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How did Molly Ringwald become the youthful icon of the 1980s?

The 1980s are back, and so is Molly Ringwald. Everywhere you turn around Soho, someone’s sporting the ginger fringe, and any prom you go to, someone’s wearing the billowing pink gown from Pretty in Pink. Across from these people stands a Jon Cryer clone, flitting between blues standards and hopelessly chatting up a lady ten storeys out of his league. So, yes, the 1980s are back, thrusting into the new decade with a vengeance, punching through the air with newly found confidence and gusto. 

Between these centrepieces stands the original Ringwald, still as classy, elegant, poised and vulnerable as she ever was. She’s the ultimate icon of an inhibited pose, the self-appointed charlatan in a world of riches and ripostes, her rejoinders stemming from a place of hurt, not humour. 

Whether it was the detached dilettante in The Breakfast Club or the girl-next-door that cemented Sixteen Candles, Ringwald proved relatable, reliable and immeasurably likeable in every role. She wasn’t the person audiences wanted to be, she was the person they wanted to become. Ringwald wasn’t beguiling, blond and incredibly tall. She was red-haired, coquettish and ordinarily pretty. 

She was less Pete Best, more John Lennon: Her looks didn’t distract from her immeasurable talent, but they certainly helped draw attention to the skills she had as an artist. And unlike many of her Bratpack peers, her artistry stemmed from a place of hurt, not haughtiness. What you experienced with Ringwald, then, was an everyday woman who could break your heart, then mend it back, often within the same frames. 

“I know what my own experience was,” she admitted. “I feel like the movies that I made then were very much representing the culture at the time. And I feel like that is why they resonated with people because it was their experience, and they did feel that they had these films that were real. They didn’t have that sort of ‘After School Special’ feeling where somebody was teaching them a lesson, you know. It didn’t feel like that.”

Recognising the importance of the scripts, her performances exhibited a palatable sense of self-doubt and sincerity as she trawled the floors to find her very own purpose, often in an environment that robbed her of one. There was her turn as an only child to an alcoholic in Pretty in Pink, or the lowly Claire Standish, decorating herself in refinery in the hope of masking some hollowed sadness that flows all around her. 

Audiences were drawn to the sadness, especially since it landed in a collection of otherwise jaunty, jolly comedies that exhibited escapism, endeavours and energy. The pathos packed the work, lacing it with inhibition in a work that exalted the virtues of individuality and intuition, particularly as the decade extolled conformist proclivities. Situated within these indelibly, some unkind would say “stereotypically”, 1980s works, Ringwald offered viewers a chance to impart their failings, foibles and fervent nuances on her characters. 

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It was growing harder to admire the waspy charm of Andrew McCarthy or the smouldering Robert Downey Jr. as he bulldozed through another sexual conquest, but Ringwald was different. She was low-key, lo-fi, and deeply committed to championing the displaced individual, drowning in the debris of materialism and mechanics. 

European audiences warmed to her bouncy hair and indolent, even Irish, good looks, and American viewers could relate to the inner-tragedy that soaked into her roles, whether it was the emotionally coiled turmoil from her homeplace or the pressures of having to constantly fit in. Aspiring countries could look at her as an emblem of non-conformity, recognising that their endeavours could be rewarded as long as they were humble enough to accept failure with some level of grace. Success can only emerge if a person is ready to confront dereliction and oversight. 

And although she was only a teenager when she committed The Breakfast Club to the camera, her performances carried a maturity that freed parents from feeling embarrassed in themselves as they watched a picture that was geared for their children. 

Her performances crossed age, race, gender and religion. She was zesty, zealous, and capable of moments of towering liability. Her finest performance came at the close of Pretty in Pink, as she helped Harry Dean Stanton’s Jack Walsh absolve himself of his parental failings. In one moment of raw confession, Ringwald offered audiences permission to well up and cry at their past mistakes, knowing that if their intentions were pure, they were capable of improving themselves. 

What Ringwald stamped on the decade was defencelessness as she carved her shadow on the terse, braggadocious stories that made their way into her hand. But there was much more to Ringwald than Freudian projection, and her collection of John Hughes films shows an agile, intelligent artist honouring her work. She allowed herself to be vulnerable and, by doing so, allowed her viewers to be. 

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