By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 14, 2004
Listen to all the Thompson Twins songs you want, but let's finally admit that Jake Ryan from "Sixteen Candles" is never coming to get you.
Not in the red Porsche 944, and not wearing that Fair Isle sweater vest. Not with his shiny black hair moussed gently heavenward, not with his gooey brown eyes and square Matt Dillonesque jaw. He will not be standing there with his hands in the pockets of his 501 button-fly jeans (while leaning against said Porsche), and he will not be shyly waving at you from across the street. ("Yeah, you," he mouths, just as in the movie, after you look behind you to see what girl he could possibly be interested in.)
Let's be even more clear: Popular high school seniors don't dump their cheerleader girlfriends with great bods so they can ask out a sophomore girl nobody notices. Jake did not actually do this, because he is not real.
This last fact has not stopped many, many women (and not a few men on the refreshment committee) from wishing there was such a thing as Jake Ryan.
Jake Ryan, Jake Ryan, Jake Ryan. Write his name in loopy cursive on a piece of loose-leaf notebook paper and pass it on. Even though it has been two decades since the release of John Hughes's high school comedy "Sixteen Candles," there are women out there in their late-twenties to mid-thirties (and even younger, including teenage girls today who weren't even around in that era) who to this day are still pining for a fictional character, the perfect high school crush.
"Jake Ryan? He's only the most popular boy in school," goes a line from the movie. The simple utterance of his name is enough to add salt to the wound of Valentine's Day.
"He's the whole package," says Andrea Danyo, 28, who does public relations work for National Public Radio. "Even just the name has become something. I swoon when I hear it. . . . For just about all of my friends, 'Jake Ryan' is a given moniker for the ideal boy, as in, 'Yeah, it was a good date, but he's clearly no Jake Ryan.' "
"You had to believe in him," says Amy Kramer, 34, a producer for "Good Morning America" based in Washington. "The world would have been a much better place if everybody had a Jake Ryan. That movie came out when I was 15, and imagine being a 15-year-old and you find out there's a terrific, handsome, popular, rich guy who breaks up with the bitchy gorgeous cheerleader and actually notices the quirkily smart but not exactly attractive redhead. . . . And don't ever forget this, Jake Ryan was the guy who got back her panties from the geeks and did not make a big deal of it and didn't tell the whole school about it. And the same thing with the 'sex test' that she filled out and then dropped on the floor, which Jake found. Did he then show it to all his friends? No, he did not. If that happened now, that sex test would be scanned and on the Internet in two seconds. Oh, gosh, Jake Ryan. Just thinking about it now, I get . . . kind of . . . It's all just too good to be true."
It turns out the hardworking women of the broadcast milieu have lots of thoughts about Jake Ryan.
Kramer attributes her own advanced studies in Jakeology to the many weekends she used to work at CNN, where the television on her desk received only Ted Turner's channels, which have long had a habit of rerunning the John Hughes teen movie oeuvre ad nauseam Saturday afternoons. (And anyone who went to high school in the 1980s understands how difficult it can be to turn away from "Sixteen Candles" or "The Breakfast Club" or "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," no matter how busy they are, how many times they've seen it, or how many commercial breaks come along.)
Women who fell hard for Jake Ryan have for years secretly harbored the idea of the one true and perfect boyfriend who (through some Hollywood miracle we're never quite made to understand) notices the freckly, insecure wallflower Samantha Baker, played by Molly Ringwald, whose family has forgotten her 16th birthday. Ringwald stands in for Everygirl, who, on some subconscious level, hated being a teenager.
In the movie's happy ending, it turns out Jake (played by long-ago vanished model-actor Michael Schoeffling) has just as big of a crush on Samantha. He shows up at the end and takes her away to his big, rich house and gets her a birthday cake aglow with candles. This image of them sitting on top of the dining room table burned hot and permanent into the post-boomer female psyche.
"Make a wish," he tells her, about to kiss her.
"It already came true," she manages before the lip lock. Cue New Wave popsters Thompson Twins singing "If You Were Here."
And here's where reality intrudes:
"Thanks for bringing this [Jake Ryan's nonexistence] to my attention," e-mails Penny Britell, 35, who works as a producer at CBS News in Washington. "It reminded me that my lawsuit against John Hughes, Michael Schoeffling ('Jake'), and Universal Studios (collectively, 'the parties of the second part') is still in limbo whilst the Supreme Court decides whether to hear the case, which seeks unlimited damages for the permanent emotional disability incurred as a result of seeing aforementioned film and consequently believing such perfect men existed."
"Sadly, no," Kramer says. "I mean, did anyone ever find a Jake? I have a terrific husband I love dearly, but when it comes to Jake Ryan . . . I'm speechless."
"Sixteen Candles," believed in some circles to be the best of Hughes's hyper-realistic paeans to suburban teenage life, offered the hope, before life dashed it.
"In hindsight, what a load of crap! As if the popular high school boy would ever dump the pretty blond cheerleader for the alternative girl," types Lisa Ling, 30, from someplace in China, presumably off on another assignment for her host duties at "National Geographic Ultimate Explorer." (Ling is also a former kaffeeklatscher on "The View.")
