Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)

Repeat | Aug 11, 2016 | Carlos Castillo

“Some Kind of Wonderful” contains one of the underappreciated film performances of the 1980s. Mary Stuart Masterson as Watts absolutely steals the movie in a very difficult, nuanced part. Let me explain.

The movie was written and produced by John Hughes, who started out in broad comedy (“National Lampoon’s Vacation,” one of my faves) and found a niche in teen angst (“Pretty in Pink,” “The Breakfast Club,” and “Ferris Buehler’s Day Off”). Much like “Pretty in Pink,” this movie has a sub-theme of unrequited love, in this case between Watts, an aspiring drummer, and her friend who happens to be a boy, Keith (Eric Stoltz).

Hughes’ movies also tend to have a helping of tension between the classes, with characters on the wrong side of the tracks trying to fit in with the rich kids. This isn’t surprising, as the 1980s Reaganism ushered in an era of conspicuous consumption, something that we struggle with to this day. Both Keith and Watts are out of the social loop at their high school, especially among their more well-heeled counterparts. Most of the movie involves Keith’s attempt to woo pretty, popular Amanda (Lea Thompson) and prove to himself that he’s not a loser.

But the part of the movie that works best is Keith’s relationship with Watts, who’s portrayed as a tomboy and perceived as a lesbian by her classmates. Secretly, she’s in love with Keith. Stoltz portrays Keith as somewhat of a cypher; is he really just clueless about Watts’ affection or does he know he has Watts in the bag but is holding out for Amanda to requite (kinda like “Let’s Make a Deal”: Do you want $500 or what’s behind Door Number 2)? The ending suggests the former, although Stoltz plays it to keep you guessing.

Ah, this is juicy, compelling stuff. I won’t say this movie was easy to write, but it’s a whole lot easier to write it than it is to perform it, especially the Watts character. Masterson manages to maintain that fine balance between being snarky and love-struck. One of my favorite Watts lines is, as Keith’s temp chauffeur during his big date with Amanda, “Go get your skank.” It’s harsh, crude and funny. But Masterson weaves that in with Watts' pain and vulnerability.

One of my all-time favorite kissing scenes in movies is when Watts provokes Keith to practice his technique in the gas station garage. Masterson knocks that one out of the park. There’s also a subtle masochistic quality to Watts’ participation in Keith’s courting of Amanda, another aspect that would have been fumbled by a lesser actress.
I have to praise Hughes for keeping true to the Watts character. A hack writer would have written a scene with her dressing up in the style of the day and showing Keith—and the audience—that she’s just as “feminine” as Amanda. Maybe it was director Howard Deutch’s call, but Hughes was a very powerful producer at the time, and his choices probably prevailed.

I would love to see an early version of this screenplay. Evidently the Amanda character was written specifically for Hughes stalwart Molly Ringwald, who turned down the role. I wonder if the Watts character became more pronounced because of this development or if it became more of the focus because of Masterson’s performance during filming.

If you’re an aspiring actress, watch this movie and Masterson in particular. I can’t believe she wasn’t at least nominated for an Academy Award for this role. I guess it’s because it was considered a genre film, a teen flick. And the movie itself has flaws, as Hughes relies on familiar tropes of the time (the rich-kid villain, thug with a heart of gold, overbearing dad). Take out Masterson’s performance and I wouldn’t have watched it more than once.

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