Molly Ringwald came to define 1980s teen movies with the trifecta of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink. Even today, the actor is remembered by many as the "perfect, sweet American girl next door," as she's put it herself. But after the '80s ended, Ringwald literally moved away from the Hollywood limelight to lead an altogether different life. And now she's letting the world know exactly why she felt she had to escape.
An era-defining actor
Ringwald is the first to admit that those '80s movies changed the face of teen cinema and solidified her public image. She pins that on one specific person, too. "In life, there is always that special person who shapes who you are, who helps to determine the person you become," Ringwald wrote in The New York Times in 2009. "Very often it’s a teacher, a mentor of some kind. For me, that person was John Hughes."
The John Hughes '80s
It's not a stretch to say that writer-director John Hughes had a seismic effect on Hollywood. He was the go-to guy for teen drama in the 1980s, having had a hand in Weird Science, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Some Kind of Wonderful, as well as the Ringwald movies. "I think the reason why I like working with John is that he really understands kids because he genuinely likes young people," Ringwald said in 1986. She's since credited him with giving her a career, too.
It started with an obsession
"John saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself," Ringwald wrote in The New York Times. "He had complete confidence in me as an actor, which was an extraordinary and heady sensation for anyone, let alone a 16-year-old girl." And the really amazing thing was that Hughes saw all of this potential before he had even met Ringwald in the flesh. All it took was a picture.
The headshot that led to a screenplay
Ringwald explained to The New York Times in 2010 that Hughes actually wrote Sixteen Candles for her — even though he didn't know her. "He had just moved to [the talent agency] I.C.M., and I was at I.C.M. at the time, and they’d given him a stack of headshots, and mine was one of them," she said. "For some reason, he picked out my headshot and had it up on his bulletin board, and he wrote Sixteen Candles looking at my pictures."
The start of a beautiful friendship
Fortunately, Ringwald and Hughes became fast friends and soon Ringwald was part of Hughes' next project: The Breakfast Club. Pretty in Pink wasn't far behind that, either. "I did some of my best work with [Hughes]," Ringwald wrote for The New York Times. "How could I not? He continually told me that I was the best, and because of my undying respect for him and his judgment, how could I have not believed him?" But their paths parted ways after their massive success.
It ended as fast as it began
"I felt that I needed to work with other people as well," Ringwald explained in 2010. "I wanted to grow up, something I felt (rightly or wrongly) I couldn’t do while working with John." The pair would never work together again — and Ringwald couldn't help but wonder whether he held her decision against her. "I felt like he felt rejected in some way by me," she told The New York Times. But regardless of any behind-the-scenes drama, the movies had already cemented Ringwald's public image.
An American Beauty
In 1986 Ringwald appeared on the cover of Time magazine. The headline ran, "Ain't She Sweet?" And now an entire generation sees Ringwald as the symbol of their childhood. "I think the heaviest thing about it is that so many people have so many memories attached to me," Ringwald told The Guardian in 2012. "It’s kind of like this giant collective unrequited love. I wasn’t there when they had their first slumber party or their first date or their first kiss, and yet I’m somehow connected to their lives in that way."
But that's not really who she is
The problem was that Ringwald didn't see herself as the prototypical "everygirl." "I was obviously very different from those characters," she told The Guardian. She added, "Most of those characters were in small suburban towns outside of Chicago, really sort of more representative of a certain type of girl in the United States at a certain moment. Not necessarily representative of me." Still, the public wasn't to know that.
She means the same thing to other generations
The "everygirl" image lasted throughout the 1980s and into the 21st century. "It’s really gone into different generations,” the actor told The Guardian. She said it made her realize that her 1980s movies are timeless. Every new generation will watch them "thinking that it was written just for [them]" and "relating to it so intensely," she said. It has a profound impact on her relationship with her fans, too.
Moving — but also frustrating
"Sometimes it feels extraordinary and moving,” Ringwald told The Guardian. "Depending on the day, it can be really sweet and nice and then other times it feels like, 'Arrrrrgh!'" And in this age of social media, the fans have more access to Ringwald than ever before. Yet it's here that Ringwald has noticed a divide among her devotees. "There are some really cool people who have followed me for years," she said. But there are also the other guys.
Some fans can't move on
"There are a lot of people who are just absolutely clueless that I've continued to grow and evolve and be someone else," Ringwald explained. "They're very focused on those particular movies. And you know, I can't blame them. I’ve never done anything else that’s had that kind of an impact." But Ringwald has, of course, done other things — and she's not even as much a part of the '80s in-crowd as you might think.
She wasn't one of the Brat Pack
Back in the day, the young stars of the 1980s teen films got themselves a reputation as the "Brat Pack." Many people lump Ringwald into this category, too, but she was actually never part of the original in-gang. The nickname — created in a famous New York magazine article — initially only applied to Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Judd Nelson, Timothy Hutton, Matt Dillon, Nicholas Cage, Sean Penn, Matthew Broderick, and Matthew Modine. "I wasn't even part of the article!" Ringwald said in 2012.