"If you're going to totally mislead your audience into believing such a farce to be true," Ling writes, "how about having the hot chick fall for Long Duk Dong?" (Long Duk Dong, for the uninitiated, would be that unfortunate Asian stereotype in "Sixteen Candles" played by Asian stereotype specialist Gedde Watanabe. He would be a tangent all his own, as would Anthony Michael Hall's triumphant portrayal of "the Geek," aka Farmer Ted, the anti-Jake. Now focus, ladies, please.)
* * *
Why Schoeffling? Why Jake? Why him and not any of a hundred other hunky love interests from underwhelmingly successful teen flicks and TV shows? ("I'm trying to think of another one who compares to him," Danyo ventures, "and there aren't. . . . Maybe that's why I'm single. Maybe he really has ruined it for us all.")
Women can talk about Jake two ways:
The first way is easy and chatty, in the hyperactive sing-song you hear from people who appear on all those VH1 retro-documentaries about '80s pop culture. (Oh, those weird, wacky '80s trends! Remember??!!) Actress Sarah Michelle Gellar told Cosmopolitan magazine in 1998 that "John Hughes killed high school for me" and Jake Ryan ruined her on love (this was before she met Freddie Prinze Jr., who falls somewhat short of Jakeness). Same goes for Jennifer Love Hewitt, who in 2002 told Rolling Stone, "My whole life, I've been waiting for Jake Ryan . . . to come and get me." And Moon Unit Zappa -- the ur-Valley Girl -- told the Times of London in 2000 that she used to carry around a photo of Schoeffling in her wallet, and even now: "I'd watch ["Sixteen Candles"] with anyone, even a stranger off the street. And if they don't like it, they're no friend of mine."
The second way of talking through Jake-related issues is harder. It's about an ache, a loss. It's about the imperfection of life. In the movie, Ringwald's character muses on what a 16th birthday is supposed to be like: "A big Trans-Am in the driveway with a ribbon on it and some incredibly gorgeous guy you meet in France and you do it on a cloud without getting pregnant or herpes." In this way she is asking for a miracle and Jake is Christ, redeeming the evil sins of high school. Jake as the ideal. Jake as the eternal belief in something better. (Jake on the phone, leaving a message Samantha is temporarily fated not to receive: "Would it be possible for you to tell me if there is a Samantha Baker there, and if so, may I converse with her briefly?")
Some women admit, when they look back at the movie, that there are a few red flags: "I don't really like guys who drive nice cars," Danyo says, thinking of the Porsche. "But I think he still has values." Also, there is the nagging suspicion that Jake only notices Samantha when he chances upon the lost "sex test" she fills out in her independent study period, writing that Jake Ryan is the one boy she would "do it" with. Also, he's a rich kid who hangs out with jocks and bimbos, and nothing good ever came of that, not in high school.
But Jake stands the test of time, even in his good looks. His wardrobe -- cargo pants, plaid shirt -- portends an Abercrombie vibe years before it came. His haircut requires only minor tweaking in a mental update of the fantasy. "He's timeless. He doesn't have a Flock of Seagulls hairstyle or anything," says Rick Sayre, 30, a bookstore employee in Miami who started a Web page devoted not only to the Jake Ryan ideal but to locating Schoeffling.
(Sayre's not the only one to try to root out the reclusive former actor. A 16-year-old high school junior in South Carolina named Julie also has a hunt-for-Schoeffling Web site. She didn't want her last name used, but would tell us, by phone, that she thinks it "would have been really cool" to go to high school in the '80s, instead of in this century.)
* * *
Finding Michael Schoeffling isn't nearly as easy as finding his fans. He did eight movies after "Sixteen Candles," none of them a big hit, the last of them in 1991. He played small parts, mostly as the hunky love interest.
He's 43 now and, last anyone heard, lives near Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where he owns a hand-crafted furniture business. (Yes, Jakettes: He's a carpenter. He works with his hands. In his last interview, in 1991, he was happily married to his wife, Valerie. Their two children would be teenagers now.) He's unlisted, and other Schoefflings in rural Pennsylvania won't help inquisitive fans. GQ magazine looked for him in 2002, and gave up, calling him "the Salinger of male model/actors."
"I cannot over-explain or over-emphasize the importance of Jake Ryan and that movie," says Amy Kramer. "You go look in the Social Security database. Look at how many baby boys were named Jake by women who saw 'Sixteen Candles' in the 1980s. Or even Ryan. Go to a toddler park and count all the Jakes. If your kid's not named Max, he's named Jake."
"The whole thing is he's not real, I know that," says Melissa Raddatz, 26, a New York-based publicist. "What he does in that movie are things you would just want a guy to know to do. And in reality, they don't."
"He takes care of everything," says Allison Deiboldt, a research analyst at Disney/ABC in New York and a bit young, at 23, for Jake worship. "Who knows if she ever ends up being with Jake or marrying him. You don't even need to know if they end up being the best couple on the planet.
"You just need that hope."