John Hughes defined a genre and a generation
LOS ANGELES ñ “Saturday, March 24, 1984. Shermer High School, Shermer, Illinois, 60062.
“Dear Mr. Vernon: We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. And what we did was wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us.”
Those are the opening lines from “The Breakfast Club,” voiced by Anthony Michael Hall, accompanied by Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” And even though it’s been nearly a quarter-century since John Hughes’ seminal high-school drama came out, I still know them by heart. I probably still know the entire movie by heart. Any self-respecting child of the 1980s does.
“The Breakfast Club” and “Sixteen Candles” may not qualify as the greatest movies ever, but we’re talking favorites, the ones that still engage you no matter how many times you’ve seen them.
And so the news that Hughes died of a heart attack at 59 Thursday will, for many, strike the same sort of cultural chord that Michael Jackson’s did: It prompts more than just a passing feeling of nostalgia but an active longing for a happier, more prosperous time. As both a writer and director, Hughes defined not just a genre but a generation.
His movies didn’t exactly represent high school as it was (seriously, who ever went to a blowout bash at a mansion like Jake Ryan’s in “Sixteen Candles” or got away with as much as Ferris Bueller?) but rather, high school as we wished it could have been ó funnier, weirder, sweeter, full of kids who have just the right zinger or poignant thing to say:
“Does Barry Manilow know that you raid his wardrobe?”
“How about a nice, greasy pork sandwich served in a dirty ashtray?”
“Blane? His name is Blane? That’s a major appliance, that’s not a name.”
“I can’t believe I gave my panties to a geek.”
After watching “The Breakfast Club” with me on cable for the millionth time when I was a chubby 13-year-old, my mom suggested that we go to the video store and rent the teen-angst movie of her generation: “Rebel Without a Cause.” I would like it, she said ó they were similar. And she was right in that they both captured the frustrating feeling that nobody understands you when you’re young, that your problems are unique and insurmountable. Hughes took that raw energy and made it ironic and idiotic, self-referential and self-deprecating.
Every teen movie that’s come out since the mid-1980s owes a debt to John Hughes. He was that influential. Some acknowledge this willingly, as director Nanette Burstein did with last year’s “American Teen,” which was essentially a documentary version of “The Breakfast Club.” Bill Paxton has said that of the dozens of character roles he’s played over his lengthy career, he’s still best known as Chet, the bullying older brother from 1985’s “Weird Science.” And “Some Kind of Wonderful” (which Hughes wrote) plays a pivotal part in the recent romantic comedy “He’s Just Not That Into You.”
Others have parodied him endlessly in such varied settings as raunchy Kevin Smith comedies, the spoof “Not Another Teen Movie” and the animated TV series “Family Guy.” (In the episode where Peter goes undercover at Meg’s high school as Lando Griffin, he walks across the football field and defiantly thrusts his fist in the air at the end, just as Judd Nelson did in the last image of “The Breakfast Club.”)
Granted, Hughes’ work dwindled once the 1990s arrived and he lost his insight, his edge. His scripts for “Dennis the Menace,” “Beethoven” and “Flubber” can’t exactly compare with the ones he wrote for “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Home Alone” and “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”
But if it weren’t for Hughes, there would never have been a Brat Pack, that clique of sizzling young Hollywood actors who dominated the 1980s after “St. Elmo’s Fire” (a Joel Schumacher film, but one with clear links to Hughes).
Imagine the career trajectories of Hall, Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy and Jon Cryer without him. Or just try to think of Macaulay Culkin without conjuring the image of him slapping his hands to his wholesome face in horror.
And so there’s nothing wrong with wallowing in some unabashed ’80s nostalgia upon the passing of John Hughes. As Ferris Bueller himself might have said at a time like this, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
John Hughes defined a genre and a generation