Molly Ringwald: Sixteen Candles in the Wind

Molly Ringwald, once the style-setter of her generation, is now a beloved, nostalgic fallen icon. She will or she won't come back, but there's no doubt she's the height of chic in limbo.

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I'm sitting at the end of a runway at a fashion show that tout le New York has clamored to see. The fashion press are here in force, and it's being simulcast on the JumboTron in Times Square. The models--one Matt Helm girl-type fantasy after another--strut, twirl, prance and sashay in an increasingly mad collection of hot designer Cynthia Rowley's creations. Finally, it's the finale. And what a finale: the model emerges in a flame-red bridal gown. Oddly, though, she seems hesitant. But then her entrance receives a huge burst of applause, and she's off, working the runway like she's remaking Funny Face. The crowd buzzes wildly. Is that really Molly Ringwald? She looks faaabulous! Up there, feeling the heat she's stirring up. Molly Ringwald bursts into a dazzling smile, popping her head and tossing out her arms as if to say, Yes, it's REALLY Molly Ringwald. The program notes, pushing the bridal theme, say, ''Molly .... And she lived happily ever after."

When Molly Ringwald was the teen dream girl of the mid-'80s, the nexus of high school longing in John Hughes's teen trilogy-- Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink--she was at a height you almost have to fall from. With all icons, our fear that they will come to harm becomes inextricably tangled with our desire to see it happen. Is that because our relationship with them seems so intimate there in the dark, yet we know, once someone throws on the lights, it's all a hustle? Movie stars, being silver ghosts, projections of desire, are, by definition, betrayers. And we exact a toll for that betrayal.

Molly Ringwald paid and still pays for her reign as a pop culture princess. In the play No Time Flat, a Ringwald-like character bearing the initials "MR" loses it and totals her car. The alternative rock group Sponge's song "Molly" eulogizes her, shrouding her in Warholesque glamour: Cigarette stains on your hands, wilted flowers in a vase... Don't ask why, don't ask why... Sixteen candles down the drain, Hollywood honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg has weighed-in on Ringwald's spinout: "I wouldn't know [Molly Ringwald] if she sat on my face."

Certainly, the list of movies Ringwald made after parting ways with John Hughes reads like a road map to oblivion: The Pick-up Artist, Fresh Horses, For Keeps, Betsy's Wedding, Strike It Rich, King Lear. When career disappointments like these--atop a heap of trouble in her personal life--propelled her into expatriation in Paris, it did not seem all that likely she would be recalled to glory soon.

Does anyone out there miss Ally Sheedy or Judd Nelson? Of course not, not even in the atmosphere of instant nostalgia we now live in. Ringwald was something more, though. She wrapped up the '80s the way Diane Kealon did the '70s and Sandra Dee the '50s. Lots of people grew up lovin' Molly. Girls styled themselves after her. Guys fantasized about her. She landed on Time's cover. When people get as famous as Ringwald was, they can hardly ever go completely away, because in this era, fame is the ultimate lifestyle. Its comings, its goings, its comings-back, all are a spectacle to be consumed by the schizophrenic mass audience. If John Travolta can get an Oscar nomination and be re-lionized after his complete disappearance from mega-stardom, Ringwald can come back, too. Stories have been done saying it's already happened. Actually, it hasn't. Stephen King's The Stand, the TV miniseries she did last year, was a smash hit and she's returned to film with a couple of indies, but the fact is, Ringwald is fascinating even now, as a wayward princess in the great dysfunctional royal family of once-and-future ultrafamous people. You don't get born into this family, but once you get adopted you're fucked up like the whole rest of the clan for life. And unless you're as funless as Prince Charles, the spotlight will probably find its way back to you.

So how did Molly wander away from her castle? And does she really want back in? I arrive early to hash this out with her at the Algonquin Hotel, only to find her sipping coffee in the lounge. Dressed in a vintage Chanel suit, she has an air of sophistication, yet Ringwald strikes me as guarded. Once we adjourn to the restaurant, she lights up a cigarette, lolls back her head and exhales, very gamine, and loosens up. Her presence--her sour milk smile, her whiffs of Jeanne Moreau, Lotte Lenya and Bette Midler-- makes me think, This girl ought to be making cool movies right this second. So I get straight to the subject of John Hughes and how it all went haywire.

"John Hughes was the first person who brake my heart," Ringwald declares. "You loved him?" I venture. "Oh, yeah, absolutely," she says, and her eyes actually well up with tears, but she's determined not to cry. "I adored him." Reading my expression, she rushes in, "That sounds like we had an affair or something, which isn't the case. Of course I didn't have an affair with him. But it was definitely the strongest relationship in my life at the time, my teenage years, when everything that happens sort of pre-pares you for life. For men things, especially. I went in thinking, This man is everything. Nothing he does is wrong. Everything he writes is brilliant. Everything he says is funny.' But he was also the first guy that made me really say, 'Guys can be not-so-great. They can break your heart.' And he really did break my heart, something nobody's done since. At least not in the same way."

