Molly Ringwald, and the art of not being a one-trick pony

In late 1987/early 1988, I was a student at the University of Cincinnati. 

During that period, the movie Fresh Horses, starring Andrew McCarthy and Molly Ringwald, was under production in Cincinnati. 

Cincinnati, in case you don’t know, is no Honolulu or San Francisco. If you aren’t from the Midwest, you could easily confuse Cincinnati with Pittsburgh or Cleveland. So the shooting of the Ringwald/McCarthy movie was kind of a big deal, at the time.

I (almost) met Molly Ringwald

The UC campus was one of the locations where the movie was shot. One day I was in the campus’s university center, and whom did I see from a distance? 

Molly Ringwald

Wow. 

I would like to tell the reader that I walked up to Ms. Ringwald and impressed her with my witty conversation. (And after more than 30 years, who could prove me a liar, really?) 

But no, I didn’t meet Molly Ringwald. And though I’d seen all of her movies up to that point, I didn’t get around to seeing Fresh Horses until…

Just last week, actually. 

Better late than never

That’s right. Fresh Horses hasn’t played at the cinema since Ronald Reagan was president. The movie is included with my Amazon Prime subscription. I watched it on my laptop computer a few days ago. 

Fresh Horses turned out to be a very good movie. This is the setup: Matt Larkin (Andrew McCarthy), is an up-and-coming engineering student at the University of Cincinnati. He has a brilliant career ahead of him, and he’s engaged to marry a girl from a wealthy family.

Then one day Larkin crosses the Ohio River, and meets Jewel (Molly Ringwald), a troubled young woman from the backwoods of Kentucky. 

Matt immediately falls for Jewel. He impulsively breaks up with his fiancée. But Jewel is trouble, and the relationship requires Matt to challenge his basic values. 

I’m not going to tell you how the movie ends. Suffice it to say that the film concludes with a rare feat in drama: an emotional gut-punch that doesn’t involve someone dying. 

The secret to Molly Ringwald’s success

Most of all, though, I was impressed with Molly Ringwald’s performance in the film. This got me wondering: Why is Molly Ringwald such a good actor? What is it about her?

It’s true that looks confer an advantage in show business. Watch Fresh Horses (or any other Molly Ringwald movie from her 1980s/1990s heyday) and you’ll certainly see an attractive young woman. 

But Molly Ringwald was never OMG, look-at-her, five-alarm beautiful. She has always been attractive, but attractive people are a dime-a-dozen in Hollywood. 

Molly Ringwald is a great actor because she can become so many diverse characters, without any of those characters overlapping.

Here’s what I mean: In Fresh Horses, Molly Ringwald made me believe that she was Jewel, an uneducated teenage girl from Kentucky, in the late twentieth century. 

In The Breakfast Club, she was just as convincing as Claire Standish, a snooty, popular girl from a privileged background. 

There is no trace of Claire Standish in Ringwald’s interpretation of Jewel, or vice versa. 

I also saw Molly Ringwald as Frannie Goldsmith, in the 1994 television adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand

By that time, I had read The Stand at least twice. (I’ve been a Stephen King fan for decades.) And of course, I was already very familiar with Molly Ringwald. 

Nevertheless, Ringwald made me believe that she was Frannie Goldsmith. When I read The Stand for the third time a few years ago, guess who I saw in my mind’s eye as Frannie Goldsmith? 

That’s right: Molly Ringwald. 

The versatile vs. the one-trick ponies

There are plenty of actors who are quite successful, yet lack this versatility. 

Jason Statham, for example, is the exact same character in every movie. It doesn’t matter if Statham is the hero or the villain. He does one personality: the brooding, confrontational tough guy.

Humphrey Bogart was a successful actor for years, until his untimely death in 1957. But watch his movies, and he’s usually the same guy. Only one of his performances—that of Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny—really stands out as unique.

It’s been said that John Wayne never played the villain. Maybe that’s because John Wayne couldn’t play the villain. Watch the Duke’s movies: You won’t see much variation in his on-screen personality from film to film.

Sean Penn is annoying as a private individual, but he’s highly versatile as an actor. I first saw him as Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), his breakout role. He was completely convincing as a Southern California surfer dude from the early 1980s. 

But Penn is just as convincing as the sadistic Sgt. Tony Meserve in Casualties of War (1989), or as a convicted murderer in Dead Man Walking (1995).

I’ve seen some of his movies multiple times. None of Penn’s performances overlap. 

Sean Penn (whatever his private flaws), is versatile as an artist. He’s no one-trick pony. 

Acting isn’t the only realm of the arts where there is a division between one-trick ponies and more versatile creators. 

The Rolling Stones have now been making music for well over fifty years. There is certainly a market for what they do. But it all sounds the same.

I was never much of a Madonna fan, but she’s been around since I was in high school. Growing up, I couldn’t help but be exposed to her music.

Listen to Madonna’s music over the years, and you’ll note that her style continually changes. Her music of the mid-1980s is nothing like what she was doing by the late 1990s, or the mid-2000s.

I would wager that this is what has given Madonna (another artist who is annoying as a private individual) such a long career. Listen to her entire oeuvre, and you’re going to find at least one or two songs that you like. 

Yes, even me. 

With the Rolling Stones, on the other hand, you either love them or hate them. Because the Rolling Stones never changed.

Writers can be divided into one-trick ponies and the more versatile, too. Dan Brown burst out of the gate in the early 2000s, with his Robert Langdon series. Angels & Demons (2000) and The Da Vinci Code (2003) blended conspiracy thriller tropes with a skepticism about Christian (and especially Roman Catholic) traditions.

But Dan Brown is a literary one-trick pony, if ever there was one. 

Since 2010, his publication dates have been growing farther apart, and his books have been losing fans rather than gaining them. USA Today called Brown’s Origin (2018) “only a fitfully entertaining religious rehash of his greatest hits”. For once, I agree with the mainstream media.

This doesn’t detract from Dan Brown’s success with the original Robert Langdon books. People will be reading The Da Vinci Code for years to come. 

But will they be reading books that Brown writes in the 2020s? I have my doubts about that.

The downsides of versatility 

On the other hand, sometimes an artist evolves, and his long-term fans don’t like the result. Case-in-point: Stephen King.

In the 1970s, and throughout most of the 1980s, Stephen King wrote taut, tightly structured novels. Most of these books were supernatural horror, but not all of them were. (There is barely a hint of the supernatural in Misery (1986). In Firestarter (1980) and The Dead Zone (1979), the supernatural is secondary to what are essentially standard thriller plots.) 

I became a fan of Stephen King during this period. I loved his early books: The Shining, Cujo, ‘Salem’s Lot, etc. 

Then Stephen King’s style changed—or evolved. I first noticed the change with It (1986). King began writing books that were much longer, and (in my view, at least), much less focused. 

As a result, I’m much less enthusiastic about the books Stephen King has written in recent years: 11/22/63, Duma Key, The Outsider. I found Lisey’s Story to be an outright slog. And I couldn’t even finish Cell or Under the Dome

Do be blunt about it: For around twenty years, I’ve been following Stephen King in a pro forma sort of way, hoping that he will go back to writing the kinds of books that he wrote during the first fifteen years of his career. 

I would really like another ‘Salem’s Lot or The Shining. King wrote a sequel to the latter, Doctor Sleep, in 2013. But for this reader, at least, the old magic simply wasn’t there.

Versatility, then, is a knife that cuts both ways. Artists can loose most of their audiences when they make shifts that are too abrupt.

During the early 1980s, the rock band Styx (under the influence of lead singer Dennis DeYoung) went in artistic directions that were simply too experimental for music aimed at teenagers. To make matters worse, the members of the group couldn’t decide if they wanted to do romantic ballads or straight-up rock music. Every album seemed to go in a radically different direction. 

This caused Styx to fall in the charts. The band also went on hiatus throughout the latter half of the 1980s, while Dennis DeYoung pursued several solo projects that didn’t quite fit the musical market of that era.

Nunn Bush

But the long game belongs to…

For the most part, though, I would bet on the versatile rather than the one-trick ponies. 

Back to Molly Ringwald. In All These Small Moments (2018) Ringwald plays a middle age wife and mother, going through various midlife crises.

She doesn’t suffer from the common curse of the child actor: the inability to transition into more mature adult roles. Ringwald is just as convincing in this role as she was in the characters she depicted in the 1980s and 1990s—that of teenage and twentysomething young women. 

Molly Ringwald’s days of playing teenage girls in coming-of-age films are long over; but she’ll probably be a successful actor for as long as she wants to keep doing what she does. Few people can achieve that in acting. 

Will there still be a market for Jason Statham movies in twenty years, on the other hand? Or for Jason Statham as a working actor? 

I have my doubts about that one, too.