“…And these children
That you spit on
as they try to change their worlds
are immune to your consultations.
They’re quite aware
of what they’re going through…”
I remember sitting in a movie theater in Berkeley, California when this quote came up on the screen. The audience cheered very loudly at it, and at that point, I totally got what was being said. I first saw this movie when I was about 10 or so because my parents let my brother watch it while he was still in junior high. Ally Sheedy may have suggested this quote as appropriate to be used in “The Breakfast Club,” but no one understood that quote as well as John Hughes did.
A big part of my youth and the decade of the 80’s was lost forever when John Hughes died this past week at the age of 59 of a heart attack. It had been years since he had written or directed any movies, and I was constantly wondering what he was up to. To teenagers everywhere, he was a godsend because he was one of the few adults who actually took the time to listen to teenagers and saw what they went through. Back when he was making movies and writing screenplays, not many if any were doing that, and his work helped us get through some very turbulent years we thought would be fun when we came of age. But Hughes understood that being a teenager a lot of times felt worse than being dead.
John was working in advertising before he became a writer of jokes for comedians like Rodney Dangerfield. From there, he went on to write screenplays for movies like “National Lampoon’s Vacation” which showed how well he understood family dynamics on a cross country trip from state to state. Through our laughter, we saw that John saw how families acted with each other to where we could see each ourselves on the big screen (or on video and DVD if we didn’t get to see it in a theater).
Then he got a chance to direct, and he gave us “The Breakfast Club,” one of the penultimate teenager movies which remains very popular to this day. Never mind that the movie is dated stylistically. The themes Hughes brought out as this group of young people sacrificed a whole Saturday to detention were universal and still remain so. First seeing this at the age of ten, I had no idea of what was waiting for me through 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grade. This movie was a warning of what I had to deal with when I got older, but there was no way I could see that back then. All I could think about is why did Bender have to be such a jerk? All he did was remind of the kids who gave me crap in elementary school which I took seriously for some stupid reason.
Coming back to this movie years later, “The Breakfast Club” proved to have a healing power as it seemed that no adults other than John Hughes could possibly understand what I was going through. During high school, I needed people like John Hughes in my life as I’m sure we all did. What I loved about this particular movie is that while he saw that everyone was separated into their own cliques in the scholastic world, there were still many things that brought us all together. The scene in the middle of that film where the characters shared why they ended up in detention remains one of the most powerful scenes I have ever seen in a movie.
Seriously, this is one of those movies that I just cannot get sick of watching. It defined a generation, and it ever so easily passed on to other generations that came after it. This movie continues to influence so many artists time after time that it becomes ridiculous to keep track of how many.
“The Breakfast Club” got an R rating, but Roger Ebert was dead on in saying that it should have gotten a PG-13 because it was more than appropriate for people under the age of 17 (some of them anyway). Many people complain about the language, but seriously, have you visited a junior high or a high school campus lately? Some of the best curse words ever uttered we all learned in these places, maybe even elementary school if we were lucky.
Then there was “Sixteen Candles.” Whether or not it came out before or after “The Breakfast Club” is beside the point. It showed how John Hughes was a master of combining the fantasy of being a teenager with the reality of it. Yes, the girl does get the hot looking guy in the end, but not without some struggle. Molly Ringwald, the princess of the majority of Hughes’ films, plays a teenager who is just turning sixteen, and yet her family has completely forgotten that it’s her birthday because they are so focused on her older sister’s wedding. While the movie ended on a happy note for our heroine, she had to go through some major frustrations on the way to it. The sweet sixteen birthday is supposed to be one of the best moments of a young girl’s life (or so we are told), but for Molly’s character, it is a hellish day where she ends up feeling isolated from everyone around her. The moment where we see her in the hallway of her school crying is more than painful because we have all had moments like that.
One of my most favorite moments from “Sixteen Candles” comes when Anthony Michael Hall, in his days as the stereotypical geek of the 80’s, sits in a car with Molly who confesses about her family unknowingly neglecting the occasion of her birthday. At that moment, the social classes they are stuck in throughout high school disappear, and they end up relating to each other in ways we would never have seen in any other teenager comedy of the time. We all yearn for those moments for when we can just talk to someone and speak to them and have them hear us on the same level.
I’ll never forget the first time I watched “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” with Matthew Broderick playing the guy I always (and foolishly) hoped I would be at school, the one everyone loves. Watching it on video back in Thousand Oaks on the day we were supposed to return it (my parents and brother wanted me to see it), I hadn’t laughed so damn hard since… I don’t know, ever? Seeing Jeffrey Jones priceless expression when he is told by Edie McClurg that Ferris Bueller’s on line two still gets me every time. Alan Ruck’s performance as Ferris’ best friend Cameron was a perfect example of the kind of person that we had more in common with than we would ever care to admit. Being our own worst enemy, constantly selling ourselves short, many of us managed to hide this on the surface, but it made us no different. When Cameron finally sees what he has to do in order to move on with his life and stop mopping around, it’s an inspiring moment to say the least. Cameron’s dad would have probably beat him to a pulp once he saw what he did to his Ferrari, but Cameron was no longer afraid of him, and we saw a guy ready to stand up for himself for the first time in his life.
