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Commentary By Jason L. Riley

Revising History, Hollywood Style

Culture Culture & Society

The star of ‘The Breakfast Club’ discovers the 1985 film promotes ‘female subjugation.’

The bonus material on my DVD version of the 1983 blockbuster comedy “Trading Places” includes an interview with John Landis, the film’s director. Mr. Landis says that one highlight of making the movie was the opportunity to work with Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche, two of Hollywood’s leading men in the 1930s and ’40s.

In “Trading Places,” which is loosely based on Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper,” Bellamy and Ameche portray bored rich brothers who delight in secretly manipulating the lives of the characters played by Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd to settle a bet about human nature. As Mr. Landis tells it, Ameche’s only complaint about the script was that it required him to utter a profanity. “I don’t think I could say that—the F-word,” he told Mr. Landis. “I just don’t think I could do that.”

The actor was so troubled by having to curse on camera that when it came time to shoot the scene, which takes place on a crowded commodities-trading floor, he gathered together some 300 extras on the set and announced, “I have to say a profanity and I would like everyone’s cooperation so I only have to do this once.” He wasn’t joking.

Some might find Ameche’s behavior quaint; others might find it amusing. But it left me, a big fan of “Trading Places” and his performance, scratching my head. Depending on your familiarity with the film, you might recall that in another scene Ameche’s character refers to Billy Ray Valentine, who’s played by Mr. Murphy, as a “n—.” Apparently, Ameche was more troubled by the F-word than the N-word. For an actor today, the reverse would probably be the case.

Don Ameche was born in 1908, it’s worth recalling. Public attitudes on matters such as race, sexuality and humor have changed dramatically just in recent decades, let alone the past century. It would be unfair, even silly, to judge people of earlier eras from the vantage point of 2018 without taking this into account, yet there seems to be a fair amount of that going on these days. “The Simpsons ” character Apu, who made his debut during the show’s first season in 1990, has come under attack by people who say he’s little more than a crass stereotype of South Asian immigrants. Are the program’s writers insensitive bigots? Or do they realize, like their smarter viewers, that Apu is simply another caricature on a show that’s chock full of them?

Another example of attempted revisionism comes courtesy of the actress Molly Ringwald, who has decided to revisit what she describes as “the movies of my youth” in the age of #MeToo. Ms. Ringwald starred in a trio of popular coming-of-age films in the 1980s—“Sixteen Candles,” “Pretty in Pink” and “The Breakfast Club”—that would establish her career. All three were written or directed by John Hughes, who died in 2009 and whose specialty was teen angst. In a recent essay for the New Yorker magazine, Ms. Ringwald assesses these movies, made more than three decades ago, through the eyes of a viewer today. It’s a deep disservice to the filmmaker and his work.

What may be worse is her attempt to shoehorn Hughes into a #MeToo movement prompted by the Harvey Weinstein scandals. Given that no one, Ms. Ringwald included, has accused Hughes of behavior even remotely similar what Mr. Weinstein’s accusers have alleged, this is preposterous. Yet Ms. Ringwald is determined to find some way—any way—to link Hughes to the current mass movement against sexual harassment. She resorts to citing scenes from their movies together, like the one in “The Breakfast Club” when a male classmate crawls under a desk and peeks at the Ringwald character’s underwear. Even though a body double was used, 33 years later the scene still bothers her.

“I thought about it again this past fall, after a number of women came forward with sexual assault accusations against the producer Harvey Weinstein,” she writes. “If attitudes toward female subjugation are systemic, and I believe they are, it stands to reason that the art we consume and sanction plays some part in reinforcing those same attitudes.”

Ms. Ringwald also takes aim at the lack of racial diversity in Hughes’s films and his reliance on stock characters and stereotypes. But these films appealed to black and white teens alike, not because we did or did not see our likeness on the screen but because the movies were funny and fairly approximated high-school life for many of us in the 1980s.

Pretending that her teenage-star vehicles somehow paved the way for the likes of Harvey Weinstein is a remarkably self-centered exercise on the part of Ms. Ringwald, even by Hollywood standards. If she really can’t distinguish between the Weinsteins and the Hugheses, maybe she should find a different cause to champion.

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal


Jason L. Riley is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, and a Fox News commentator.

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal