When it was released back in 1985, St Elmo’s Fire was a film the critics absolutely loved to hate. The story traces the fortunes of a group of freshly graduated, tight-knit friends who, on entering the real world of work, grown-up relationships and responsibilities, are presented with crisis, conflict and changes that they are ill-prepared for by a failed society that has, essentially, groomed them for failure. The film was criticised for presenting the very worst of eighties values – or, rather, lack thereof – and the characters were seen as self-absorbed, spoilt and essentially unsympathetic: products of their time and, besides which, their age.
When we meet the gang, they do intially appear thoroughly in love with themselves – and each other. Alec (Judd Nelson) is a preening, right-on young Democrat, with a smart apartment and the affections of the lovely architect, Leslie (Ally Sheedy), who he has dated since freshman year in college. Jules (Demi Moore), a materially spoilt but emotionally abandoned beautiful little rich girl with a taste for men and coke, is Leslie’s best friend and has landed a prime job in banking. Kirby (Emilio Estevez) waits in the bar the group have frequented since their happiest days in college, St Elmo’s, and is saving his tips for law school. He lives with Kevin (Andrew McCarthy), who sees himself as a great American writer in waiting, but is currently occupied writing obits for a newspaper, and who is Alec’s best friend. Billy (Rob Lowe) is the former frat-wildster and musician, a Peter Pan who, despite his immaturity, has found himself with child and with wife – neither of which he can afford financially or emotionally. He is mothered by Wendy (Mare Winningham), a rich girl who lives at home with her parents who are in the greeting card business, and who longs to break free from their conventionality – she has taken a job in social services and is thoroughly infatuated with the unsuitable Billy.
The film’s first scene is a shot of the group in their graduation gowns, and then we are in the present – the sound of a car crash. An unsubtle but entirely apt metaphor for the group’s journey during the course of the film. Billy has been driving Wendy’s car and, under the influence, totalled it. The gang rush to the hospital to help the pair; both are uninjured. While at the hospital, Kirby spots a girl he idolised at college, Dale (Andie MacDowell) – he took her out for a date once several years back but nothing came of it. Later, we discover that they saw a Woody Allen movie, but she will misremember that it was a Mel Brooks movie. Kirby is intent on winning her – and much of the film’s most embarrassing and heartfelt humour stems from his obsession with the sheer unreality he has created of her. The group go to the bar after Billy is bailed. We come to learn that the feckless Billy has lost another job that Alec has set up from him. Alec is furious and, indicating the lack of maturity he has, for all his patriarchy of the group, flushes Billy’s head in the toilet. Later, we see Alec and Leslie at their yuppie love nest. Alec is pressurising Leslie to get married and attempts to encourage her not to use protection when he begins getting amorous. They will be married soon enough, he declares – though she has yet to say she will marry him. She is reluctant as regards both marriage and baby. She’s a career girl and is one of the few in the group who appears to recognise her own immaturity and need for self-identity. Jules turns up with a bottle of vodka, berating her dying stepmother (‘stepmonster’), and interrupts the moment, delaying the tensions between the couple.
We see Jules again, this time in her apartment. Kevin, who she has invited over for a drink after a group outing, wonders out loud how she has afforded to redecorate her place so lavishly. Jules changes the subject and, in a very amusing scene, accuses Kevin of being gay and in love with Alec. She recognises Kevin’s burning love under his cynical and sombre exterior – but applies it to the wrong person. He leaves, but not without feeling unsettled that something so wide of the mark is, in fact, so very close to it. Kirby has not forgotten his encounter with Dale and has embarrassed her – we feel, but do not see – into a date. He has selected a fancy restaurant and he rings Jules for advice on the wine menu. During their conversation, it is revealed that Jules is advanced on her pay by months – her flamboyance has come at a price and she has money troubles. Dale turns up, but the hospital rings and she leaves, frustrating Kirby’s seduction. We learn more of the dynamic between Billy and Wendy when he meets her after work and she takes him to her grand family home, and, afterward, the two attempt to get physical – an encounter ruined by Billy’s insensitivity to the virginal, body-conscious Wendy. She gives him a wad of notes to pay his rent – we now understand that she has been bankrolling him. The scene hints at near-prostitution, people as commodities. He leaves the money and the house, ashamed of his behaviour and of his life.
