By Craig Leask
In the early 1980’s a rash of new films were released focusing on the teenage demographic in hopes of establishing a new market. The success of Porky’s (1981), which earned $7.6 million on its opening weekend on its $2.5 million budget, launched a rash of teen sex comedies including The Last American Virgin (1982) and Porky’s II: The Next Day (1983). The targeted teenage market found on screen a titillating validation of those topics their hormone engorged minds had been snickering about with friends.
An emerging market was in fact recognized and, once established, allowed for topics and boundaries to be explored through new and diverse storylines, some more relatable than others. These included Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) a coming-of-age film which explored virginity and the stoner culture while broaching the more mature topics of insecurity, peer pressure, teen pregnancy and abortion; Risky Business (1983) which follows high schooler Joel Goodson (Tom Cruise) as he establishes a temporary bordello in his wealthy parent’s home to earn the money required to cover repairs to his father’s Porsche, the services of a prostitute and a debt to a pimp; Footloose (1984), the tale of teenaged Ren MacCormack (Kevin Bacon) who relocated from Chicago to the small religious town of Bomont, where he clashes with the local Reverend over the town’s ban on dancing; Red Dawn (1984), a group of high school students in Colorado who launch a resistance army to defend their town from an invasion by Soviet, Cuban and Nicaraguan forces.
These are a small sampling of the many movie releases throughout the 1980’s which focused on teenage coming of age issues (some realistic, some not), while launching the careers of relatively unknown young actors. For the most part these films focus on conflict, sexual conquest and a lack of parental guidance or involvement in the lives of the main characters. Although I enjoyed these films, I can honestly say, for the most part, these were not actual or relatable events in my adolescent years.
John Hughes was the one person at the time who had a naturally instinctive insight into the vastly misunderstood teen mindset. Hughes, a director, writer, and producer, earned his chops writing National Lampoon’s Class Reunion (1982), Mr. Mom (1983) and National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) before realizing his aptitude in providing a voice for the typical teenager as they progressed through their everyday lives. His natural ability to entertainingly memorialize embarrassing aspects of middle-class adolescent behavior was spot on in his directorial debut, the game changing Sixteen Candles (1984), which he also wrote. His compassionate insight into the teenaged world formed the basis of a respectful depiction of his characters, their awkwardness, hang ups and fears of not fitting in. Through this Hughes captured the respect of his audience, delivering a natural empathy and nuance not previously expressed by filmmakers.
Hughes found his muse in Molly Ringwald, casting her as lead Samantha Baker in the film, a role that made her the face of the average teenager and launched her career. Spanning a 48-hour time period, Sixteen Candles follows the story of a hopelessly stressed teenage girl (Ringwald) whose family has overlooked her sixteenth birthday while dealing with a tumultuous home, multigenerational house guests and the comedic chaos surrounding the wedding of her sister.
Hughes talent shone through as he effortlessly and tenderly portrayed the embarrassing reality of adolescent life in a funny and lighthearted tone. Contrasting contemporary films being released at the time which portrayed immature teenagers as nothing more than sex-starved imbeciles looking to cause havoc, Hughes created a humorous yet tender coming-of-age comedy about a day in the life of one girl maintaining an underlying sense of understanding, decency, and respect in even its minor characters. Ringwald expertly communicates all those familiar and contrasting 16-year-old emotions, issues, and reactions: self-confidence, embarrassment, fitting in and hopeless romance. Keeping his eye on his target market, Hughes also made the soundtrack an additional character in Sixteen Candles, a skill he maintained on several of his later projects. Featuring the current edgy groups at the time to enhance the mood and feelings of the cast. The soundtrack includes: The Specials, The Thompson Twins, The Revillos, Billy Idol, and The Stray Cats.
Hughes followed Sixteen Candles in 1985 with The Breakfast Club, another commercial and critical success focusing on the adolescent market. Again, staring Ringwald, this time however she is sharing the focus as one of a group of dissimilar students spending a Saturday in detention at Shermer High School. This assembled team of young actors: John Bender (Judd Nelson) “The Criminal”; Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald) “The Princess”; Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall) “The Brain”; Andy Clark (Emilio Estévez) “The Athlete”; and Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) “The Basket Case” collectively became known as the “Brat Pack”, a reference to the original Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr.) of the 1960’s.
The Breakfast Club follows the five students as they occupy themselves through a Saturday detention on March 24, 1984, which includes a task assigned by school’s principal, Mr. Vernon (Paul Gleason), to complete an essay about “who you think you are” while owning up to and reflecting upon their individual violations. To pass the time, the group gradually open up to one other as they work through their detention, gradually revealing their thoughts, secrets, fears and their common arm’s length relationships with their parents and the fears and consequences of letting them down. What makes this so special is the relatability of the themes within the film: diversity; prejudice; tolerance; class differences and ultimately commonality, understanding and acceptance.
