Summer of ’86: The Triumph of 'About Last Night...' and the Sounds of David Mamet

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Joal Ryan
·Contributor
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All this week, we’re celebrating the great movies that hit screens 30 years ago in 1986. Go here to read more.

In a summer of Top Gun, the convention-defying romantic comedy About Last Night… managed to find daylight. It was one of five movies to open on the Fourth of July (up against Big Trouble in Little China, The Great Mouse Detective, Psycho III, and Prince’s Under the Cherry Moon); it was the only one of those releases to hang on for a solid month in the top 10. In the end, About Last Night… grossed $38.7 million domestically, representing the biggest box-office hit of the 1980s for stars Rob Lowe and Demi Moore, who play a yuppie couple embarking on a relationship after a one-night stand.

But to me, it just sounded different.

Released during the Brat Pack era, and starring Brat Pack stars, 1986’s About Last Night… was by design “not another Brat Pack movie." You’d be forgiven if you thought otherwise, especially from a 2016 lens: The film is set in Chicago, like the John Hughes movies that gave birth to the Brat Pack epithet; it’s about young people and their relationships; it stars Rob Lowe and Demi Moore. Like St. Elmo’s Fire before it — which also starred Lowe and Moore — About Last Night… could be a John Hughes movie’s older sibling.

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The cast (from left): Elizabeth Perkins, Demi Moore, Jim Belushi, Rob Lowe (Sony Pictures)

But see the movie as 1986’s critics did, and you get an “insightful” look at the singles bar scene that might not have pushed boundaries, but was “likable” and maybe even “special.” Roger Ebert even gave the film a full four-star rating, gushing that "it has an eye and an ear for the way we live now, and it has a heart, too, and a sense of humor” and pronouncing it “one of the year’s best movies.” Sure, the words “brat” and “pack” were thrown around too, but they were there to distinguish About Last Night… from the Young Hollywood films that preceded it.

The two words that above all separated About Last Night… from the Pack: David Mamet. The film was based on the Oscar-nominated, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer’s 1974 one-act play, Sexual Perversity in Chicago.

“I didn’t want the movie to have that [Brat Pack] stigma,” director Edward Zwick said in 1986, “but I knew the material was strong enough that it wouldn’t.”

To prove the point, Zwick opens About Last Night… with only the sound of Mamet as performed by Lowe and James Belushi.

Watch the opening sequence of ‘About Last Night…’:

“So…,” Lowe begins.

“So, what?” Belushi counters.

“So, tell me…”

“What?”

“About last night…”

“Are you kidding me?”

“Yeah?”

With the next Belushi line, the first F-word of our R-rated relationship comedy is uttered, and we’re not even off the first title card. We haven’t seen Belushi. We haven’t seen Lowe — and the then-22-year-old Lowe was not something to be concealed. (Let it be noted, the now-52-year-old Lowe is likewise a vision worth sharing.)

But Zwick, on his first feature-film assignment, is in no hurry. He lets Belushi and Lowe riff on Mamet (as interpreted by screenwriters Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue) for a solid 30 seconds before we see anything but blue-on-black credits.

Even when Zwick finally lets us have a look at the movie, he keeps the focus on the words. There’s no sweeping establishing shot. There’s no frenetic Steadicam. There are no exposed Lowe biceps, à la the actor’s eye-candy character in the previous summer’s St. Elmo’s Fire. There are just blazer-clad, sales bros Bernie (Belushi) and Danny (Lowe) walking and talking along Chicago’s waterfront, and hashing out Bernie’s (alleged) sexcapade with a woman who may or may not have been “a pro.”

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(The 2014 Kevin Hart remake, About Last Night — no ellipsis — offers its own take on this approach: It opens with James Brown’s spoken intro to “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine.”)

In Zwick’s version, the filmmaker is so devoted to Bernie and Danny, and, in turn, Mamet, that he lets the men banter their way around town, on the “L” train, on the downtown sidewalk, in the local bar, and through the rest of the opening credits, a cappella.

There is no Simple Minds song. There is no Tangerine Dream score. There is no saxophone.

Why, it’s as if we’re not really in the 1980s at all.

No, About Last Night… was not another Brat Pack movie. It sounded different because it was different.

Read more:
Summer of ’86: 'Stand by Me’ Takes on Life, Death, and One Epic Barf-o-Rama
Summer of ’86: The Terrifying Madness of ‘Manhunter’ — and Our First Introduction to an Infamous Serial Killer
Summer of ’86: ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ Let John Hughes Graduate from Teen Movies With Honors
Summer of ’86: The Wild, Wacko Genre Mashup of ‘Big Trouble in Little China’
Summer of '86: The 'Top Gun’ Music Editor Remembers How He Took Audiences Right Into the Danger Zone