All these John Hughes movies have stayed with me through all of these rough and tumble years, and I look forward to passing them on to my nieces at some point (maybe not right away). I have watched them from one year to the next, and while their meanings remained the same, seeing these stories from a different perspective made me appreciate them all the more. All those years ago, I should have realized what I was getting myself into on my first day of high school. Watching “The Breakfast Club” back when I was in elementary school gave me a head start, but I just didn’t see it coming. I don’t know, maybe I saw it more clearly with “Sixteen Candles.”
But Hughes didn’t just stop with movies about teenagers; he went on to make movies about adults as well, and subsequently showed how childish they could be. It’s no wonder the teens could easily see right through their hypocrisy! “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” is one of my big favorites of his later movies with Steve Martin and the still very much missed John Candy as an odd couple trying desperately to get back to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving. With this movie, Hughes directed John Candy to what I think was his very best performance. It was not just John Candy playing John Candy, but of him playing guy who despite being utterly annoying is really sweet. Steve Martin’s character was a snob, but there was no denying that he was a good man caught up in an unfortunate situation.
Now in any other movie, these two characters would probably have been just a bunch of one-dimensional yahoos on the road in your typical formulaic comedy. But Hughes really understood the dynamics of families and of married men and the women they love, and he brought them to the big screen as very down to earth characters we could see ourselves in. This was really the case with all of his movies, even “Uncle Buck” and “Home Alone” (which he wrote the screenplay for). We all should be thankful that John Hughes got to direct his movies in his home state of Illinois, far away from the meddling studio executives in Hollywood. By doing so, he had the freedom to make his movies his way, and as a result, he created a new movie formula that future filmmakers had to live up to.
With “Home Alone,” which he wrote but did not direct, he scored the biggest hit of his career. But with that success, it seemed to me that he got caught up in a formula of the young child have to outwit all the grownups who constantly underestimated their prey. Every movie he was involved in after that seemed to revolve around that same plot. “Home Alone 2: Lost In New York” was basically the first movie set in the Big Apple, “Baby’s Day Out” was essentially “Home Alone” done with an infant who was wise beyond his months, and his script for “101 Dalmatians” was the same deal but with dogs standing in for the kids. The last movie he directed (which I still have not seen), “Curly Sue,” seemed to have the same thing going for it, that young kid who outwits the adults.
I spent those years that Hughes was writing those movies to write another teen movie for today’s generation, or perhaps he could have made a film about those same characters and of where they were at in their lives as adults. There was always the promise of a sequel to “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” but now we will never see that come to fruition. It’s probably just as well because there really would have been no way for Hughes to recapture the success he had with those films in the 80’s. In a way, there doesn’t need to be a follow up to either of those films because they are still as popular today as they were when they were first released. With his movies, John Hughes gave us films with a long shelf life that most big studios can only dream of having for their overblown summer blockbusters.
Looking at his life in passing, I think I understand why Hughes got caught up in the “Home Alone” formula. It allowed him to buy his independence from Hollywood, a place he refused to move to throughout his distinguished career. No longer did have to deal with people who seemed to think that they knew the best way to make a movie. The truth is that all those people did best to stay out of the way because they were better off find a way to market his films more than anything else. While it is a shame that he did not make more movies in the latter half of his life, this all showed how he refused to bow down to the big studios. In the end, he never really became a recluse, he just wanted to live a normal life and raise his family. It looks like he really succeeded in that.
Long before his untimely passing, I think people in general were more than aware of his influence on today’s batch of writers and filmmakers. Would Kevin Smith have been as inspired to write all the raunchy dialogue in movies like “Clerks” and “Dogma” without the works of John Hughes? Would Diablo Cody have written “Juno” or the upcoming “Jennifer’s Body” without having seen the movies of John Hughes over and over again? Plus, if filmmakers didn’t follow the Hughes formula and his way of doing things, then they just took them to next level. “Pump Up The Volume” was a great example of that as was “Heathers” (both movies star Christian Slater). They took teenagers seriously when others didn’t, and that was the gift John Hughes gave to the world of movies.
I will miss you John, and you left us way too soon. Thank you for all that you left us because we will never ever forget you for it, ever. RIP
“If we dare expose our hearts
Just to feel the purest parts
That’s when strange sensations start to grow
We are not alone
Find out when your cover’s blown
There’ll be somebody there to break your fall
We are not alone
‘Cause when you cut down to the bone
We’re really not so different after all”
-from “We Are Not Alone” by Karla DeVito
“Will you stand above me?
Look my way, never love me
Rain keeps falling, rain keeps falling
Down, down, down
Will you recognize me?
Call my name or walk on by
Rain keeps falling, rain keeps falling
Down, down, down, down”
-from “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds