The Search For Jake Ryan
Jake Ryan. Spoken in fervent whispers and wistful sighs, these two words hold a sacred meaning to disciples of the '80s. Jake Ryan. His name is a wish, a dream, an incantation that leaves dreamy-eyed expressions in its wake. Jake. Ryan. The one who got away.
Created by the masterful mind of John Hughes, Jake Ryan was always meant to be a heartthrob, with his athletic prowess, his gorgeous face and his disdain for the social order. He's every cliché of high school hotness stripped down to the sincerest level and then subverted: a jock who's smart, a rich kid who isn't materialistic, a Homecoming King who doesn't give a crap about being popular, a senior who's taken (I mean really taken) but makes himself available to a lowly sophomore. He is, in a word, perfect.
Jake Ryan is the ideal, but more importantly, he's the attainable ideal. Handsomely straddling the line between magic and reality, he's a god who floats through the halls in a cloud of mystique and a mortal who lowers himself to pick up a nobody's note from the floor. The great height of his status doesn't prevent him from seeing Samantha Baker, a girl who should be invisible to him, and his golden confidence fails him whenever he tries to talk to her. It's sweetly endearing that he, the almighty crush, gets just as flustered as Samantha, the awkward dork. It's also incredibly sexy, because suddenly, Samantha has power over the heart of her obsession.
There was only one step left to transform Jake Ryan from a fictional dreamboat to a cinematic icon: the right actor. In the Sixteen Candles casting room, the decision ultimately boiled down to two candidates: Michael Schoeffling and Viggo Mortensen. (Can you picture Aragorn pulling up in a Porsche and surprising Samantha?) According to Molly Ringwald, Mortensen included a kiss in his audition, while Schoeffling refrained. His decision may have been based on nerves, but it's preferable to assume that, even then, Schoeffling understood Jake Ryan's charming reticence.
When 23-year-old Schoeffling slipped on a sweater vest and topsiders in 1984, he probably had no idea that he was about to gain a permanent place in the American cultural landscape, not to mention the fantasies of teenage girls (and grown women) everywhere. It was his first credited role, and the film was John Hughes' first directing gig. But fortunately for all of us, both men nailed it.
From his chiseled cheekbones to his manly brow, Schoeffling certainly looked the part of Jake Ryan (although, at 5'8", he had to stand on risers for certain scenes), but more importantly, he personified the soul of Jake Ryan. His piercing gaze glimmered with earnest emotion, and his deep voice channeled both husky swagger and timid gentleness. Whether he's totally bombing on the phone to Samantha's house or asking for love advice from Farmer Ted, Schoeffling brought an understated note of comedy to the role that makes Jake Ryan less pristine and therefore more interesting. His last scene in the movie might be the most swoon-worthy, but it's the moment when he tries to talk to Samantha at the school dance that embodies the magical essence of Jake Ryan -- a shy grin from a boy who should have nothing to be shy about.
Following Sixteen Candles, Michael Schoeffling went on to play other tantalizingly attractive characters, such as Joe in Mermaids and Al Carver in Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken. But after the latter in 1991, he simply stopped. It seems that he grew tired of the instability of Hollywood and planned to focus on providing for his wife and two children. So of course, he did the most romantic thing possible: he moved to Newfoundland, Pennsylvania and opened up a woodworking shop.
That's right, Jake Ryan now creates handcrafted wooden furniture in rural Pennsylvania. John Hughes himself couldn't have written a better ending.
While Schoeffling's departure from film was a loss in the short term, it turned out to be an incredible gift in the long run. Rather than burning out his star with a string of terrible roles or fading slowly into painful obscurity, Schoeffling preserved the purity of Jake Ryan by removing himself entirely as an actor. The character will never be tainted by tabloid scandals or tragic divorces, and the world will never have to see Jake Ryan schilling products in commercials. Schoeffling disappeared into another life and left his greatest role encased in the hallowed grounds of nostalgia.
And so Jake Ryan remains the Holy Grail of cinematic crushes. Like that high school flame whom you can never find on Facebook, his absence stokes the fire of our collective fascination to legendary levels. He's the ultimate, a shining myth that inspires lifelong searches through high school hallways and trails of wood shavings. To find him, however, would be to shatter the ideal, so perhaps it's best to let Jake Ryan remain safely ensconced in the realm of fantasy.
But if anyone wants to take a road trip to Newfoundland, call me.
This was originally published in the January edition of Birth.Movies.Death. You can see Sixteen Candles at the Alamo Drafthouse this month!