It felt criminal to write about the beautiful young people who populated ’80s movies and spend but a sentence on James Spader. Granted, it was a pretty tidy summation of his persona, but a mere phrase is not enough for such a top-shelf adonis, particularly because his new drama Black List is steadily buzzing up buzz (Grantland called Spader “an otherworldly iberico”). It’s the quiet sort of buzz that drives fashionable young New York women not to watch the show but to google “young james spader” while listening to “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” And I know because most of those women have gchatted me this photo over the last few days.
What’s more, Spader’s many variations on the vitriolic preppy make for a fantastic men’s fashion plate. For all its swaggadocio, it’s actually just laziness with a thick lacquer of sprezzatura, clothing that works like an extra set of wry, condescending eyebrows. And it lends itself wonderfully to uncomplicated imitation.
Take Spader’s starring role in 1983’s Tuff Turf, in which he plays a rebellious, pseudo-bad boy Wasp named Morgan, stripped of his boat and country club membership and plunked down in Los Angeles (the horror!). The preppy-rebel thing is nothing new, but this is less Catcher in the Rye and more like Rebel Without a Cause drank dish soap and came to the dinner table hiccuping bubbles. Instead of Natalie Wood, we have a young Kim Richards. The homoerotic-but-also-son Sal Mineo figure is played by Robert Downey, Jr. in his like, second role ever. There is a long fight sequence involving pit bulls that feels like a DMX music video 20 years too soon, and yet the film’s climax involves crashing a country club dance and a Spader soliloquy on finger sandwiches (“throw those babies in the fridge and you got ‘em for brunch with bloodies the next day!”). Instead of jeans with a white t-shirt and a red jacket, Spader wears jeans with a pink oxford and leather jacket and has the world’s most perfect hair, no matter what he’s doing, proving that old ’80s decree that immaculate grooming can take you anywhere. It is the best movie you have never seen.
Spader really comes into his own, of course, as Steff in Pretty in Pink, as the “ugh” to Benny Hanson’s “agh” and Andie Walsh’s “meh.” (I say “come into his own” because although Spader is allegedly acting, his High Church accent belies the truth that was chosen by God or at least Paramount Pictures to bring the Preppy Handbook to life on film). His wardrobe is a sea of pajama-like linen suits, shirts unbuttoned down to there, and smoking slippers, and he throws parties that last 72 hours and makes this face a lot and utters the most important line of the entire film. And even though we’re supposed to find him an eminent bucket of slime, he’s such a maleficent potion that he makes a Andie and Blane look like total dweebs (and anyways, Duckie is such a spectacular human figure–pretend all the dumb Bushwick guys you like are also verbally mellifluous–that Andie looks like an idiot for rejecting him and Spader for Blahhhhne). I suppose this all is ostensibly about style, so I’ll add that linen suits are where it’s at, and everyone should get one and slink around (somewhere that is not a high school, probably) saying, “When Bill and Joyce are through with you, you won’t know whether to shit or go sailing.” And also I’m pretty sure he spends as much time doing his hair as he does drinking, which is probably a significant style note, as well.
Post-Pretty in Pink, Spader is actually an eminent bucket of slime in Less Than Zero. Less Than Zero feels like Michael Haneke made a teen movie; to say Bret Easton Ellis hated it doesn’t sound like much, but believe me that it means something. Spader chucks the enfant and is just terrible. I think this is mostly because his voluminous follicular headdress is slicked back. That’s probably it. Style note: slick your hair back, and you will end up dealing drugs and pimping out Robert Downey, Jr.
Spader was also in Mannequin, in a role that foreshadowed his big round glasses phase (see: Stargate). And of course he had a small part in Wall Street, because that’s just where Steff and Morgan types–to the manor born–end up in life. A very natural progression. And then he showed up in Sex, Lies, and Videotape and showed us what villainy he’d actually be capable of beyond mere smarming (Secretary, Lincoln, probably The Avengers, and Blacklist). I suppose that’s all more exciting to watch than perfect hair and good outfits, and it’s 2013, anyways.
And yet we must remember this truth and hold it close to our hearts: children of tomorrow will see Chuck Bass and worship him, but we will show them Pretty in Pink, we will show them Tuff Turf, we will show him the wavy interview where he talks about being a zoid, and they will see the light, and they will see that it was good, and that they are but gazing at shadows upon the wall.