September 14, 2006
Grown-up Ringwald gets ‘Sweet’ again—thanks to Fosse
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Returning to the stage ultimately saved her. In 1999, she landed the female lead in the Los Angeles production of Paula Vogel's controversial incest drama, "How I Learned to Drive." Ringwald went on to star in a London production of "When Harry met Sally"; Jonathan Larson's chamber musical, "Tick, Tick...Boom!" and as Sally Bowles in Sam Mendes' hit revival of "Cabaret" several years ago. Critics raved about how Ringwald's vulnerability-factor made Bowles' travails all the more heartbreaking.
Since then, her personal life has also come together.
She now lives in a fifth floor East Village walk-up with her partner, a Greek writer, and their 2-year-old daughter, Mathilda.
In conversation, Ringwald still sounds like that approachable teenager who braved those embarrassing showers with you in gym class. Even with 38 candles now on her birthday cake, she punctuates her patter with "omigods" and Valley speak (she grew up in North Hollywood); but she also unpretentiously cites European films and the blues repertoire as freely as the average American might refer to Billboard's Top 10. You can imagine her rolling her eyes, in that Samantha way, when theater-goers are surprised she can sing.
Actually, she's been singing since before she could talk. When Ringwald was a baby, her mother noticed her perfect pitch and alerted dad, a blind jazz musician. By age 3, Molly was performing with her father's Great Pacific Jazz Band, belting out ditties such as "You Gotta See Momma Every Night or You Won't See Momma at All."
"At preschool, I sang Bessie Smith's 'Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer,' which kind of disturbed the teacher," she says with a laugh.
Smith was the subject of a second-grade report Ringwald delivered while wearing her own accidental Afro. "One of the reasons I never had long hair was that my mother felt it was too fine, so she had my short hair permed and the chemicals were so strong they turned it a hideous orange," she says, in horrified tones.
"It was a nightmare, because it was like a totally untoned, awful color."
Molly stood out in a different way, -- as a Protestant in her predominantly Jewish Valley neighborhood.
"My sister was the biggest wannabe Jew of all time, because all our friends were Jewish and lived in what they called 'Hebrew Heights,' while we lived in the 'Christian flatlands,'" she recalls, with another laugh.
Ringwald became obsessed with preparing the kugel recipe she learned from a classmate at age 9, the same year she landed the role of Kate in the West Coast production of "Annie."
Even if she hated her hair, Ringwald remained a plucky performer. When she auditioned for Paul Mazursky's "The Tempest" in 1982, the director asked her questions about her life -- while pelting her with pennies.
"He wanted a girl with backbone, so I just kept talking and picking up the money and putting it in my pocket and then I refused to give it back," she says. After John Hughes saw her feisty "Tempest" performance, he taped Ringwald's photograph to his computer and wrote 1984's "Candles" in just three days, over a Fourth of July weekend. The actress inspired the fictional Samantha, who is too shy to approach the senior she adores or to remind her relatives they've forgotten her 16th birthday.
"The character was exactly like me at the time," the actress says. "I definitely felt awkward, like an ugly duckling. I was skinny and freckly with this kind of reddish hair I could never seem to grow out." (Her trademark flaming tresses are "straight out of the bottle," she admits.) When a reporter notes how attractive she appeared in that film, her response is an incredulous, "Really?"
Ringwald went on to play a rich girl who bonds with misfit kids -- fellow Brat Packers such as Judd Nelson and Emilio Estevez -- over a Saturday detention in "The Breakfast Club" (1985); she was a poor girl smitten by a rich guy in "Pretty in Pink" (1986). Critic Pauline Kael -- one of Ringwald's staunchest admirers --lauded the actress as a "goddess of the ordinary" in The New Yorker.
The very "ordinary-ness" of the Hughes films is what made them iconic, Ringwald says. The director had an uncanny ability to capture daily teen crises -- as opposed to the caricatured sexcapades depicted in over-the-top comedies such as "Porky's."
"John's movies were the first in a while to accurately reflect the eternal high school concerns: feeling misunderstood, out of place, invisible," Ringwald says. As for why the actress herself was widely considered the emotional core of those films: "I'm an emotional person, and anytime I just think anything it immediately shows on my face."
That kind of openness earned Ringwald great reviews (and box office) for "Cabaret"; when the thrilled producers asked what she wanted to do next, she immediately picked the Bob Fosse-Neil Simon musical, "Sweet Charity." She had been immensely moved by the film upon which the 1966 show was based, Federico Fellini's "Nights of Cabiria." And she had loved the movie version of the Fosse musical, starring Shirley MacLaine.
Ringwald also felt she might have a unique take on the heroine, who is often portrayed as a witless bimbo.
"I'd like to play her a little bit wiser, and to emphasize that she's not stupid; she's been around the block and has a lot of street smarts," the actress says.
Ringwald denies she has selected less-than-wholesome roles, like Charity, to change that pesky, lingering '80s persona.
"I did that when I was younger, but now I just do the work I am drawn to," she insists. "What interests me is how characters are flawed, and how they survive in the world. Charity, [for example], is kind of broken, but she's put back together in a really great way."