How does Ringwald assess Hughes's overall impact on her life? "I grew up with a sister four years older than I who's very pretty, the quintessential California girl. I had been this beanpole, and I didn't think that I was anything special. Suddenly, I went from being an ugly duckling to somebody who had this film director, no less, saying, 'You're really special, you're really great, you have to be in all my movies.' He was the first person that really seemed enthralled with me. He gave me an enormous amount of confidence. I would have done anything for him. I thought we would continue to make movies. But after Pretty in Pink, my relationship with him just dissolved, and I don't think I've had a conversation with him since 1986."

What sparked the rift? "I remember he asked me the last week of shooting Sixteen Candles if I'd like to do Breakfast Club. I said, 'Yeah, of course.' I liked the script a lot. [But] things got worse as he rewrote. He wanted me to play the character [Ally Sheedy eventually played]. But I said, 'No, I want to play the other character, someone who's different from me."' So, the overnight sensation was announcing to her Svengali which roles she thought she should play. Hmmm. Then what happened? "By the time I was leaving for Chicago to shoot it, the script had changed. He had been rewriting and rewriting. He asked, 'Are you excited about it? Do you think it's going to be good?' When I said, 'Yeah, but it's kind of different, isnt it?' he went, 'What do you mean it's different?'

"Anyway," Ringwald continues, "the first day of rehearsal, he brought a big stack of Breakfast Club scripts and let all of the cast members go through them and pull out our favorite parts." After a moment, she says, quietly, "He seemed kind of upset at the end of Breakfast Club." Let's add this up. A talented little ankle-biter tells her mentor she isn't wild about the part for which he wants her, suggests his shooting script is "different" from his earlier draft and--just maybe--gets perceived as ringleader for the rest of the discontents in the cast.

How did Hughes communicate that he was upset? "He stopped talking to me," Ringwald says. When she doesn't mention that this was around the time the 18-year-old star, not Hughes, appeared on the cover of Time--or mention what she said about him in that magazine--I do. "I said a few nasty things about him in the Time article," she concedes, "but I think it's just because I was hurt at the time. He didn't do an interview for that article and wouldn't tell me why not. I was really hurt that this person I cared so much about was just not talking to me at all. I wanted to stamp my feet and say, 'What's going on?' For years later, I went over it in my mind, trying to figure out what happened."

Any conclusions? "Whatever really happened is in John's mind. John's heart. I might have done or said something that hurt his feelings. I was stubborn. I was so afraid of being swallowed up and not having my own life. [But] I loved working with John. Part of me wants to call him up and say, "Hey, what happened?' or 'Are you happy?'"

When I ask how she might react if Hughes were to call her instead, proposing a reunion film, she looks genuinely thrown. " God. I don't know," she admits. "You know, I don't even have his phone number now, though I suppose I could get it. I guess I'm just not ready yet, although one day, I think I'll talk to him again. I really believe in closure in my life. And I haven't done that with him. It's just sort of been like this thing that got broken and it has never been resolved in any way."

Did she ever resolve her broken thing with Warren Beatty, who seemed to catch her up just about the time Hughes was dropping her? She recalls, smiling, "It seemed really exciting when he called and said he thought I was great in Tempest and asked what I was doing in life. When I said I was going to school, he said, 'Oh, college?' and I said. No,' and he said. 'Acting school?" No, I said. He went, 'High school?' and I said, 'Junior high.' There was a lonnng pause and he said, 'How old are you?' I said, 'Fourteen,' and he was disappointed and shocked. I think. That telephone voice got a little more paternal, a little nicer, like he was talking to a little girl."

No doubt that Humbert Humbert/Lolita thing spited up their dynamic just the same? "I think Warren has to seduce every woman that he's with," Ringwald asserts. "It's part of his makeup. I would have been insulted if I'd been excluded from that, you know? He came to my parents' house for Thanksgiving dinner one year and he was so seductive and charming that my mom, my dad. my sister, my friend Angie, my sister's boyfriend, everyone was like, 'Wow, this guy is amazing.' I've never met anyone else who can do that in the same way. I was very close to him, but he was always involved with somebody else the whole time."

There was talk of their making a couple of movies together, such as a bio of Andy Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick, but after The Pick-up Artist (which Beatty produced, but expunged his name from), future collaborations went south. How does she look on him now? "I guess he's about 50, right? Thai's a hard age to be a leading man, especially because he was considered one of the great beauties, a matinee idol. I think the best thing you can do is just let your-self age, let your wrinkles show. I certainly hope that when I'm 50, I won't be thinking about having plastic surgery to buy me another five or six years. But you never know. Now, I've sort of lost contact with him and I've gone on to a different phase of my life. But, in a way, with him, it's kind of the same thing I have with a lot of my friends who have babies. I love children, but there's nothing more boring than being friends with a couple who has babies. I don't want to see the baby pictures and to meet the nanny. That makes me cringe."

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