Opinion: Andrew McCarthy deserves to be taken seriously

Editor’s Note: Sara Stewart is a film and culture writer who lives in western Pennsylvania. The views expressed here are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

At first glance, the Hulu documentary “Brats” promises a deep dive into 1980s nostalgia via its director and star, Andrew McCarthy. His mission: to unpack the decades of damage and tumult visited upon him and his Hollywood co-stars by the term “Brat Pack,” blithely coined in 1985 by snarky journalist David Blum, who used it in a killer headline.

Sara Stewart - Todd Thompson
Sara Stewart - Todd Thompson

But — spoiler alert — it’s mostly just McCarthy who seems to have been nursing that wound all these years. As he makes the rounds, visiting one former acting colleague after another, it becomes clear that most of them have long since made peace with the term, if not actively spun its advantages into long-term career gold (looking at you, Rob Lowe, you irrepressible ray of sunshine). Even Emilio Estevez, the main subject of the original piece, who Blum reports was enraged about it at the time, doesn’t seem as bothered as McCarthy now. (The jury’s still out on Molly Ringwald and Judd Nelson, who both declined to participate.)

I’ve seen the complaints about McCarthy’s documentary being self-indulgent or whiny, that he’s missed an opportunity to really plumb the meaning of what this group of teen actors did to change Hollywood forever. These critiques are not totally unfounded. But I think it’s worth taking McCarthy’s perspective seriously, because it’s not all that often you find this kind of willingness to admit to, well, having your feelings hurt. Especially if you’re a famous man.

Being an American celebrity has long been a Faustian bargain, in which career success is predicated on making yourself available for an endless series of numbingly similar newspaper, magazine and online articles — as well as grinning and bearing it when someone writes what’s known in the business as a hit piece about you.

Blum’s article qualifies as such a piece, I think. It’s certainly well-written and entertaining; Blum got the kind of access to Estevez, Lowe and Nelson that would be almost unheard of in today’s publicist-policed journalism environment. But there’s a weirdly sneering quality to it, as if it’s somehow surprising to see young male movie stars use their fame and looks to flirt with girls and jump the line at clubs. (Their semantic forebears, the Rat Pack, set the debauchery bar pretty high.) McCarthy, it’s worth noting, is barely mentioned at all — he seems to have been scooped up into the Brat Pack term by association, but wasn’t one of the group’s ringleaders. Maybe that’s part of his resentment, too.

Actors Rob Lowe and Andrew McCarthy - ABC News Studios
Actors Rob Lowe and Andrew McCarthy - ABC News Studios

As someone who’s conducted countless celebrity interviews over the years, I’ve seen firsthand (and been actively complicit in) the way actors are forced to sit through endless question-and-answer sessions in which they’re asked about the same talking points over and over again. “Brats” includes footage from many such interviews, in which a bored-looking McCarthy and his peers have to hold forth about what they think about being labeled brats. It appears excruciating. Especially if you are, as McCarthy certainly seems to be, a sensitive type who wants to be taken seriously; to be, as he says repeatedly in the doc, really “seen.” Then as now, most entertainment profiles seem to be written to fit a pre-existing narrative we have about the person; when’s the last time a story about an entertainer really shook up your perspective on them?

And McCarthy’s not wrong that the term “Brat Pack” was often used as a dismissive term for the new generation of teen actors. It certainly wasn’t the first instance of salacious celebrity coverage — just look back at the gleeful stories about Elizabeth Taylor’s exploits — but I think the Brat Pack era gave rise to an increase in the sheer meanness of celebrity coverage, one that would spawn an industry dedicated to ripping apart entertainers like Britney Spears or Amanda Bynes when they crumbled under fame’s spotlight.

It’s the same flavor of cruelty that has come to dominate social media and comments sections as journalism pivoted online, where seemingly anyone who had the audacity to be public-facing (and, often, anyone who ended up there inadvertently) was fair game for mockery and being taken down a peg, or several. The prevailing sentiment seems to be, if you want to be famous, you have to shut up and take it. Sure, maybe McCarthy was and is being too thin-skinned about being depicted as part of a bratty and glib clique, but must we require every mainstream artist to have a buffalo hide? Isn’t that actually at odds with the work of being an artist in touch with your own emotions?

A 2021 New Yorker profile of Jeremy Strong reminds me of McCarthy’s beef. The article took shots at Strong for taking himself too seriously, for staying in character even in between takes, in the Method style of acting, for annoying colleagues with his dedication. Strong spoke out afterward, saying he felt foolish and betrayed, and friends came to his defense. Jessica Chastain had the most eloquent response, writing on X, formerly Twitter, that “The profile that came out on him was incredibly one-sided. Don’t believe everything you read, folks. Snark sells, but maybe it’s time we move beyond it.”

That seems to be one of the aims for McCarthy in making “Brats.” I don’t think the guy gives himself enough credit for pivoting into other strengths — he’s an accomplished TV director and travel writer, as he discussed with Brooke Shields on her podcast last year. In the same interview, he also candidly talks about how big a role fear plays in his life, and how he’s learned to roll with that. How many public figures can you name who’ve talked openly about their own fears? How much more interesting would it be if men felt comfortable talking about this, and what kind of difference would it make to the toxic masculinity that still dominates our culture?

I hope releasing his documentary into the world helps McCarthy make peace with the term that’s dogged him for so long. I know it helped me make peace with his oddly terrible hair — which turns out to be a wig! — at the end of “Pretty in Pink.” Everybody wins!

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