By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 14, 2006
Two Valentine's Days ago, in the Style section, it was discussed at great length why women still think about Jake Ryan -- the cool-mannered, Porsche-driving, completely fictional hunk from the 1984 teen flick "Sixteen Candles." Then came the e-mail. Women (and some men) wrote in for months, mostly affirming this fantasy. One dreamer in Dallas talked about the lady down the street with toddler sons named Jake and Ryan. There was much linking and blogging. Even now, once in a while, Google will lead the Jakelorn our way. A New York documentary filmmaker came by last summer and set up lights and rearranged furniture and interviewed me -- she was making an entire movie about Jake Ryan.
"But what about," she finally asked, "Lloyd Dobler?"
Because, it turns out, for every one woman with a residual Jake Ryan thing there are maybe 100 with a persistent Lloyd Dobler fetish. Those women wrote in, too, extolling the character played by John Cusack in the 1989 movie "Say Anything": "How oblivious can you be," went a typical harangue. "Jake is plastic. Lloyd Dobler is God."
Heaps of devotional words have been written about Lloyd Dobler. The early stages of a popularized Internet seemed to exist for people to make Lloyd Dobler references, and Lloyd Dobler tribute pages that linger ("Last updated on July 1, 1997"). There's a fairly successful Wheaton-based band called the Lloyd Dobler Effect, which has toured forever. (Sadly, a Hootie and the Blowfish comparison in a review of the Lloyd Dobler Effect's work prevents us from going any further.)
Anyhow, here is your sequel, '80s ladies: Lloyd Dobler rules over Jake Ryan.
* * *
"Say Anything," which like all Saturday cable movies became a hit only in hindsight, was directed by backdoor zeitgeister Cameron Crowe, who sometimes nails it, especially about loners and rogues. In it, Lloyd Dobler has just graduated from a Seattle high school, class of '88. He is fond of wearing a tan wool trenchcoat, a Clash T-shirt and sweat pants with high-top sneakers. He drives a beat-up Chevy Malibu. He is in love with kickboxing, which he calls the "sport of the future," and more than that, he is in love with Diane Court (played by Ione Skye).
She is the smartest, perhaps prettiest girl in school, who is about to go to England on what in movieland passes for a Rhodes scholarship. She wears flowers in her hair or funky vintage-store '80s girl hats. She has a problem, as present-day screenings of "Say Anything" now demonstrate, with VPL (visible panty line), as did so many of her peers back then, before thongs. She has never given one single thought to Lloyd Dobler, until she does.
And so goes the love story: Diane assigns huge, symbolic importance to the moment when Lloyd makes sure she doesn't step on the broken glass in a 7-Eleven parking lot. Lloyd is thoroughly devoted to Diane, in spite of the skepticism from his platonic girlfriends, who like to hang out at a guitar store. (This is a Cameron Crowe conceit: Seattle chicks hanging out in guitar stores, writing post-punk songs about bad boyfriends, just before the grunge era.)
"You're not a guy," one of the chicks tells Lloyd. "The world is full of guys. Be a man, don't be a guy."
So he was a man. He writes a letter to Diane and says he loves her. She breaks up with him and gives him a pen. A gloomy montage later, he is standing on Diane's street in the predawn, trying to get her to love him.
In lore, he will be forever holding his boombox tape player high above his head, solemnly blasting the Peter Gabriel ballad "In Your Eyes." That's his song, their song. She chooses him in the end, mostly because her father is convicted for tax fraud.
"Jake Ryan is dessert, and Lloyd Dobler is like the vegetables you need," says Sasha Johnson, 29, a Washington TV producer. "Lloyd Dobler ruined men forever. I can't take total credit for this, an ex-boyfriend said this to me once. He contended that Lloyd Dobler's boombox moment became the pinnacle of romance -- the standard that no man could ever meet no matter how hard he tried. I've always loved Lloyd Dobler and have grown to appreciate him more as the years have gone on . . . the guy in high school that no woman wanted but ultimately now the kind of man we want to marry.