When we next see the group all together, it is Halloween. Wendy has become temporarily estranged from Billy, who is playing in his band at the bar. She has a new car, bought for her by her father – he’s hopeful she will become engaged to nerdy Howie, who he selected for her as a prospective match and who she has brought as a date. The car is a bribe and she has, for now, accepted it. Jules is having an affair with the boss of her banking firm, who she approached to beg for a further advance – and ended up sleeping with. Alec discusses his struggle with his libido with Kevin – his random infidelities revealed earlier in the film to his best friend. For all Alec’s conventionality and wisdom, he is still a boy, much like Billy, who he despises as much as he loves – and, as his moonlighting for a Republican senator has already demonstrated to the others, he’s a hypocrite, too. Billy is tormented when his wife arrives at the bar with another man, fawning over him. A fight ensues. Wendy is aghast when, outside the bar, with passion, Billy and his wife kiss. They cannot live with each other but they cannot seem to live without each other, she recognises.
As the film moves towards its climax, the characters are forced into decisions and unhappy truths. Alec declares that Leslie and he are engaged – without consulting her – before a crowd, at a party Kirby is hosting in the hope of impressing Dale (he has taken up work for the mysterious Mr Kim as a house-sitter in his mansion and believes – wrongly – that this show of apparent wealth will influence Dale’s affections). Leslie is furious – and her anger, rejection of his proposal and accusations make Alec convinced Kevin has revealed his infidelity, but she had simply guessed. He attacks Kevin, tells Leslie to move out of their place, and Kevin and Leslie end up at Kevin and Kirby’s apartment, where Kevin’s love for her is exposed, and where, in confusion and hurt, Leslie ends up having sex with him. Kevin assumes his fantasy has at last become a reality – but Leslie will later reject coupledom with him, too. Dale does not turn up at the party and Kirby pursues her, discovering her with her boyfriend at a weekend hideaway. He is humiliated and spends the night at their place. Next morning, he asserts himself and passionately kisses her, leaving her bewildered, somewhat smitten – and his ego triumphant. Meanwhile, Wendy asserts herself with her father, rejecting her car, Howie and, finally, his conventional dreams for her. Jules – jilted by her boss, jobless, and in financial ruin – cracks up in her now empty apartment, and the group, divided because of the Alec-Leslie-Kevin triangle, go to save her. The moment is a turning point for them all. Her breakdown reflects the breakdown in their relationships and also in their hopes for the start of their adult lives, but it is also an ending that offers better, more realistically grounded beginnings, epitomised in the ultimate growth and assumption of responsibility of the least seemingly rounded and mature of their group, Billy – who goes on to consummate, tenderly, his love for Wendy in her newly-acquired apartment, pay her back the money he owes her, allow his wife the divorce she wants and fresh start she needs, and move to New York to seriously pursue his musical talent. He leaves his friends, and his younger self, behind him.
The film is far from perfect. Joel Schumacher’s direction is often heavy-handed (such as Jules’s princess in tower scene, complete with wind machine and chiffon curtains) and some running gags (Jules’s stepmonster’s burial and the group’s booga booga cheer among them) outstay their welcome. Self-satisfaction in the leads does not always appear to be acting. And the characters, who have been mostly driven to their positions by the illusions of the society they have been brought up in, do not appear to adequately explore or fully reject its values and conventions by the end – apart from Wendy and Billy.
But what this film does so very well is reveal the fissures that abide in all group dynamics of this quality and which threaten their continuation, as well as provide them with impetus – hidden desires, envy, jealousy, pecking orders, role-playing, resentment and latent angers. And the film brilliantly captures themes that go beyond its time and place, and which travel well and which we all recognise: the agony of propulsion into the serious world of adulthood; the obvious yet so often postponed realisation that so much in life must be compromised to make money; the mythology of conventional success; the lack of certainty over career and relationship choices often made too soon, too young; the terrible shock of learning one’s lack of specialness, after all. Schumacher would return, years later, with a film that would radically address many of these problems from the middle-age perspective with Falling Down.
The film’s poignancy also rests in what would turn out to be the fate of many of its young stars. The group became confused with their roles and were christened by journalist David Blum as ‘The Brat Pack’ – a name that stuck and came to be applied to other stars of films in the youth genre. However, the group never appeared all together on screen again. Sheedy, Nelson and McCarthy soon evaporated, for all their magnetic screen presence. Lowe, whose inspired and witty turn as a complex Billy was delivered at just twenty-one years old, would soon crumble under the pressure of fame and fall into disgrace for years – before he was rehabilitated by Aaron Sorkin’s hugely popular The West Wing. Estevez, who here exhibits brilliant comedic talent, ended up making endlessly forgettable films throughout the 80s, and even more forgettable ones after that. The most enduringly successful pair were perhaps the least likely: Demi Moore and Mare Winningham. Moore’s turn in St Elmo’s is, though amusing, one note throughout and her options seemed limited, despite her beauty – but, for many years, she was rivalled by only Julia Roberts for her pick of the cream roles from Hollywood and was eventually to strike box office platinum with the saccharine Ghost. Winningham, who offers the most understated and sensitive performance, carved out an award-laden career as a TV movie actress.