book reviews, celebrities, movies

A review of Brat: An 80s Story, by Andrew McCarthy

As a child of the 70s and 80s, I grew up watching films made by the mythical Brat Pack, a group of young actors of the 1980s who made wildly popular films and had reputations for bad behavior. As a twelve year old, who was also a fan of the hit sitcom, The Facts of Life, I had watched Molly Ringwald go from her adolescent feminist character on TV to a huge movie star in John Hughes’ hilarious coming of age films. I had also seen St. Elmo’s Fire, which starred Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore, Mare Winningham, Rob Lowe, and of course, Andrew McCarthy. Andrew McCarthy then went on to star with Molly Ringwald in the 1987 Hughes film, Pretty in Pink, which was a hugely successful movie in terms of money made, even if the reviews were kind of lukewarm.

My teen years were in the 1980s, so I was a big fan of the so-called Brat Pack actors. They seemed to be friends, always starring in movies together. Many of the movies made by “Brat Packers” were John Hughes vehicles, but St. Elmo’s Fire was a Joel Schumacher film. I had loved that movie, too… and being a big music fan, I also loved the soundtracks that came from 80s era films like The Breakfast Club, which Andrew McCarthy was not in, and St. Elmo’s Fire, of which Andrew McCarthy was a cast member. It was a no-brainer that I would read Andrew’s 2021 book, Brat: An 80s Story. I knew I would enjoy it because of the subject matter, but I also knew that Andrew McCarthy is an excellent writer, having read and reviewed his travel book The Longest Way Home: One Man’s Quest For the Courage to Settle Down back in 2014. I remember how I had devoured Andrew’s fascinating travel stories and marveled at how good of a writer he is. To be honest, I much prefer his writing to his acting.

Brat: An 80s Story is a look at how Andrew McCarthy broke into acting and almost killed himself with an addiction to alcohol. The book also sheds some light on Andrew’s middle class upbringing on the East Coast, one of four brothers. He had a difficult relationship with his father, who disdained Andrew’s chosen career path of acting, yet never missed a chance to ask for money once Andrew hit the big time. In fact, a number of Andrew’s friends and relatives hit him up for cash, and he says that most of them resented him for giving them the money. Having seen Andrew McCarthy in several films, I had this image of him as a posh New Yorker type. But the truth is, he grew up much like a lot of people do, and he got terrible grades in high school. He barely got into New York University’s acting program and never intended to graduate, having set his sights on a career in theater. He ended up with a movie career instead.

I enjoyed reading about Andrew McCarthy’s experiences making movies in the 80s. He definitely strips some of the glamour and mystique from the movie business, describing how he would meet legendary stars like Jaqueline Bisset (he starred with her in Class, which was his debut)– driven to a meeting in a fancy car. Then, afterwards, someone would give him cab fare or he’d bum a ride from an assistant. He mentions the conditions of working on The Beniker Gang, a movie he did in 1984, about a group of orphans who want to be a family. He clued me into some things I’d never noticed about his films, like Pretty in Pink. For instance, I never noticed at the end of the film that Andrew was wearing a badly fitted hairpiece, even though I’ve seen that movie dozens of times. The ending of Pretty in Pink had to be reshot and, at the time, Andrew was in a play in New York that had required him to shave his head.

He’s wearing a wig! I never knew! Take a close look at the “parking lot” at the end… I also loved reading about how Molly helped Andrew get cast in Pretty in Pink.

Interspersed within his stories about making famous and infamous movies of the 80s, Andrew McCarthy includes some stories about how he fell into alcoholism and drug abuse. I get the sense that Andrew was more of a drunk than a druggie, but drinking to excess had led McCarthy to ruin. He made several forgettable and terrible films in 1987, and he made some devastating mistakes squandering opportunities that could have propelled his movie career into the stratosphere. Some readers may not like this aspect of McCarthy’s story. Looking at Amazon’s reviews, I notice that some people were hoping for more of a tell all about Hollywood life and making films. But I think Andrew’s confessions about his drinking habits are helpful and insightful. Andrew drank to excess because he was struggling with insecurities. The drinking helped, until it didn’t anymore. McCarthy’s stories about his booze habit explain why he made 80s era turkeys like Fresh Horses and Mannequin, and turned down an opportunity to work with Robert Redford.

