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Teen Directors II:
John Hughes


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
July 14, 2008

If single person is responsible for turning teen movies into a separate genre, it is John Hughes, the genre's king. Hughes started as a screenwriter and scored a hit early in the 1980s with National Lampoon's Vacation (which had the two teenage children in it) and soon became a writer/director, making teenagers the centerpiece of his films.

The secret to John Hughes' success is that he takes teens seriously. With minor exceptions that were noted in the previous commentary, earlier teen movies focused more on teens' bodies than their minds.

Hughes' first two teen movies, Sixteen Candles ("16C") and The Breakfast Club ("TBC") were a package deal. Hughes wanted to do TBC, but had to do 16C first to get it made. While 16C is a perfectly good Hughes film, it was TBC that really get Hughes noticed.

The Breakfast Club had many of the ingredients of a typical Broadway play of the time, only with teenage characters instead of the usual neurotic adults. At its core, the film is an extended group therapy session in which the psychiatrist has left his patients to their own devices. Such a movie could easily go very wrong, but Hughes arguably manages to pull everything off.

There are two reasons that TBC works. First, rather than yield to the temptation to make all five characters equal in importance, Hughes, a fine screenwriter, makes the Bender character (played by Judd Nelson) the force that propels the movie. While Nelson lacks the acting chops of a Robert Downey Jr., who tended to get bit roles in other Brat Pack movies, Nelson does fine as the edgy "criminal" in the film. The second reason that TBC works is the #1 hit song "Don't You (Forget About Me)," which was written specifically for the movie. While the song itself did not add that much to the movie, it was made into a popular video that incorporated clips from the movie that would double as a free movie ad on MTV.

A deeper reason for the success of TBC and the emergence of teen movies is that society had turned teenagers into miniature adults. The dysfunctional American family is the character lurking in the wings of the 1980s teen movie. Family problems dominate the TBC therapy session. While the 1960s beach party movies were decidedly middle-to-working class California affairs, John Hughes takes us to the nouveaux riche living in the Chicago 'burbs. We cannot give Hughes credit for this important change of venue, Risky Business, which takes place in toney Glencoe, came out two years before TBC and a year before 16C.

As someone who attended an inner-city public school more than a dozen years pre-Breakfast Club, that movie is laughably tame. Weekend detention was unheard of at my high school, probably because no one would ever show up for it. A teacher who left the detainees alone for even a moment might return to a most unpleasant situation. I never got detention because for an honor student to be sentenced there was tantamount to the death penalty. (The only time I can remember staying after school was in my 12th grade honors math class when the entire class had to stay after for some trivial infraction that I can no longer recall.)

The Breakfast Club is a very good movie, but it is not a great one. John Hughes would serve up his masterpiece with his next teen movie, Ferris Bueller's Day Off ("FBDO"). Although that movie uses the standard plot devices that are taught in Screenwriting 101, it transcends the formula that by doing something altogether radical: It shows what a wonderful teenage (or even adult) day would be like. Matthew Broderick is the perfect Bueller because he gives us a Ferris who thoroughly enjoys being Ferris.

Beyond Broderick's Bueller, the movie has a dynamite supporting cast, with the possible exception of Mia Sara, who never really hits her stride in the nearly unfillable role of Sloane Peterson, Bueller's lady friend. (The problem is that Sloane has to be wonderful, yet not upstage Ferris.) Alan Ruck is inspired as Bueller's buddy, Cameron. Ruck goes well beyond the Curtis Armstrong variety teen sidekick. Edie McClurg, the principal's secretary who gets to deliver the definitive description of everyone who considers Ferris a "righteous dude," is just adorable. Jeffrey Jones (Beetlejuice), Jennifer Grey (Dirty Dancing), and, Ben Stein (Nixon speechwriter) are all spectacular as well.

The materialism that remains largely as subtext in TBC is on full display in FBDO. Ferris and Cameron lounge around rooms that are giant product placements for The Sharper Image catalog. Getting back to economics for a minute, the emergence of teenagers as major consumers in the '80s is undoubtedly linked to the rise in movies about them that was so prominent in the middle of that decade. While two working parents may have help cause the problems chronicled in the Hughes films, it also provided teens with beaucoup de discretionary income to spend on things like movie tickets. Moreover, the expansion of movie viewing from theatres to cable and video rentals was a big boon to the genre. Finally, given the pervasive gloominess of 1970s films and the trendiness of affluence as demonstrated by Ronald Reagan and J.R. Ewing, audiences were ready to watch rich kids be protagonists.

The success of the Hughes films led of teen films galore as well as early twenties films that followed the same general formula and could accommodate aging Brat Packers whose credibility as teenagers, which was sometimes minimal to begin with, had vanished completely. Directors Rob Reiner and Savage Steve Holland would take a minor actor in 16C, John Cusack, and make him a star of a series of Hughes knockoffs in the middle of the 1980s. (Curtis Armstrong solidifies his sidekick role in the two Holland films.) It was not until the end of the 1980s that Cameron Crowe, the subject of the next commentary, would make Cusack legendary.

Copyright 2008 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to