The Brat Pack Strikes Back : Why One Writer Is Weary of His Words
SOMEBODY ONCE said to me, “If you had a nickel for every time somebody said to you, ‘If you had a nickel for every time the phrase Brat Pack was mentioned, you’d be rich.’ ” It took me a little while to figure out that logic, but I think it’s probably true. So I’d appreciate it if people would stop mentioning it to me, because I’m getting very depressed.
About two years ago I invented the phrase Brat Pack. It was the headline and recurring theme of a story I wrote for New York magazine on the occasion of a movie called “St. Elmo’s Fire.” The movie became a hit and the phrase stuck.
The whole thing began as a profile of a nice guy named Emilio Estevez, and it would have stayed that way were it not for two things. First, he insisted on getting a free pass to an 8 p.m. showing of Matthew Broderick’s movie “Ladyhawke” when the tickets only cost $6. I thought that was a bratty thing to do. Second, he kept telling me about all of his movie-star friends and how they liked to hang out together, drink beers, party hearty--that sort of thing. He offered to take me out with them for a night on the town, and I accepted.
We had a pretty fun night--me and Emilio and Rob Lowe and Judd Nelson and then Jay McInerney, whose novel “Bright Lights, Big City” they admired enough to ask him to join us when we got to the Hard Rock Cafe, where they spent hours drinking and flirting. Judd, Emilio, Jay, me and a pretty Playboy Playmate of the Month in a purple pantsuit stayed out till about 2 in the morning.
I was pretty hung over the next day, but as I was driving on Sunset I remembered a joke a friend of mine had made a few days before. My friend writes for People and he’d been sent to Los Angeles to get an interview with Grace Jones, but he was spending most of his time driving to different restaurants. For this reason he referred to himself as part of the Fat Pack. I was ruminating on this and suddenly the phrase “Brat Pack” came to mind. I wouldn’t call it an inspiration exactly. I did think it was pretty clever.
It also seemed like an excellent way to describe the actors I’d gotten to know ever so slightly through my reporting. They had acted like--well, I might as well say it--brats, which is not to say that I would not have acted precisely the same way if I were 23 years old, famous and rich. I might have. I might have been worse. But these guys definitely fit the bill. They would disagree with my assessment, but the fact is, I do have one thing they don’t. A job at a magazine. And that entitles me to the freedom of the press.
The article created a bit of a firestorm. A couple of the actors went on the Phil Donahue show and accused me of being an unethical jerk. On the show, Time magazine’s movie critic, Richard Schickel, said of me when the article was mentioned: “Could I apologize to my profession for that? I really thought that was a scurrilous article. . . . I really think this is a kind of scuzz journalism. . . . I’ve been around journalism a long time. I look at a piece like that, and I say, this is really slob work, and he was out to get you.”
Schickel was referring to the fact that I had supposedly told the gang of actors at the Hard Rock Cafe that everything would be off the record. That isn’t true--not that anyone has ever asked--but I must say, I was pretty stunned that eminent critics were lining up with these actors, and on “Donahue,” no less. My mother-in-law was watching, and she was upset. “Did you really do all those bad things?” she asked in a panicked phone call during a commercial break.
From then on, just about every article about these kids mentioned me or the phrase. I had two favorites. In the Chicago Sun-Times, Rob Lowe said: “David Blum burned a lot of bridges. He burned people early in their careers. He took on the wrong people, though. He’s not Hunter Thompson or Tom Wolfe, he’s David Blum living in a cheap flat.” And Sean Penn told American Film, “All it is, is a condescending load of. . . . Sometimes writers, like actors, like anybody, do their work to impress three or four of their cool friends in SoHo.” (Actually I have only two friends in SoHo, and neither of them liked the article.)
After this barrage of criticism, I started to think: Why should these guys get the final word? Isn’t there some way I can benefit from all this?
Or, to be perfectly honest, I thought: How can I cash in on the phrase, now that it’s fashionable?
A screenwriter friend of mine said to me, “Dave, it’s a TV movie. Let’s have lunch.”
He sent me to an agent who thought that there might be a terrific TV movie idea in the Brat Pack. That was just what I wanted to hear. Then he wanted me to meet another agent, so I did. This agent, who handled TV movies, told me he thought there might be a terrific TV movie idea in the Brat Pack. He told me that my screenwriter friend and I should write up a treatment and he’d show it to his boss. But first he wanted me to meet his boss, an agent named Smith.
“Dave,” Smith said, “if you can turn this idea into a TV movie, I’ll kiss you on the lips.” I told him I’d settle for a pay-or-play deal with NBC for a back-end pilot. He shook my hand, and I went back to my screenwriter friend, named Pete.
“It’s a murder mystery,” Pete says over lunch. “You got a dead guy, a James Dean kind of guy, and he’s friends with all these other hot young actors. They’re all suspects. And there’s this movie director, kind of a Steve Spielberg type, and he’s making kind of a Citizen Kane-type movie about the death of this James Dean kind of guy. There’s an Ally Sheedy kind of girl, a Sean Penn kind of guy, that kind of thing.”
Just in case anyone reading this is thinking of stealing this idea and making a TV movie out of it, let me warn you that it’s registered with the Writers Guild of America.
So Pete and I wrote it all up and we took it to Smith. Smith didn’t like it much. It didn’t make him so much as pucker up.
I kept trying to figure out other ways to make money from the phrase. I wrote a chapter of a trash novel one day when I had nothing better to do, and it was pretty good, but I could never figure out if I would be willing to have my first novel be of the trash variety--that old guilt complex of those of us who still secretly believe we have that great novel embedded somewhere inside. This really was a book that Jackie Collins should write, and someday I hope to meet her and suggest a collaboration, though I don’t really want to give up my brilliant plot device that involves an evil twin.
A few months ago, I heard that a movie called “The Brat Pack” was being made by an independent outfit that planned to start shooting in Hawaii. It was listed in Variety’s section on forthcoming movie productions, and that is where it remains to this day. At the time I got pretty excited about it because I thought it might be my great opportunity to file a lawsuit. Like many writers, I have always dreamed of filing a lawsuit. I called a lawyer and sent him the Variety clip and my story.
“Sorry, Dave,” the lawyer said, “but no can do.” He was a smart lawyer so I listened. “It’s like that suit George Lucas tried to bring against the government over ‘Star Wars,’ when he said that it had no right to name its Strategic Defense Initiative after his movie.”
So I’ve decided to give up the battle. Let everyone use the phrase. Let agents steal me blind. Let actors attack me. Let headline writers concoct cute variations on it.
Unless, of course, someone wants to call me about that TV movie idea.