In the 1980s there was nothing more exciting to a suburban English school girl than a John Hughes movie. We were totally entranced by the glamour of what going to school in America must be like; no uniforms, an undercurrent of sexual fascination with fellow class members who were too goodlooking to believe, lots of make up, a series of musical montages underlined by synthesizers and drum machines and big big hair. I mean Rob Lowe, for Chrissakes. In the rash of John Hughes movies that filled the VHS cupboards of our adolescence there was really nothing more than the classic boy-meets-girl narrative that Hollywood’s been doling out since the Andy Hardy movies of the 1930s, but the morals were clear and love was now a serious business: self-reliance, truth and a sense of what was “right” always overrode social snobbery and prejudices. And the “odd girl” at the back who was Ally Sheedy (The Breakfast Club) or Molly Ringwald (Pretty in Pink) must emerge in the final scene as a radiant swan with smudged kohl eyeliner and a gentle lick of mascara. That way the boys can see how beautiful she really is and that underneath we are all ugly ducklings who have the capability to emerge as mid-American swans.
The Breakfast Club was superbly crafted, because it gave everyone someone to identify with. In the dull, dark Tuesday evenings in Watford in 1989 watching The Breakfast Club was really the only reasonable thing to do. We all wanted to be the Molly Ringwald character (preferably without squinty eyes and frightened fish mouth) and in darker moments, feared we might have an Ally Sheedy character lurking about the outer perimeters of our adolescent psychosis. The brainy one – whose name was the feeblest anagram of brain imaginable (Brian) we didn’t notice. We thought Emilio Estevez quite fanciable despite his fashion mistakes and humour-free athletic approach to life, and I never stopped laughing at the fact that he got a detention because he “taped Larry’s buns together”. Judd Nelson provoked a kind of hormonal madness that I didn’t get. He had scary nostrils, a slightly ape-like demeanour and comedy Groucho Marx eyebrows. Still, there wasn’t a girl in the Northwood area who didn’t want to give him a hand job in 1988.
Urbane, sophisticated smoothie John Bender (Judd Nelson) responds to 1980s small town teacher authority the only way he knew how. With a pout and a denim jacketed shrug. Please can someone explain the sexual allure of this?
The late John Hughes seemed to use the exterior of one school for most of his location filming. The school at the start of The Breakfast Club is the same school Ferris Bueller bunks out of for a day in Ferris Buellers Day Off two years later. The Breakfast Club, set in a fictional town of “Shermer” is a small Illinois town, the model of which was the town John Hughes grew up in in Illinois. The implication of this was that the dramas and imaginings of EveryTown could quite feasibly be your town. It had that eerie feature of the Brat Pack movie, the older actor trying to pass himself off as 17 year old. Judd Nelson was 25 when he made The Breakfast Club with the spiky-haired Emilio Estevez clocking in at a spritely 22. The most dramatic case of this was James Spader, who was nearly 26 when he appeared in Pretty in Pink and where, dressed in the yuppie regulation cream suit with loafers on sockless feet, he looked like a thirty-something who might have owned a wine bar in the Kings Road area. Perversely, they whopped around fictional high school corridors, talking prom, avoiding detention, listening to music on vast Walkman headphones attached to bulky tape recorder stereos.
In case you needed to seek further verification that Steff (James Spader’s character in Pretty In Pink) was Captain Twat, of Twat Road, Twatsville USA, then look no further than this picture. Note cruel lip and clutching of high-end car product catalogue in privileged hand.
“However were we supposed to act when we were 17?” we thought, as fourteen year olds, curled up in the corner of the sofa watching Molly Ringwald destroy two utterly reasonable dresses as an act of unconventional rebellion, and rock on up to her high school prom alone. “Was this how you spoke to boys?” we reasoned, as actors laced in hair gel and large shouldered denim jackets danced flirtatious rings around each other. These films were our point of reference, and they were, clearly, fucked up. If you thought as a fourth former, that you could fling yourself off the hockey pitch and into the Common Room at breaktime thinking that all it took for boys to like you was a leather jacket and a simpering about “Blane asking me to prom” you were woefully mistaken. Because in Hertfordshire in the early 1990s people would beat you up.
Blimey. Detention in my school was never like this. Emilio Estevez struggles to look butch in his lady vest, whilst Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy and The Brainy Brian settle in for a Saturday library fest, shortly before Brian declares he “loves” Moliere. Seriously.