I haven’t seen many of the movies done by Andrew McCarthy after Pretty in Pink. I did like him in that movie, as well as a few others he’s done. I enjoyed Weekend At Bernie’s, for instance, and even saw it in the theater. I almost never go to the movies, especially nowadays! But I did memorably see that flick at a theater with an ex boyfriend. It’s important to note that this book really only focuses on the 1980s and McCarthy’s work during that decade. Don’t expect to learn anything about what he’s done since then. Also, he only mentions his wife and children in passing in this book, although he does include some stories about his relationships with members of his family of origin, especially his dad. I could relate to his issues with his father, which is another reason I liked this book.

There’s something about McCarthy’s “sensitive” schtick that has always kind of turned me off a little bit, even as I thought he was kind of cute in an East Coast sort of way. I really do like him better as a writer. Brat: An 80s Story has some candid, self-deprecating moments in it that are endearing and relatable. He never comes off as cocky. Instead, it’s almost like he can’t believe the surreal circumstances that put him where he is today. He really has had some extraordinary experiences. He was actually in Germany at the Berlin Wall when it fell, and was recognized by a German soldier for being in the movie Heaven Help Us (known as Catholic Boys in Europe, where it was very successful). He also made friends with Claude Chabrol, a legendary French director who gave him the sage advice– “What is true today may not be true tomorrow”.

McCarthy comes across as someone who’s real, and I liked his anecdotes about what life as a star was like for him in his heyday. It sounds like he’s a lot happier and more grounded now, since he’s branched into writing. And he definitely dispels the myth of the “Brat Pack”. Even though it seemed like that cohort of actors were all buddies who did everything together, the truth is, the Brat Pack never really existed as anything more than a concept put out by a journalist who happened to hang out with Rob Lowe, Judd Nelson, and Emilio Estevez one raucous night. After the filming stopped, so did the relationships. Andrew says he’s never seen Judd or Emilio again in the years since St. Elmo’s Fire, and he’s only run into the other actors sporadically.

In some ways, Brat: An 80s Story also reminds me a little bit of Justine Bateman’s book, Fame, in which she describes how “reality” was hijacked by becoming a famous 80s era actress. Much of what McCarthy writes about his experiences during that era echo Justine Bateman’s experiences as a famous sitcom star who grew up on TV. But I think I enjoyed McCarthy’s book more than I did Bateman’s. He has a gift for storytelling, making it seem more as if he’s a friend sharing a tale in a room, rather than a celebrity. He also includes photos, including an adorable one of him as a child, riding a bike.

I enjoyed this book very much and would recommend it to those who want to know more about Andrew McCarthy’s acting career, as well as a few tidbits about show business itself. However, for those hoping for a dishy tell all, it might be a disappointment. Personally, I liked Brat: An 80s Story. I appreciated the look at McCarthy’s past and how he’s become the person he is today. I think he did a good job marrying the juicy Hollywood dishing with insights about who he is as a person. If that sounds good to you, I recommend reading Andrew McCarthy’s book, Brat: An 80s Tale.

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book reviews, celebrities

Repost: Brooke Hayward explains how her family went Haywire

Here’s another reposted book review. I originally wrote it for Epinions.com on January 9, 2012. It was reposted on my old blog exactly six years later. And now, I’m reposting it again, almost three years after the last repost. As this was written in 2012, please bear in mind that some things in my life have changed since then.

Television has certainly changed since I was a child.  Back when I was still at a tender age, movies of the week were very common on the big three networks.  I remember back in 1980, there was a movie of the week starring Lee Remick and Jason Robards called Haywire.  Though my memories of the actual film are hazy, I did remember the movie was high on drama and based on a book by the same name written by Brooke Hayward.  When I recently got the urge to read something new, I went looking for Haywire.  To my delight, it was available on Amazon.com, both in print form and for the Kindle.  I downloaded a copy and spent the next week reading all about how Brooke Hayward’s family went “haywire”.

Who is Brooke Hayward?

Being a child of the 70s, I haven’t seen that many classic movies.  Consequently, I am not all that familiar with Brooke Hayward’s mother, Margaret Sullavan, who was a successful actress and film star.  I’m also not familiar with Brooke Hayward’s father, Leland Hayward, a reknowned Broadway and Hollywood agent.  But the two were at one time a couple and their marriage produced three children: Brooke, Bridget, and Bill.  Besides her turn as an author, Brooke Hayward is known for being Dennis Hopper’s first wife and a model and actress.

Brooke Hayward has also had many famous stepparents.  Her father was also married to Nancy “Slim” Keith and Pamela Harriman.  His first wife was Lola Gibbs.  They divorced, remarried, and divorced again before Brooke was born.  Also before Brooke was born, her mother had a brief marriage to Henry Fonda and a slightly longer marriage to Hollywood director and screenwriter, William Wyler.  At the time of her early death, Margaret Sullavan was married to Kenneth Wagg, an investment banker.

