Yesterday, March 24 2014, was the 30th anniversary of the setting of the teen classic The Breakfast Club. In case you lived in a cave during the 1980s The Breakfast Club was about five very different kids, a jock, a criminal, a 'princess,' a nerd, and a social outcast who are stuck with each other in detention all day on Saturday, March 24, 1984 for various offences.
Over the course of the day they get to know each other beyond the social facades that had defined them and their high school lives.
That movie was funny, sincere, and moving and it made John Hughes an important filmmaker for a generation of movie goers, and deserving of some appreciation.
John Hughes was a midwestern boy who started out selling jokes to stand up comedians, the most famous probably being Rodney Dangerfield, which led to work in advertising, and eventually with National Lampoon magazine. That led to working in films, achieving success with National Lampoon's Vacation, directed by Harold Ramis, and starring Chevy Chase.
That film's success, and the prodding of Ramis, allowed Hughes to start directing his own films. Since they were inexpensive, small scale comedies, they didn't attract much meddling from the studios. Which seemed to be just perfect for him, because he was going to produce a filmmaking revolution.
Before John Hughes "teen" films had been divided into three camps:
1. Nostalgic reminiscences of bygone eras with lots of period music and filters over the lenses.
2. Overly sincere and downright preachy cautionary tales about the dangers of this and that behaviour.
3. Loud obnoxious comedies where 25-30 year old actors pretended to be teenagers in plots that were just vehicles to get the female cast members to take their tops off.
Hughes directorial debut Sixteen Candles broke the mould by being none of those three. It wasn't nostalgic, no one was in danger of anything worse than a bad case of embarrassment, and no one took off their top. The lead actress Molly Ringwald was actually the age she was playing, and she looked it.
The film became a sleeper hit in theatres, and had a whole second life on home video, and paved the way for The Breakfast Club, and Hughes pretty much became a genre onto himself.
That genre was films aimed at teenagers that didn't look down on teenagers as slavering morons who will take whatever crap is given to them as long as it was "trendy." Hughes' teenage characters were portrayed not as vehicles for gags, or targets for ogling, they were portrayed as people. Human beings with all the ups and downs of life amplified by the simple fact that teenagers are great at turning such trivia into melodrama. For the most part they weren't classical villains or heroes, sex-mad oafs, or cautionary examples heading down the road of self destruction, they were just normal kids, trying to make it to the next day.
Put a bunch of modern teens in front of a John Hughes movie, and their reaction is usually awed wonder. They see the films as speaking to them in much the same way kids of my generation saw them.
That's a pretty impressive accomplishment.
Maybe it was because Hughes based his characters not on what other filmmakers did before him, but on the people he knew growing up. Even his most fantastical creation: Ferris Bueller, had roots in reality. Ferris was based on Hughes' high school best friend who prided himself on his ability to talk and charm his way in to and out of any situation.
According to legend that friend grew up to become a big wheel attorney, representing a lot of big names including former vice president Dick Cheney.
Eventually Hughes moved onto other kinds of films, making classic comedies like Planes, Trains, & Automobiles, and writing and producing mega-hits like Home Alone.
However the death of friend and collaborator John Candy, and the increasing frustration of working in Hollywood just got too much for Hughes. He dropped out of the public eye, only occasionally writing or executive producing project from his base in the midwest.
His death in 2009 was a real shock to people of my generation, it was like a piece of our childhood had died along with it.
Also, his particular brand of teen film seems to have died with him. Replaced by broad gross out comedies and sex farces populated by fashion models and pop stars instead of people who seem designed more for marketing than storytelling.
It's a shame.