The film brilliantly concludes with Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) reading the group’s essay as a voice over to The Simple Minds “Don’t You Forget About Me”, with each student adding his or her own verbal signature as a final act of defiance, as follows:
Brian: Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us – in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain…
Andrew: …and an athlete…
Allison: …and a basket case…
Claire: …a princess…
John: …and a criminal.
Brian: Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, The Breakfast Club.
The Breakfast Club was filmed at a single location, Maine North High School in Des Plaines, Illinois, which had been shuttered in 1981, allowing the production to be completed on a meagre $1,000,000 budget. Unfortunately, the school’s library where much of the action takes place was too small to accommodate the cast and film crew, so a new set was constructed in the school’s gymnasium. Hughes sensitively ensured that each adolescent character in the film was a representation of every classmate we all had in high school. As we watch the film we all recognize the spoilt princess, the jock, geek, outcast and even the future criminal. Incidentally, Hughes filmed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (released in 1986) in the same school, concurrently with The Breakfast Club, to save time and money.
Keeping the focus on Ringwald, Hughes’ next project (and his final collaboration with Ringwald) was Pretty in Pink (1986) which depicted a heavier agenda, dealing this time with teenage love and the very real cliques and peer pressures which are prevalent in high schools which enroll students from different economic classes. Although penned by Hughes, the film was directed by Howard Deutch. The plot follows the struggles of comfortably outcast high schooler Andie Walsh (Ringwald) from a humble working-class home, as she navigates the social prejudices of her affluent school. Comfortable with her own fashion sense and when surrounded by her peers, her best friend Duckie (Jon Cryer) and her wig obsessed employer Iona (Annie Potts), her resolve is tested when she is asked out by the wealthy Blane (Andrew McCarthy), causing the stress inducing navigation of his preppy group of peers. Through Hughes’ writing, he captured the tender portrayal of what love is really like – how powerfully beautiful it is, but also just how hurtful and destructive it can be.
Hughes named the film Pretty in Pink after the Psychedelic Furs song of the same name, which was included in the film’s very successful soundtrack, along with Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s “If You Leave”, which hit #4 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 at the time.
Taking a break from heavier topics, Hughes’ wrote, directed, and produced his next project, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), which follows the irresistible (and irrepressible) title character as he cuts school, and doesn’t waste a moment of his truancy while doing so. Starring Matthew Broderick in a role perfectly tailored to him as the boisterous Beuller, supported by his fun loving and enabling girlfriend Sloane Peterson (Mia Sara) and his hypochondriac and risk avoidant friend Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck). The story follows the trio as they explore the various sites around Chicago, take in a game at Wrigley Field, freeload at expensive restaurants, critique art museums, sing in the Von Steuben Day Parade, and cruise around town in Cameron’s father’s vintage 1961 Ferrari 250 GT. The basic plot is summed up early in the film as Ferris stares directly into the camera and, breaking the preverbal fourth wall, states to the audience, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Naturally, all fun-loving tales are made more fun by a tyrannical adversary, in this film it is School Dean Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) who is determined to undermine Ferris’ cockiness while catching him in his unforgivable act of defiance. The film exemplified the “us versus them” message, which was a common theme in Hughes’s most beloved films.
In 1990, Hughes struck gold with Home Alone (1990), a film about a precocious child (Macaulay Culkin) who is left to his own devices when his parents lose track of him when they leave on vacation. Home Alone became the third highest-grossing film ever at the time, earning box office receipts of $285 million. The unexpected success of the film spawned 3 sequels: Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992); Home Alone 3 (1997) and Home Alone 4: Taking Back the House (2002). Although the Home Alone films and those which followed were critical and financial successes, far outshining his earlier work, through the process Hughes unfortunately lost sight of his instinctive talent of giving a voice to those confusing and much misunderstood adolescent years.
The mid 1980’s period of John Hughes career secured his place as the voice of the adolescent on film, so much so that Vanity Fair christened him the title of “Teen Laureate” in the February 2010 issue of their magazine. Hughes’ relatable approach to storytelling managed to capture the full range of confusion and isolation felt by adolescents of all generations, giving young viewers the rare ability to experience a little support, comradery and understanding while watching his films.
John Hughes passed away on August 6, 2009 of a heart attack in New York City at the age of 59. Arguably there has not been another individual prior to or since his involvement in film who possessed Hughes’ talent of understanding and respecting that hungry adolescent market.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.