Feb. 7, 1985—The Breakfast Club, a seriocomic account of a quintet of high-school students who unexpectedly connect at Saturday-morning detention, premiered in Los Angeles on its way to becoming a box-office hit and one of the defining teen movies of all time.
Writer-director John Hughes is one of the most curious figures in Hollywood history. At the height of his success, in the early 1990s, he simply got off the moviemaking carousel and never went back on.
While creating some of Hollywood’s most profitable movies for nearly a decade, he was not a visionary who transformed cinema, nor even that technically proficient. (In fact, he observed at one point, “I stumbled into this business, I didn't train for it. I yelled ‘Action!’ on my first two movies before the camera was turned on.”)
But his death in 2009 brought an outcry of affection from fans on the social media that surprised me. Three years before his passing, The Breakfast Club rated #1 on Entertainment Weekly’s “50 Best High School Movies.” Much of its success had simply to do with his attitude toward teens: “I don't think of kids as a lower form of the human species,” he once said.
He would need to summon that same respect when it came to protecting his property. Though Hughes wrote the screenplay in virtually white heat over just a couple of days, as he often did, it went through a number of permutations. Universal Studios got him to trim back his 2½-hour running time to 97 minutes, but he managed to include the best improvisational bits he had elicited from his cast.
The cast valued the input he allowed them into the final product (Ally Sheedy suggested the lyrics used from David Bowie’s “Changes”, while Judd Nelson came up with “You’re a neo-maxi-zoom-dweebie!”). But he was not a pushover.
Hughes must have rued the fact that he did not cast John Cusack (who had auditioned for the role) as Bender when he saw how Nelson was mistreating Molly Ringwald. Nelson only survived being fired when Paul Gleason (the film’s Principal Vernon) convinced Hughes that the actor was merely getting a bit too much into method acting. It is significant that Hughes, who liked to cast actors with whom he had worked before, never made another picture with Nelson.
One of the most complex creators in the film industry, Hughes exhibited, at various points with actors, film crews and studio execs, different aspects of his character: difficult (bossing around assistant directors, jousting with studio heads when they interfered), warmly affectionate, and melancholy. That might have been why he once said that he was in each of the characters in the Breakfast Club. He knew that teens were not simply the glandular creatures of Porky’s, that even individually they contained multitudes, formed in a cauldron of aspiration and misery.
One of my friends, a former teacher, told me recently that high school was an artificial, even cruel institution, hardly the best environment for people even slightly different to survive. The Breakfast Club and the other teen comedies Hughes made at his creative and box-office pinnacle (Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful--and that's not counting one aimed more at children, Home Alone) are remembered for providing many of the roles associated with the “Brat Pack” group of actors. But I think they have been taken to heart so much because, while fully acknowledging their pain, he allowed teens to imagine a different place, where they could emerge whole, beyond confining stereotypes and peer pressure.
It’s all encapsulated in the opening of The Breakfast Club. While it’s the principal who is being addressed directly, the words can apply to adult society, even to fellow teens who don’t get to know each other: “You see us as you want to see us - in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Correct? That's the way we saw each other at 7:00 this morning. We were brainwashed.”
In a 2010 interview with The Atlantic Monthly, Ringwald identified precisely what distinguished The Breakfast Club from other teen films:
“Rebel Without a Cause is stylized. Splendor in the Grass is an excellent movie about teenagers. But there really aren't that many. That's why John Hughes's movies have prevailed. There hasn't been anything to replace them. Before I made movies with John, whenever people thought of teen movies, they thought of Animal House and Porky's. John was doing something very different. He wasn't creating slapstick. His pictures were from a teenager's point of view.”
Photos and films have the power to freeze in time someone we have not seen in a while, even if a birth certificate tells us they are indeed older. Hughes would have turned 65 on February 18. But for the actors who missed the chance to collaborate with him again and the even more numerous fans who keep the memory of their misunderstood selves alive in their hearts, he’ll always remain the cool slightly older guy, not quite a father figure, reassuring them that it was okay to be different.