The Staying Power of The Outsiders

By Mandi Bierly

Revisiting the movie that made Hollywood take notice of Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, and others.

“Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold.” That line from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders will forever gut you, even years after the first time you witnessed the tragic ending to the beautiful friendship between Ponyboy Curtis (C. Thomas Howell), Johnny Cade (Ralph Macchio), and Dally Winston (Matt Dillon).

They’re greasers, blue-collar boys in 1960s Tulsa, Oklahoma whose parents are either dead, constantly fighting, or otherwise indifferent. They’ve formed their own family — along with Ponyboy’s older brothers (Rob Lowe’s Sodapop and Patrick Swayze’s Darry) and fellow outliers Two-Bit Matthews (Emilio Estevez) and Steve Randle (Tom Cruise) — to watch each other’s backs. And man, do they need to keep their eyes open. The rich kids in town, known as the Socs, are more willing to get their hands dirty than the teen villains in John Hughes movies. After a Soc girl named Cherry Valance (Diane Lane) dares to spend time talking with the two nicest guys you’ll ever meet at a drive-in, 14-year-old Ponyboy and 16-year-old Johnny, events are set in motion that capture just how cruel, loyal, brave, and fragile young men can be.

The Outsiders is based on the 1967 book of the same title, written by Susan Eloise Hinton (using the gender neutral S.E. Hinton so as to not spook male critics) when she was still herself just a teen, and angry about how the Socs treated the greasers in her high school. The novel, considered the forebear of today’s widely popular YA genre, struck such a chord with the students of a middle school in Fresno, California that in 1980, their librarian sent a petition to Coppola asking him to turn it into a movie (he ultimately dedicated the 1983 film to her and them). While celebrating the movie’s 35th anniversary last year, Howell and Macchio revealed they still occasionally visit schools to take part in post-screening Q&As around the themes of bullying and social injustice. And yet, it’s more than the movie’s message of empathy — that everyone needs, and deserves, to know there’s still good left in the world — that is timeless.

The rumble fight choreography may not hold up, but Coppola’s direction and gorgeous cinematography from Stephen H. Burum certainly do. Whether it’s poetry-loving Ponyboy and thoughtful Johnny sitting side-by-side and peering up at the night sky or standing and looking out at a sweeping, saturated sunset, there are enough choice frames to flood the cinephile Twitter account One Perfect Shot for a week. Performances can be endearingly green and melodramatic at times; given the actors’ ages, the fast-moving plot, and the heightened teen emotions (“Let’s do it for Johnny, man! We’ll do it for Johnny!”), it’s to be expected. But there are also moments that ring so true, you feel them scarring your heart the way only teen dramas can: “I used to talk about killing myself all the time. Man, I don’t want to die now. It ain’t long enough. Sixteen years ain’t gonna be long enough.”

Appreciating the promise on display at the beginning of those actors’ careers is one reason to watch The Outsiders. Processing how the film’s core friendship leaves you feeling both extreme loss and a sense of hope is another.