This was England, for God’s sake. To the English, there is a suspicion in the idea that the odd girl at the back is capable or being anything other than the odd girl at the back, that to clap and whoop and say “Atta girl!” when the lead girl finally grabs her hair-gelled, jacket-and-jeans high school guy is actually slightly nauseating. In America, popularity – or the means to acquire it – seemed to be tied up with dignity. In England it was just bad form to put yourself forward. In the John Hughes movies of the Raegan years hard work is rewarded, poor but noble people rise up and claim their place, the pantomime villain (James Spader) was taken down a peg or seven, and his mulleted head would be hanging low as the credits rolled. The world, as we saw it, was righted. Life, as we were about to understand, is not at all like that.
There are no life-affirming montages, for a start, in which protagonists make themselves over in order for Emilio Estevez to suddenly fall in love with them over the library stacks. Nor were there impromptu dancing sessions in detention that preceded confidences told in a trusting circle. Chaps in the Lower Sixth did not look like Charlie Sheen, whose best screen moment probably came from the bit where he tried to pick up Jennifer Grey at the police station in Ferris Buellers Day Off. The fact that life wasn’t like that goes some way to explaining why teenagers needed these movies so much. At advance screenings for Pretty in Pink the original ending got a tepid response from the audience. Sending Molly Ringwald’s character off into the distance with her old school friend, Ducky, defied expectations of social aspiration and denied Molly Ringwald’s character the beautiful truth that love conquers class. Andrew McCarthy’s character had the disgusting name of Blane, and his membership of some bizarre wealthy tribe rendered him a Eloi to Ringwald’s Morlock. Two Morlocks can’t go off together back to the underclass! Six months after filming, Hughes reshot the ending, which involved having to put McCarthy into an unconvincing wig. He had lost almost two stone in preparation for another role by then. This meant that Blane looked like he had been suffering from a very dramatic bout of lovesickness. Andrew McCarthy’s “Blane” and Molly Ringwald’s “Andie” were reunited, and she got to go off into the sunset and snog him in his BMW (Well, it was 1986).
In the 1980s, people had records. And some of those people had shops where they sold records. Here is Molly Ringwald’s character working in a record shop, admirably swooning at the mention of Andrew McCarthy.
The Duckman, a noble character, but Molly didn’t want to go out with him despite his many pledges of love to her.
“Molly! Molly! Let me out so I can pick up my career where I left it!” Andrew McCarthy smoulders away and is destined for Molly, despite the fact that Duckie has tried to lock him behind a gate. Check out those shoulder pads! SWOON
I would take Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club over any of John Hughes’s others – Sixteen Candles, Weird Science or even Ferris Bueller. And don’t get me started on the sick-making post University life drivel that was St Elmos Fire which was such a merciless carcrash of two dimensional characters that it risked darkening the whole teen genre. All it proved was that when it came to capturing the sentiments of youth, John Hughes really ought to stay in high school, as it was there that his talent really shone. Oh, and another thing, Hollywood Brat Pack starlets : complete these films and go away, never to appear in public again, because if the members of The Breakfast Club are as old as this:
Then exactly how old does that make me? They look about 100 so I must be about 80, right? Curiously enough, Emilio Estevez has got better with age :
God I’m intense. I’ve got a plaster saying “STATE CHAMPION”. And my Dad was in Apocalypse Now. Suck on that.
This is my rueful, “I-may-direct-films-about-the Kennedys,- but-I’m-a-man-of-the-people” expression. Casting Directors like it, my friends. Brow lift?! No sorry, don’t know what that means. Of course I haven’t had one.
It may be difficult to kids today to understand the impact of these films. The cultural highlight of English telly in the late 1980s and early 1990s was Eastenders. Youth culture in England was, as always, centred around music, not film. It wasn’t until Trainspotting was released in 1994 that UK film stopped being about watching Helena Bonham Carter flop about Florence with Maggie Smith. For films about teenagers that seemed to be going through what everyone else was going through, John Hughes movies were all we had, which may explain why we watched them over and over and over again until, word perfect, we’d repeat whole scenes to each other and guffaw happily at other. That’s what we did for entertainment, children, before there was an internet.
“Young man! Have you finished your paper?”
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p.s. Oh, and 150 of you have apparently logged on in the last week to view a Nick Clegg blog from four months ago, which trebles my weekly traffic, I can tell you. There can’t be 150 people at the Liberal Democrat conference this week, surely? What the blazes is going on dear readers?