Ringwald wasn't about that lifestyle
"Isn't that crazy?" Ringwald asked The Guardian. "But I somehow became the 'women's auxiliary.' Emilio and Rob and Judd out being 20-somethings, you know — it was ridiculous!" Needless to say, then, that is not how Ringwald behaved herself. "The best part of those movies for me was just making those movies," the actor explained. "That it was me who was chosen by John Hughes, that I was the one who inspired him."
She wasn't afraid to use her voice
Even though she was young when she made these films, Ringwald felt that she used what power she had well. "The more we played with [Hughes'] script, the more he became absolutely delighted when we came up with stuff," the actor told The New York Times. "I've never worked with anyone before or since that had that sort of confidence." Yet there was only so far her voice could carry.
Reassessing the movies
If you're a fan of these movies, you've no doubt heard the conversation around them in recent years. It's been frequently pointed out, for example, that Sixteen Candles features a date rape — aided by the main character — that is played for laughs. "The whole storyline with Caroline, that didn't have anything to do with my character," Ringwald told The Guardian in 2023. "So I really couldn't change that. I didn't have that kind of power."
Looking back — without rose-tinted glasses
That hasn't stopped Ringwald from being critical of the storyline in public, though. "Caroline shakes her head in wonderment and says, 'You know, I have this weird feeling I did [enjoy it],'" Ringwald wrote for The New Yorker in 2018. "She had to have a feeling about it, rather than a thought, because thoughts are things we have when we are conscious, and she wasn't." She was even more critical of The Breakfast Club.
It was not a good club to be part of
In her New Yorker essay, Ringwald described a scene in The Breakfast Club where Judd Nelson's Bender "takes the opportunity to peek under [her character] Claire’s skirt" and touch her "inappropriately." She also stated that "Bender sexually harasses Claire throughout the film" and also "takes out his rage on her." Despite all this, though, "he gets the girl in the end." Yet it is, she concluded, a "troubling" movie that she is "proud of in so many ways."
It was a burden to carry
At the time, though, Ringwald — as well as many other people — wasn't thinking about the movie in those terms. She was more concerned with her career in the short term. Even in 1986 during that "Ain't she sweet?" Time cover story, she was planning her escape from the John Hughes cinematic universe. "I don't think we'll work together again real soon," she said in the interview. But it wasn't down to misgivings about the work.
Looking to break out
The Time story mentions Ringwald's desire to go to college, start a family, star in a Broadway musical, and make the transition to more adult roles. She also professes love for Diane Keaton and Jessica Lange and their willingness to play different emotions in their roles. But the article also states that Ringwald — despite being a millionaire Hollywood player — had yet to graduate from high school. Things had happened very quickly.
She grew up quickly
She was, after all, coming of age under the bright glare of the spotlight. "It's hard to grow up under that," Ringwald told The Guardian in 2023. "I don't want to overdo this — and boohoo, I fully recognize my privilege — but I needed to get out from under all that scrutiny. I just wasn't cut out for it in a way that certain other people are... I didn’t feel comfortable with that level of stardom."
It hindered her career
The "everygirl" image that fans loved her for actually held her back in other ways, too. Notably, casting directors seemingly couldn't picture her playing any other characters. "I didn't really feel like darker roles were available to me," Ringwald said. "The ones that I wanted to do, I didn't get. I was too young for certain roles. I was at this weird in-between stage." One director spelled this out for her, too.
She was no Working Girl
That director was Mike Nichols. In 1988 — the year Ringwald turned 20 years old — Nichols was working on the movie Working Girl. But Ringwald didn't land a part in the film because, she said, the director told her, "[The character] really needs to be at that moment where you feel the pain." Nichols apparently said, "You have your whole life ahead of you — nobody’s going to believe that of you." The role earned Melanie Griffith an Oscar nod.
No date with Hannibal Lector
It was a similar story for The Silence of the Lambs, too. The director looked at Laura Dern, Michelle Pfeiffer, and even Meg Ryan for the character of Clarice Starling — but Ringwald seemingly didn't get close. That film went on to massive critical and commercial success — scoring over $130 million at the box office. It also, of course, netted Jodie Foster an Academy Award for Best Actress. And then there was the Pretty Woman script.
She wasn't a Pretty Woman
According to the 2023 Guardian piece, Ringwald turned down the main role in Pretty Woman. "Julia Roberts was wonderful in it, but I didn't really like the story," she said. "Even then, I felt like there was something icky about it." But the actor had previously said in a 2012 Reddit AMA that she'd only seen "an early draft" of the movie. "Every actor hopes for a part that lets them shine like that," she said — yet these roles seemingly weren't coming her way.
The roles got thinner
Despite missing out on these high-profile roles, Ringwald was still working. It's just that not as many people have heard of For Keeps? or Betsy's Wedding when compared to The Silence of the Lambs or Pretty Woman. "I never felt that I could make mistakes and be ridiculous here," the actor told the Los Angeles Times in 2008. "I went to Paris to do that." She was being modest: she did a lot more than that in Paris.
