital, the story of the men behind Woodstock. That was his attempt to escape a label that he once told the Guardian will end up on his tombstone.

For obvious reasons, I’m taken by the bits in McCarthy’s film that work as an anthropological look at celebrity journalism: the give and take between the stars and writers relishing their proximity to fame; the trust, defensiveness and performativity in these conversations; and how that’s evolved over time, perhaps as a result of Blum’s piece.

“That doesn’t interest me very much particularly,” says McCarthy, a point he repeats a couple more times during our conversation, even though his movie, about the way a piece of journalism affected his life, features several talking heads from the media, including Blum himself.

“I was just interested in how I knew it affected me on a personal level,” says McCarthy, speaking to his film as a whole and that reunion with Blum. “For X amount of years, I would have said: ‘I hated this guy.’ He wrote a hatchet job … It was a scathing condemnation of these young people.’ And I’d still say that to his face. But now none of that matters anymore. I actually sat across a table from him and had affection for him.

“He was just a young kid, trying to get his next job and trying to come up with something witty. That was the height of 80s snark New York Magazine journalism. That’s what they did; that kind of ‘gotcha’. That’s all he was trying to do.”

Trying to find a modern-day equivalent to the Brat Pack phenomenon, I mention the “nepo baby” discourse, the observation that gained traction on social media that so many of the new generation of stars – like Emma Roberts and Maya Hawke – are the children of celebrities. New York Magazine even had a cover story discussing how the term rankled the young stars the way “Brat Pack” still irks Estevez, an original nepo baby.

“They’d love to have lightning strike twice,” says McCarthy of New York Magazine’s nepo baby cover, before dismissing the comparison. He argues that nothing today could compete with the phenomenon the Brat Pack story became because we no longer live in a monoculture where everyone watches – or is at least aware of – the same movies and are consuming the same media.

“If it had come out now, with my own socials, I could have pushed back,” says McCarthy. “I could have pushed back and created my own narrative. We had no way to create a narrative at all.

“That was a narrative that this guy [created] and it was so good, so witty and so clever that other people just grabbed. [They] picked it up on the wire, put it in their newspapers. Literally within a week, the world is saying: ‘You’re the Brat Pack.’ We’re like: ‘What?!’”

  • Brats is available on 13 June on Hulu in the US and Disney+ elsewhere