Hey, a Letter came Today…!
DIRECTED BY DAVID GREENWALT/1985
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: MARCH 7, 2023/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
From the start, the secret of Secret Admirer is out. We, the viewers, know who’s got the unrequited crush on block of wood C. Thomas Howell’s everydork character. It’s Toni (played by future Full House occupant Lori Loughlin, channeling Phoebe Cates’ hair).
Maybe Secret Admirer would be better if it didn’t let on who the secret admirer is by the end of the opening titles. From the texture of the desk the letter is written on, to the handwriting, to the hand itself, we’re simply not left with many options. Obviously, it’s a girl, a young one at that. A few scenes later, when we officially meet our California suburban teen leads, it’s clear as crystal. Would-be sophisticate Preston is repulsed by the notion of dating the friend-zoned Howell, who pursues her since she’s “the prettiest girl in school”. That may be true, though he fails to also see her materialistic vapid side that dominates her personality. Meanwhile, Loughlin sulks at the sight of his pining in cutaway after cutaway. Before long, her letters start unintentionally making the rounds with the extended cast.
This marginally effective 1985 horny teen farce hinges on no one in the movie knowing who’s been writing the anonymous love letters that, by wacky happenstances, find their way into unintended hands. It also hinges, though, on said letters not being addressed to anyone. (Only the discarded envelopes bear the intended recipient name). As one might guess, assumptions and accusations abound throughout. It is, as the kids today and Roger Ebert before them might call it, one big Idiot Plot. If only these characters would use specifics in their subsequent exchanges, most of Secret Admirer’s screwy shenanigans would never need to happen.
But such contrived screwy shenanigans can be forgiven if served up with the right amount of charm, wit, or verve. Is that the case here? Mmmhheeeehhh…. Nah. Not that Secret Admirer doesn’t have its strong points. Fred Ward, playing Preston’s plainclothes cop father is the obvious highlight. Ward plays it so tightly-wound, so on-the-brink-of-an-aneurysm that he sports a throbbing vain in his temple. He is hilarious in every scene he has. Dee Wallace Stone is good in a broad comedy way as Howell’s mother who finds one of the love notes and assumes that her husband, a milquetoast Cliff DeYoung is having an affair with his night school instructor… who just happens to be Preston’s mother (Leigh-Taylor Young). Somehow, that almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, making for a superior B-plot of all the parents falling victim to petty jealousy, a bridge club brawl for the ages and revenge sex in cars at the old make-out point (which never occurs) … which is still a very busy destination.
Secret Admirer is at its best when it tries to go full-Blake Edwards bedroom farce, but throughout the whole town. As far as who reads which letter when and what transpires from that, director David Greenwalt (who’s gone on to quite the career in creating television shows) has the mechanics of the whole thing in place. The problem is that the farcical tone is only maintained for maybe half the time, the other half devoted to the dull and predictable Howell/Loughlin/Preston love triangle, and all the ‘80s dopey teen comedy baggage that must go with it. There’s fun to be had throughout Secret Admirer, but it is awfully scattered. It’s all the more shocking, then, that the film made headlines in 2016 when a Puerto Rican film (Vasos de papel) was revealed to have plagiarized multiple scenes verbatim from Secret Admirer. Really?
On the newly recorded audio commentary track with director David Greenwalt, co-writer Jim Kouf and associate producer Lynn Kouf, it’s disclosed that this project originated as a Gene Wilder/Gilda Radner vehicle. When that fell apart, Greenwalt and Kouf recycled the material into this R-rated teen comedy. That likely accounts for the large amount of screen time devoted to the parental adventures. It’s nice to hear the original creators get together to look back on their humbler beginnings (this was Greenwalt’s directorial debut), although these three seem to have remained professionally in each other’s orbit as the decades have gone on, working on the network TV series Grimm and whatnot. A lot of this track is them narrating what’s happening on screen in Secret Admirer based hazy memories of having seen it maybe ten years ago and having made it nearly forty years ago. Friendly disputes over what was shot where abound. Apparently, this track is moderated by historian/filmmaker Daniel Kremer.
The central attraction for fans is the Blu-ray’s brand-new HD master from a 2K scan of the 35mm interpositve. Additional bells and whistles include old radio spots, the theatrical trailer, a slipcover, and reversible cover art, all of which is fun.
From a completely unfair contemporary perspective, Secret Admirer runs into trouble for some pretty unique reasons. While this film also engages in almost all the usual ‘80s teen sex comedy tropes that haven’t aged well, this film asks us to root for Lori Loughlin as an underdog. Loughlin infamously ended up doing a couple months in prison after writing letters of a very different kind. She was found guilty of college admissions bribery for her daughter’s education- a total one-percenter scandal if there ever was one. Meanwhile, we’re supposed to root against (though not altogether hate) the beloved Kelly Preston, who sadly died of breast cancer a few years ago, and has to show her breasts briefly in this movie. The informed viewer won’t be able to shut out such connections, none of which land remotely well. While this casual observation doesn’t hold much water and might even sound as wrongheaded as any content Secret Admirer has going against it (not my intent to be reductive or disrespectful), it’s nonetheless a large part of whatever takeaway I have with it.
If Secret Admirer greatly succeeds on any level today, it’s as candy-colored ‘80s nostalgia. You know, the surface stuff that was the hip norm then: frilly fashions, the workout-inspired daily wear, the synth-pumping Jan Hammer score, the whole way that the teenagers relate to one another be it hammy, overwrought, knuckleheaded, or embarrassingly macho. One thing Secret Admirer doesn’t have a lot of is crazy-big ‘80s hair. If only it had been made a few years later…. But still, for less discerning fans of this sort of thing, KL Studio Classics’ release of Secret Admirer ought to deliver.