The French expedition
Ringwald left for Paris in 1992 for a job and simply fell in love with the city. "I wanted to see what it felt like living outside of America and get a different perspective," she told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. It helped, of course, that her John Hughes movies hadn't had the same impact in France that they'd had in America. "I can walk around and just be normal," she said. "I can breathe."
A change was as good as a rest
She admitted that life after those era-defining movies had proved unsustainable. "I had to deal with growing out of those movies and growing up," she said. "It was tough. If I hadn't moved to France, I would have gone somewhere." Ringwald studied hard to pick up the language, worked on French movies, and even fell in love and married her first husband, Valery Lameignere. Seemingly, then, she found the new perspective she was looking for.
Working with a legend
The '80s icon also found time to work with another cinema titan: Jean-Luc Godard. "He was mischievous, he was intriguing," Ringwald told The Guardian in 2023. "He was not the easiest person to work with, but I'm glad that I did. He was a legend — he changed cinema. It was an incredible experience." The actor found the working experiences on American and French film sets very different, too.
The French way of life
The one-time Breakfast Club member said that her French cast and crew would enjoy wine during an actual lunch break. And, she said, when a co-star left the set after a disagreement, the rest of the crew just got on with it. "In America, an actress leaves the set, it’s a big scandal," Ringwald said. "They’re sued, maybe. It’s a big thing." Not so in France. But her love affair with the "city of love" was not to last forever.
Returning to the states
The marriage to Lameignere ended in 2002, and so did Ringwald's time in Paris. The actor made her way to Manhattan and started doing prominent work on the stage. Perhaps you even saw her in plays such as Cabaret and Sweet Charity. But if you didn't see her on stage, you likely saw her on television during her 96-episode run in The Secret Life of the American Teenager from 2008 to 2013. The actor's personal life took off, too.
After moving back to the States, Ringwald had three kids with Panio Gianopoulos. Her first child arrived in 2003 and her twins made their appearance in 2009. And trying to figure out how to find the ideal work-life balance led Ringwald to start thinking more about jobs outside of acting. "That's when I got really serious about doing music, writing books, writing essays," she told The Guardian. "Eventually, people had to see me as something other than America's sweetheart."
Trying something new
The actor moved from acting to singing in 2013 with the release of her jazz album Except Sometimes. This was followed by a tour — but that also meant missing out on time with her children. "I always knew that I would probably have to choose between writing and singing," Ringwald told The Guardian. "So I decided to focus on the writing because I could be closer to home."
Another form of expression
Ringwald's debut fictional novel, When It Happens to You, appeared in 2012. "When I was younger, I really did have that hangup: who's going to accept me as a writer?" she explained to The Guardian. "Now, I don't really spend a lot of time thinking about the way that somebody is going to see me. If you really think about that, you won't do anything." And the actor has continued putting pen to paper — even if it's not how you might expect.
(Not) lost in translation
Her next writing project was a translation — putting her French language skills to good use. She translated Philippe Besson’s novel Lie With Me for its English release in 2019, and her efforts won a fair amount of acclaim. And while she may not have planned on doing another translation, the pandemic handed her the time and opportunity to work on My Cousin Maria Schneider: A Memoir by Vanessa Schneider. The resulting translation hit the shelves in 2023.
Still in the limelight
That's not to say that Ringwald has given up on the world of acting altogether. On the contrary, a whole new generation may know her more for her roles in three high-profile Netflix projects than for her '80s domination. She has, after all, appeared in 31 episodes of the hit series Riverdale as well as in every one of the Kissing Booth movies and Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.
More stories to tell
It might not be the last time you see Ringwald's name on the cover of a book, either. "The next book that I write is going to be a memoir," she told The Washington Post in April 2023. "If I do write a novel, which I think I will, it won't be for a while." And when that memoir arrives, it will no doubt be full of the sometimes shocking behind-the-scenes stories that Ringwald has discussed in public before.
"Save it for your memoirs"
In 2017, for instance, Ringwald revealed in The New Yorker, "When I was 13, a 50-year-old crew member told me that he would teach me to dance, and then proceeded to push against me with an erection. When I was 14, a married film director stuck his tongue in my mouth on set." And then there was the shocking incident in which a director asked her to wear a dog collar in an audition — even though it wasn't part of the script.
The future is bright
"I sobbed in the parking lot, and when I got home and called my agent to tell him what happened, he laughed and said, 'Well, I guess that's one for the memoirs,'" Ringwald revealed in the story. She wrote that she "could go on about other instances in which I have felt demeaned or exploited" — and now she will get her chance. But there will no doubt be positive stories, too. After all, Ringwald is as busy as ever these days.
Don't you forget about her
"I am doing too many other things right now," she told The Washington Post. She'll next be seen on Netflix in the final season of Riverdale. The actor has also finished filming season two of Feud, with these latest episodes focusing on Truman Capote. And then? "Directing is definitely on my list, too," she said. "I think it’s time." She even has the directing project in the pipeline.