“I don’t care too much for money, ‘cause money can’t buy me love.”
So sang the Beatles — and yet, that is the opposite premise of the 1987 movie Can’t Buy Me Love. The film stars a young and then-unknown Patrick Dempsey as high school nerd Ronald Miller (don’t worry, he cleans up nicely), who wants to badly to be popular that he pays golden girl cheerleader and literal girl next door Cindy Mancini (Amanda Peterson) to pretend they’re dating. She agrees because she needs the cash to replace her mom’s $1,000 suede outfit, which was the victim of an unfortunate wine spill.
The scheme blows up in their faces when they start to actually catch feelings for each other — a problem in part because Cindy has a boyfriend who’s away at college, and in part because becoming popular turns Ronald into a real jerk.
Can’t Buy Me Love was originally going to have the straight-up dehumanizing title Boy Rents Girl, according to Mental Floss. Apparently, audiences were immediately turned off by the original title, and then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner suggested the title of the Paul McCartney-penned Beatles hit instead.
The song appears in the movie’s opening scene as Ronald, who has spent his summer mowing lawns to buy a telescope, sits on a riding mower and looks longingly at Cindy jumping out of a car full of her friends. Can’t Buy Me Love also features a few other classics, including the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ Safari” and Generation X’s version of “Dancing with Myself.” Pop idol Gerardo, the man behind the ‘80s hit “Rico Suave,” co-starred as Ricky, a hunky, half-shirt-wearing football player. Paula Abdul choreographed the movie, including the infamous African anteater ritual school dance.
Upon release on Aug. 14, 1987, Can’t Buy Me Love repeatedly faced criticism that it glamorized prostitution. Indeed, it does turn its female lead into a person who can be bought and exploited, which becomes even more problematic when considering the character is a high-schooler who is not yet 18. The movie criticism paralleled with its titular song, which was long presumed to be written about a prostitute.
McCartney, however, staunchly denied those accusations. “When someone suggests that ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ is about a prostitute, I draw the line, he told reporters in 1966. “That’s going too far.”
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