"He had that right mix of self-assuredness, sensitivity and geekiness. He was willing to make an insanely bold gesture to get the woman of his dreams back -- something every woman wishes could happen to her."
Shawna Shepherd, 28, an associate TV producer, agrees. "I am always on the hunt for the Lloyd Dobler type. Unfortunately the ones I've dated so far pale in comparison to the Hollywood character," she says. "Sure they were quirky, and the mix tapes award-winning -- I still listen to them -- but a shower and a treat to dinner every now and then would have been nice, too. And let's face it, if a guy stood outside with a boombox playing music outside my window, I'd be unimpressed and slightly freaked out."
Carrie Foster, 30, a Washington publicist, says, "Every time women hear 'In Your Eyes' by Peter Gabriel, there's a small part of us that swoons for the cynical, sensitive letter-writing nice guy. Diane Court got lucky -- her character was wretchedly annoying."
Chuck Klosterman, a complicatedly dorky New York rock critic who has ascended to omniscient pop-culture sageness (more powerful in his observations than even the combined forces of all those loudmouths on nostalgic VH1 shows), makes quick work of Lloyd Dobler in the very first pages of his 2003 book "Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs":
"Fake love is a very powerful thing," Klosterman observes. "I once loved a girl who almost loved me, but not as much as she loved John Cusack. . . . It appears that countless women born between the years of 1965 and 1978 are in love with John Cusack. . . . But here's what none of these upwardly mobile women seem to realize: They don't love John Cusack. They love Lloyd Dobler. When they see Mr. Cusack, they are still seeing the optimistic, charmingly loquacious teenager he played in 'Say Anything.' . . .
"I miss that girl. I wish I was Lloyd Dobler. I don't want anybody to step on a piece of broken glass. I want fake love. But that's all I want, and that's why I can't have it."
* * *
Lloyd is cynical and yet open; he is morose and yet curiously happy -- he believes.
Director/writer Crowe wanted a kid who was thoroughly "Reagan era": lover of good college-radio bands (Fishbone, the Replacements), unpretentious, and upbeat in the face of fashionable Cold War pessimism and ennui. Lloyd is happy, except when Lloyd is in a phone booth, soaking from the rain, when Diane has dumped him. Lloyd sits at Diane's family dinner table and explains his career goals, or lack thereof:
"I don't want to sell anything, buy anything or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought or processed, or repair anything sold, bought or processed. You know, as a career -- I don't want to do that." ("The quintessential underachiever bylaws," Carrie Foster says. "Or a press secretary in the making! His overwhelmingly dreamy romantic gestures are probably due to his complete lack of professional ambition. He would hate Washington, but would make a great writer for City Paper.")
Crowe has said -- in the godlike voice-overs a viewer can get from patiently sitting through the commentary mode on the "special edition" DVD of "Say Anything" -- that his idea for Lloyd Dobler revolved around the idea of "optimism as a revolutionary act." Crowe remembers a real-life Los Angeles neighbor of his who kept knocking on his door, interrupting his screenwriting to upbeatly describe his take on the world, or his latest kickboxing match. Crowe eventually wove that person into Lloyd Dobler.
Cusack, who turns 40 in June, was only 22 when he played the part (and, arguably, played it over and over -- the sensitive, mix-tape-making, imperfectly perfect boyfriend). He didn't want to do it, in that way 22-year-old actors are terrified of doing more high school roles. More terrifyingly, in Hollywood trivia myths, it has been said that Kirk Cameron, the teen idol star of TV's "Growing Pains," was up for the part. Crowe had to beg Cusack, who agreed only if he could fuse his own sensibility onto Lloyd. Unlike celebrities who are embarrassed or dismissive of their early work, Cusack is apparently almost always gracious when reporters who are writing about his latest movie ask about Lloyd. And they always ask.
For Lloyd lives -- largely in our minds, but that's not such a bad place to be.
Sasha Johnson thinks she has found an actual one, a guy she's been seeing for a year now. It's not like there was a broken-glass-in-the-7-Eleven-parking-lot moment she can base her hunches on, but it's a lot of things -- small kindnesses, a self-assuredness, a patience. Yes, he could be a Lloyd.