Molly Ringwald is one of the best of our past idols. She exists so solidly as the dominant symbol of the 1980s teen nation that accepting her on new terms is a challenge. She's now a mom, a theatre actress (has been for a while), and a writer, but the John Hughes trifecta (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink) trails after her like the train of a soiled prom dress. The image of the sullen and embryonically sexy redhead (all of Ringwald's most notable roles have her playing a variation on the same sulky, self-possessed girl) is the one that lingers.
And Ringwald digs it. "Those films, I can't deny that they were and are incredibly popular. I'm just surprised by how long they've lasted. And there was never really a period of time when they weren't really interesting to people, too. Ever since I've done them, they just keep going. They've almost become like a rite of passage for adolescents." She tells me this on the phone, doing promo for her role as Charity Hope Valentine in Orange County Performing Arts Center's production of the highly pedigreed play (book by Neil Simon, based on a Fellini film) Sweet Charity. In her role as Charity Hope Valentine, Ringwald is the taxi dancer with the proverbial heart of gold. An optimist with little reason to be, Ringwald's character is the center of the feel-good song-and-danceathon. As such, I feel like a bit of a boorish douchebag, asking questions about roles she played 20 years ago, which amount to like three percent of her oeuvre. But how could I possibly not?
My perspective on her is further complicated by the fact of having two much older, much cooler sisters who came of age alongside Ringwald and the Hughes teen canon. Like them, Ringwald possesses a too-cool-for-school, vaguely snotty attitude. Of the current tabloid culture, she says "It's something that's so not interesting to me. I mean, I know about Lindsay Lohan, and whoever else there is." Asked about why she came back to the U.S. after a hiatus in Paris, having to deal with an industry that remembers her primarily as the princess who applies lipstick with her cleavage, she huffs, "I have a very long, extremely varied career, and I've always been working and I've been continuing to work. I don't see why I should let my success in one arena, or one small part of it, stop me from doing what I do." This has included some unexpectedly cool roles, like in Peter Greenaway's Tulse Luper Suitcase project, artist Cindy Sherman's controversial Office Killer, Jonathan Larsen's tick tick… BOOM!, the short film that Billy Bob Thornton turned into Sling Blade, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning incest play How I Learned to Drive.
Further distinguishing herself creatively, Ringwald has entered into the dubious world of criticism, a product of her NYC lit crowd lifestyle. "I'm kind of a dilettante, I'm a bookish kind of person and I read and write, and in New York, I'm friends with a lot of other bookish people, people who are involved in publishing." One of her fantasy interview subjects has been realized in the form of 69 questions she put to Magnetic Fields' Stephen Merritt. Other subjects of interest to Ringwald are Elvis Costello ("I think Diana Krall has really mellowed him out"), and authors Jonathan Franzen ("I met him at a New Yorker party in New York and we talked for a while and he's incredibly smart, but he's also very approachable and easy to talk to") and Philip Roth. This literary bent is somewhat unexpected—faded stars are supposed to be vying for our attentions on VH1, not cuddling up with TheNew York Times Book Review. But this information is pleasing to me, and to all of my friends who harbor crushes on Ringwald (and whose MR commentary includes "SO FOXY" and "She looks like an above average soccer mom. Who I'd fuck"). I love the thought of Samantha Baker holding court at a book launch, rolling her eyes over champagne. Once the cool big sister, always the cool big sister.
SWEET CHARITY AT SEGERSTROM HALL, ORANGE COUNTY PERFORMING ARTS CENTER, 600 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 636-7433; WWW.OCPAC.ORG. TUES.-FRI., 7:30 P.M.; SAT., 2 & 7:30 P.M.; SUN., 6:30 P.M. THROUGH DEC. 3. $25-$70.