In issue 3 of the unfortunately short-lived UNCUT DVD, we ran a piece called The Curse Of The Mullets. It was a particularly funny account of the scandalous fall from grace of the Brat Pack actors and the whirl of sex-tapes, alcoholism, drug busts and straight-to-video hell that engulfed them following their mid-Eighties peak. As hilarious as the piece was, it feels somehow emblematic of the way these films, and their stars, have become viewed over the last quarter of a century. Which, sadly, detracts from the importance of those films and the achievements of the man behind them – John Hughes, who has just died at the age of 59.
Hughes’ greatest accomplishment, perhaps, was that he took teenagers as seriously as they took themselves. Across five films, made in a three-year period between 1984 and 1987, Hughes’ established himself as Hollywood’s principal observer of adolescent angst. Crucially, this run of films (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Some Kind Of Wonderful) spoke directly and sympathetically to their audience. Hughes understood, with a depth of focus I can’t see in any other filmmaker’s work, the hormonal teenage mind. It’s perhaps no accident that Hughes’ simple yet genius idea of identifying his characters by stereotype – the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess and the criminal – helped make The Breakfast Club his most iconic and influential movie. The Breakfast Club is, indeed, an extraordinary film. John Robinson’s just brilliantly described it to me as “Waiting For Godot in a high school” – a film in which nothing of any note actually happens for a considerably long period of time while a bunch of characters sit around talking. The shadow The Breakfast Club casts is immense; every high school film owes it some kind of debt, from Heathers (surely the anti-John Hughes’ film) to Election (which starred Ferris Bueller’s Matthew Broderick) or Cruel Intentions. It became the cliché, but with good reason. On some fundamental level, it was true.
But I suspect, perhaps, that part of the reason why Hughes’ films have become so derided in some quarters is because of the time they were made. Writing a few years ago in trade magazine Variety, Peter Bart described Hughes’ films as “perfectly crafted for the Reagan era.” Hughes was born in 1950, and saw his generation politicized by Vietnam, the assassinations of Jack and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights movement. The subsequent wave of teenagers growing up in the Eighties had no such moral weight or sense of purpose; they crested a wave of prosperity, consumerism and big, big, big. A lot of this, you could say, is reflected in the off-screen antics of the Brat Pack themselves; Hollywood’s new alpha elite appeared to represent that generation’s crassest instincts for hubris, self-regard and excess.
But that’s not to say this generation weren’t entitled to their own opinions, thoughts and feelings, of course. Which is what Hughes’ brilliantly captured. For every admittedly dated shot of the breakfast clubbers doing excruciating Eighties dancing to some wretched version of “We Got The Beat”, there’s Molly Ringwald’s Andie, struggling with her unemployed, depressed father (Harry Dean Stanton) in Pretty In Pink, or the sublime, wordless art gallery sequence in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, elegantly sountracked by Dream Academy’s cover of The Smiths’ “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want”. In fact, music was a crucial part of those movies. Hughes, himself a massive Dylan and Clash fan, identified the phenomenal power of pop music as a marketing tool in the emergent MTV age. While we now consider, for good or ill, the blockbuster soundtrack tie-in to be part and parcel of the multi-media experience, Hughes was the innovator here. Think, after all, of Pretty In Pink: a song that became a film title that in turn then made the song an international hit.
Until Hughes came along, teenagers had never been so well – or so directly – served in movies. The pre- and early teen audience had been reached with ET (1982), The Goonies (1985) and Stand By Me (1986), while Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times At Ridgemont High, from 1982, had found the slightly older end of the teen market. But the work Hughes did identified what’s subsequently become the core demographic for multiplex filmmakers. Isn’t Twilight, however bad a film it may be, simply The Breakfast Club with fangs..?
The movies he made after – particularly the Home Alone series and Planes, Trains And Automobiles – saw Hughes move away from his teen audience. The results were certainly successful – the four Home Alone movies made over $900 million at the box office while Planes… is arguably the last funny film Steve Martin made. But Hughes’ five teen movies are pop culture touchstones. He not only caught the atypical combination of romance and cynicism, conventionality and rebellion that characterised the MTV generation. He put his brand on them, in the way Scorsese described mob movies or John Ford defined Westerns.
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