Crush-a-Thon: Secret Admirer

Lori Pizza ParlorFor our final Crush-a-Thon entry we have Tom Panarese.  Tom blogs at Pop Culture Affidavit, where each week he covers something completely random in the world of popular culture.  When not writing or podcasting about random movies, TV shows, or comic books, he teaches high school English.

His crush: Lori Loughlin

Lori LetterI can’t decide whether or not my movie and TV fixations have been more on girls with brains or the girl next door. Maybe it’s both. I mean, one of my first crushes ever was on Caitlyn Ryan on “Degrassi Junior High”, who fit both criteria, and throughout my many viewings (and re-viewings) of teen flicks from the 1980s and 1990s I’ve always noticed the “second-stringer,” the girl who isn’t the sex bomb, who doesn’t often land the leading man, or in this case, is the girl the guy doesn’t realize he really should be with until it’s almost too late.

Lori Loughlin is best known for her role as Aunt Becky on the late-1980s/early 1990s sitcom “Full House” and she wasn’t an actress I gave much thought to when I was a teenager, especially since I have a very special hatred for “Full House” (which … would take too long to explain). So you can imagine my surprise when I caught Secret Admirer on Comedy Central one random afternoon in the late 1990s and found myself doing a double-take.

Now, I should have been paying attention to Kelly Preston, who plays Secret Admirer‘s blonde bombshell Deborah Ann Fimple and is the object of affection of the film’s main character, Michael Ryan (played by ’80s teen film mainstay C. Thomas Howell); however, in my zoned-out channel surfing state I went from looking at Loughlin’s brunette best friend Toni and saying “That’s Lori Loughlin?” to saying, “Wow, that’s Lori Loughlin.”

Lori PoolThe film’s plot is a rather inconsequential classic mix-up story. Even though she’s Michael’s best friend and has been for years, Toni is completely in love with him. Unfortunately, he’s got the hots for Deborah Ann and when Toni writes Michael a love letter from a secret admirer, he automatically assumes it’s Deborah Ann’s sentiments and since Toni doesn’t have the courage to say anything about it, Michael writes her back. Well, Michael writes her back, Toni reads the letter and after seeing how badly written it is rewrites it and sends it to her despite her feelings.

Meanwhile, the original letter ends up in the hands of Michael’s parents (Cliff DeYoung and Dee Wallace) and the other letter winds up in the hands of Deborah Ann’s parents (Leigh Taylor-Young and Fred Ward) who get involved in a love quadrangle of near affairs with one another, a mess that ends with a knock-down, drag-out brawl at their bridge night.

But aside from what are pretty solid performances from the adult leads as well as 1980s teen comedy gags (the guys escape a fraternity mob via van) and 1980s teen comedy gratuitous nudity (Michael gets to second base with Deborah Ann), I wouldn’t have remembered a single thing about it if it hadn’t been for Loughlin’s Toni as the behind-the-scenes voice of reason.

Lori BeerIt’s not a movie-stealing role by any means and Secret Admirer is a rightfully forgotten film, but as I watch Michael try to wine, dine, and bed the monumentally vapid stereotypical Eighties airhead Deborah Ann, I notice how Toni is not a stereotypical mousey wallflower but intelligent and pretty. But I get the sense that she’s scared to tell Michael how she feels not because she’s a social outcast or ugly duckling but because she’s known this guy and his friends for so long that she might as well be another guy to him.

And we’ve all been there, haven’t we? The best friend whose attractiveness you don’t notice; the hints you don’t get; and that moment where you see her for the first time as more than that. Michael doesn’t get there until the end of the movie, but we’re there pretty quickly because of a few key scenes.

Toni, being “one of the guys” has to endure a sequence of smack-your-heart around moments that makes you feel for her and makes you wish that Michael wasn’t such a dipwad. When they hang out and have pizza together, the conversation turns to sex and she shyly confesses that she’s a virgin. Later on, she heads up to “inspiration point” on her own and sits and thinks with a beer. And at Michael’s birthday party where Deborah Ann proceeds to try and deflower him in Toni’s parents’ bedroom, Toni sits on the stairs sadly drinking and Loughlin just embues the heartbreak that comes from this ultimate frustration.

There’s more, of course, as Toni winds up not just being a voice of reason and a go-between but a counterweight to the immaturity of all of the guy characters. She winds up running interference for Michael and Deborah Ann by going after Deborah Ann’s boyfriend Steve (Scott McGinness), although she sneaks out of his room at the fraternity house before things go to far. And when Michael’s friend Roger tells the guys that he “bopped her brains out,” she gets her revenge on his van with a baseball bat. She is, in a way, the epitome of the woman of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”), the woman who isn’t perfect that he truly loves because she’s not put on a pedestal (“And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare/as any she belied with false comapre.”)

Lori StairsI am probably stretching a little there by comparing a 1980s romantic teen comedy to Shakespeare because as I mentioned, Secret Admirer itself is not a particularly great film. It’s notable in that it’s one of the few teen movies that gives the parents a story (with a few exceptions, parents were notoriously absent from most teen movies of the 1980s) and most of the actors do the best they can with what they’ve got (and with a movie that is so of its decade it’s practically an artifact). And may we all have best girl friends like Toni.

Secret Admirer is available on DVD from MGM video as part of a “Totally Awesome ’80s Double Feature” (the other film is the Rob Lowe-Andrew McCarthy film, Class), can be rented via Netflix, and often pops up on random cable channels when you least expect it.

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