How things went “haywire”

Haywire is, at its core, a book about growing up with Margaret Sullavan and Leland Hayward as parents.  But at a deeper level, this book is also about being a child of divorce and an innocent bystander to mental illness.  This book was written in 1977, before people talked about how divorce affects children.  Indeed, when Margaret Sullavan and Leland Hayward split up, divorce was not nearly as common as it is today.  It was a source of shame.

In her elegant writing style, Hayward describes how Leland Hayward and Margaret Sullavan grew up and eventually came together, even though they were very different people.  Leland Hayward liked to live a fancy life, while Margaret Sullavan was more grounded and determined not to let their children grow up spoiled.  Hayward liked the city, while Sullavan preferred the country.  Hayward was a sophisticated jetsetter, while Sullavan remained faithful to her Virginia roots.  They were a mismatched couple, even though their marriage lasted a somewhat respectable (by Hollywood standards, anyway) eleven years.

When Brooke Hayward’s parents split up, she and her brother and sister were asked to take sides.  By Hayward’s account, Margaret Sullavan was very possessive of her children and would manipulate them through guilt.  When they had disagreements with her, Margaret Sullavan would suggest they go live with their father, suggesting that it was somehow a punishment.  One day, Bridget and Bill Hayward agreed that, yes, they would prefer living with their dad.  Apparently, that revelation drove Margaret Sullavan to a nervous breakdown.

Aside from problems stemming from their parents’ divorce, Bridget and Bill Hayward had significant mental health issues.  Both committed suicide.  Bridget died of a drug overdose in 1960 at age 21, just months after Margaret Sullavan’s own suicidal overdose.  Bill Hayward died in 2008 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  Both Bridget and Bill spent a great deal of time in mental hospitals. 

Interspersed with her ruminations about life with two world famous but troubled parents, Hayward injects plenty of tales about her contemporaries.  Peter and Jane Fonda were contemporaries and Brooke, Bridget, and Bill spent a lot of time with them.  She describes the elegant lifestyle she enjoyed, despite her mother’s determinations to prevent her children from being spoiled by excess.

This book was updated in 2010 and has a new epilogue, which updates readers on how Brooke and Bill turned out.  There are also pictures which looked great on the Kindle.

My thoughts

I am not a child of divorce, but I am a stepmother to my husband’s two very alienated young adult daughters.  I have only met my husband’s daughters once and they haven’t spoken to my husband since 2004.  Like Brooke Hayward, I have had an up close and personal look at the way divorce can screw up children.  On ther other hand, divorce can be a lifesaver when two people don’t get along.  And if it’s done correctly and the parents put their kids first, it can be a good thing for a dysfunctional family.  Naturally, it works best when parents can cooperate with each other. 

As I read Haywire, it appeared to me that Margaret Sullavan and Leland Hayward did, on some level, try to co-parent.  Sullavan didn’t like sending her kids to see their dad, but she did at least allow them to maintain that relationship.  However, Brooke Hayward’s account is very telling in that Sullavan was adept at emotionally blackmailing her children.  She made disparaging remarks about Leland Hayward and, though she might not have done it on purpose, asked her kids to take sides.  Clearly, this kind of manipulation eventually took a toll on all three children.  While most children of divorce do grow up without having to do time in a mental hospital or prematurely ending their lives, Hayward’s account of how she missed out on time with her father is very revealing. 

Leland Hayward was not blameless either.  He was somewhat guilty of being a “Disney Dad”, lavishing gifts and money on the children in order to assauge his guilt over not being around.  He was not faithful to Sullavan and that was one of the reasons they split.  I’m sure there was guilt stemming from that as well.

One thing I was glad to see is that Brooke, Bridget, and Bill seemed to get along with all of their stepparents.  I did notice that they seemed to like some of their parents’ choices more than others.  For instance, Brooke really seemed to like her first stepmother, Nancy, more than she liked socialite and future U.S. Ambassador to France Pamela Harriman, who was married to Leland Hayward at the time of his death.  Of course, Pamela Harriman is a fascinating subject all on her own! 

Overall 

While I can’t claim to be a fan of Margaret Sullavan as an actress, nor did I ever follow Brooke Hayward’s acting career, I will admit to liking Haywire.  It’s a fascinating read on so many levels.  It’s entertaining for people who enjoy reading about classic film stars.  It’s also great for people who like to read about family systems.  And now I’d like to re-watch the film that prompted me to read this book.

An ad for the made for TV movie, which was based on the book. I remember watching this film when it aired.

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon.com on sales made through my site.

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