Writer/Director John Hughes (1950-2009) was, without a doubt, one of the leading lights in cinema in relation to his depiction of teenage life. From the 1955 Nicholas Ray film “Rebel Without A Cause” onwards, the plight of being young and trying to find your way in the world has been a constant in cinema. Hughes was distinct in the way he did this.
At a time when teen film consisted primarily of horny young boys trying to ‘get laid’, Hughes treated his characters with warmth and affection. These were qualities that sorely lacked in the majority of teen films made in this decade, with their blatant misogyny and objectification of women. There were brilliant exceptions to this, such as Marshall Brickman’s “Risky Business” (1983), but they seemed to be few and far between.
There were many aspects of the films that Hughes made that set them apart from the flock. First and foremost, whether they be positive or negative, his characters shone an honest and enlightening light upon what it was like to be young and trying to make sense of the world around you. While primarily relating the experiences of the American teen, these films struck a chord around the world. They were films that many identified with and took to their hearts.
Also, although a man older than the characters he wrote and directed, Hughes always displayed a great sense of empathy and compassion towards them. In other words, his intentions were always honest and clear. Contrast this with the works of directors like Larry Clark (“Kids”/”Bully”) and Victor Salva (“Powder”/”Jeepers Creepers”). Clark and Salva were to make names for themselves in the Nineties with their films about teenage life.
However, the stories they depicted and the way they did so veered wildly from that of Hughes. Watching a film like “Kids” and knowing it was may by a fifty year old man made the viewer feel somewhat queasy, wondering what Clark’s hidden agenda was with the voyeuristic and sleazy way he depicted teenage life.
One could double that for Salva, a convicted child molester, and showing copious and gratuitous shots of teenage boys without shirts in his films. Unfortunately, this was the progression (or regression) of how being a teenager in cinematic representation progressed after the trailblazing work of Hughes.
Apart from his compassion, Hughes also had an uncanny eye for casting. Molly Ringwald, who would star in three films for Hughes, became something of a muse for him, a representation of what it was like to be ‘different’ and not the blonde haired, blue eyed teenage girl we had seen in a million films a million times. Other inspired choices with regards to actors in the films of Hughes include Anthony Michael Hall (who also starred in three films for Hughes), Judd Nelson, Matthew Broderick, Jon Cryer, Ally Sheedy, Andrew Mc Carthy and James Spader.
The ear that Hughes had for music was also uncanny. He introduced a lot of his audience to great musical artists of the time such as Simple Minds, OMD, The Psychedelic Furs and many more. The soundtracks of his films turned minds on and showed them that there was more out there than what was fed to them by mainstream musical avenues such as MTV at the time.
At the same time, Hughes never forgot the influence of music from the past. There are iconic moments in his films that use music by such luminaries in the field as The Beatles, Otis Redding and, of all people, Wayne Newton. By doing so, Hughes also managed to introduce a younger generation to music that has paved the way for all that has followed.
With teen films in our current time, such as “The Hunger Games” and “The Maze Runner” delving more into the world of fantasy, it is a rare bird, such as the wonderful Stephen Chbosky film “The Perks Of Being A Wallflower”, from 2012, that hold a light on what it is to be an adolescent in this day and age. In a way, this makes the Hughes canon all the more relevant and vital.
Here is an overview of the seven films that John Hughes wrote and/or directed that shone an illuminating spotlight on what it was like to be a teenager in the Eighties.
1. Sixteen Candles (1984) Written & Directed by John Hughes
“Sixteen Candles” was the announcement of a new and exciting voice in cinema in relation to how the existence of a teenager is depicted on screen. The film depicts a chaotic period of the life of Samantha (Molly Ringwald), whose parents forget her sixteenth birthday in light of her older sister getting married and all that involves.
While not without its flaws, this was a genuine surprise in the empathy and compassion it showed towards its characters. While the subplot of the Japanese exchange student Long Duc Dong was faintly racist and could have been excised without impacting on the film, here was a work with its heart in the right place.
While a film of its time, it gets many things right, such as feelings between males and females, the general difficulty of being and adolescent and being really well written, particularly in relation to how it depicts its protagonists, showing that there are shades of grey and that there is no mere black and white in regards to what a person is.
It also excels in its depiction of adult characters, such as Samantha’s father, beautifully played by Paul Dooley. Hughes was never one to shove the adults to the background or let them be mere two dimensional beings in his films.
In short, this was an excellent debut from Hughes and a strong hint at some of the exceptional work that was to follow in his career.
2. The Breakfast Club (1985) Written & Directed by John Hughes
For many lovers of cinema, “The Breakfast Club”, along with Hughes’ 1986 film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, is considered one of his masterpieces. Beginning with the quote ‘and the children that you spit on’ from the David Bowie track “Changes” suddenly shattering like glass into a million pieces, the film takes place on one day during a Saturday detention session.
Where “The Breakfast Club” truly excels is in its depiction and analysis of the class structure within a high school. In attendance at this detention session are five students, each a representation of a subculture or a ‘type’ of teenager. You have ‘the princess’ (Molly Ringwald), ‘the geek’ (Anthony Michael Hall), ‘the jock’ (Emilio Estevez), ‘the rebel’ (Judd Nelson) and ‘the weirdo’ (Ally Sheedy). “The Breakfast Club” is a very talky film, but one that is intelligent and thought provoking. Many have accused it of being self-indulgent and self-centred, but that’s the point. For teenagers, it’s all about the individual and where the fit or don’t fit in the microcosm that is high school.
Another aspect of “The Breakfast Club” that is particularly interesting is the place of the adult in this world. Represented here by the teacher in charge of detention, Mr Vernon (the late Paul Gleason) is an incredibly angry and bitter individual, no doubt beset by not realising his full potential in his adult life and pissed off and offended by the young charges in front of him, in particular Nelson’s character, John Bender, with whom he nearly comes to blows on several occasions.
“The Breakfast Club” was a new kind of teen film for its time, one that allowed its characters space and time to articulate their thoughts, hopes and fears. It remains a benchmark in this genre of film, capped off by the iconic final scene/freeze frame where Bender, walking over the football pitch, throws his fist in the air, the screen changes from colour to black and white while the end credits roll. It’s an image that truly stays with you.
3. Weird Science (1985) Written & Directed by John Hughes
While something of a step back from the social realism of “The Breakfast Club”, the next film that Hughes made, “Weird Science” still hit some marks quite eloquently in regards to discussing what it was like to be young.
Ostensibly a comedy with some fantasy elements to it, the story concerns two smart but outcast best friends, Gary and Wyatt (Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith) who get the brilliant idea to create ‘the perfect woman’, using their home computer. As a result, into their life walks Lisa (Kelly Le Brock).
“Weird Science” was the classic story of how, when you’re young, the idea that if you get what you want that you may not always want what you get.
Buoyed by a rambunctious energy, while not in the same class as his previous film, this was an immensely enjoyable and, at times, accurate depiction of the social class among the young and what it was like to be an outcast among your peers. It also looked at the family unit and, in this case, absent parents and concept of an abusive older sibling, played in the film with brilliant comic timing by Bill Paxton.
Inspiring a short lived TV series, “Weird Science” was a solid entry into the world according to John Hughes.