How did the baby-faced star of “Pretty in Pink,” “Less Than Zero” and “St. Elmo’s Fire” become an editor at large of National Geographic Traveler and a go-to director on “Orange Is the New Black” and “The Blacklist”? Beyond the occasional digression, “Brat” skips such introspection. There’s emotional honesty about the young man he was, but not about the Renaissance man he is now.
Readers instead settle for nebulous tales from McCarthy’s early stardom, though he is upfront about his memory’s fickleness. “What I claim here is not a definitive truth,” he writes, “but my experience of the truth, a truth that has informed and shaped my life over the decades.” Whether these vague anecdotes are purposefully evasive or the inevitable product of a mind peering into the past, it’s clear that this is no all-encompassing account.
That’s not to say that McCarthy’s recollections lack intrigue. The actor effectively paints his younger self as a sheepish outsider, torn between ambition and art, stumbling his way through an industry that doesn’t hand out road maps. Say what you will about the creative caliber of McCarthy’s filmography, he exudes a sincere appreciation of his craft. As he muses on method acting and on-set politicking, one senses McCarthy’s comfort in the director’s chair — and wonders why the book doesn’t expand on that evolution.
McCarthy’s meteoric rise puts him in the same orbit as myriad stars. There’s the sweet story of how he repeatedly sneaked, at intermission, into “Agnes of God” on Broadway and fawned over star Amanda Plummer at the stage door, then grabbed drinks with her as a Hollywood peer not long after. On a naughtier note, he recalls a night out with Robert Downey Jr. in which his “Less Than Zero” co-star got into all sorts of shenanigans before admitting that the troublemaking was a ruse — devised by director Marek Kanievska — to re-create their characters’ dynamic.
When it comes to the Brat Pack films, McCarthy provides an entertaining-enough glimpse behind the curtain. He revisits the awkwardness of shooting his intimate scenes with Ally Sheedy for “St. Elmo’s Fire” — and how director Joel Schumacher, demanding a steamier product on-screen, brought Sheedy to tears by screeching some not-fit-for-publication feedback mid-take. He also reveals that it was Molly Ringwald who sold him to skeptical writer John Hughes as the romantic lead of “Pretty in Pink,” even if McCarthy never bonded with either icon off screen.
In fact, McCarthy portrays himself as an outsider in the supposedly tightknit collection of Brat Pack stars, including Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Judd Nelson and Demi Moore. Once a New York magazine article coined that derisive label — which only later morphed into a term of endearment — McCarthy claims that an “every-man-for-himself attitude pervaded.” (Estevez, depicted as smug and self-interested, comes across particularly poorly.) There’s a wistful tenor to McCarthy’s take on the Brat Pack, though the lack of rapport with his contemporaries leaves the book surprisingly short on its nominal topic.
Instead, two complicated relationships emerge as “Brat” through lines. McCarthy lays the groundwork for a protracted struggle with drugs and alcohol by vividly recalling the “Pretty in Pink” premiere, which he ditched to down vodkas on the rocks at a deserted bar across the street. His huckster father, meanwhile, makes for an enduring source of consternation, as financial friction defines their relationship.
Eventually, McCarthy dives into his 1992 detox and subsequent sobriety, fearlessly opening up on bottoming out. His eventual reconciliation with his ailing father, meanwhile, delivers bittersweet catharsis. It speaks to an inherent flaw in the memoir, however: that its most therapeutic moments occur after the ’80s part of a book subtitled “An ’80s Story.”
Your mileage may vary on this trip down memory lane, depending on your affinity for the Brat Pack oeuvre. But considering the richness of McCarthy’s subsequent career, his most compelling chapters may remain to be written.
Thomas Floyd is a multiplatform editor who writes about arts and entertainment for The Washington Post.
An ‘80s Story
By Andrew McCarthy
Grand Central. 240 pp. $28