By Chris Campbell
If you want proof that John Hughes has still not been succeeded as teen movie king, take a look at the 2001 spoof Not Another Teen Movie, which references Hughes’ films more than any other, despite the fact that it’d been 14 years since the filmmaker had last given us one of his signature entries into the genre. Also see the marketing of last year’s American Teen, a documentary that was sold as a non-fiction version of The Breakfast Club, 23 years later.
There will likely never be another John Hughes, at least not in the way he defined a type of movie. And at the same time, as much as nearly every teen movie since his seminal six recognize his influence, few of today’s teen movies can even get away with or accomplish things his films did. It would be appropriate if we could name sixteen of these things present in Hughes’ early works that are absent from modern teen movies, but we’ve got half that number, and we’re hoping it’s enough to establish that his films were, for better or worse, of a certain time, despite the fact that they’re so timeless.
Controversial Romantic Pairings
Nowadays there are just too many test screenings to allow for an ending to disappoint the romantics as much as Pretty in Pink has forever upset even its biggest fans. When Andie (Molly Ringwald) ditches Duckie (Jon Cryer) at the prom in order to forgive and follow Blane (Andrew McCarthy), it’s more than a tad unsatisfying. Even worse, though, is how in The Breakfast Club basket case Allison (Ally Sheedy) is turned “pretty” in order to snag sporto Andrew (Emilio Estevez). Allegedly, Hughes always wanted Andie to wind up with Duckie, but was pressured to film the ending that’s in the film. That’s why in his gender-reversed remake, Some Kind of Wonderful, Keith (Eric Stoltz) chooses Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson) instead of Amanda (Lea Thompson).
Drunken Deadbeat Dads
It’s not exactly understood that Andie’s father in Pretty in Pink (played by Harry Dean Stanton) is an alcoholic. There might only be one scene in which he’s seen drinking a single beer. But he’s depressed and unemployed and seems to have the basic traits of a drunk father. Then there’s the unseen dad of Bender (Judd Nelson) in The Breakfast Club, who is at least an abusive parent and probably an alcoholic, too. Teen movies, by a rule, will typically involve parent-teen strife, but we can’t recall the last example of the genre to give the father-child relationship such dark context.
The Earnest Letter as Framing Device
This is obviously specific to one film, but it’s a necessary inclusion in that it’s something that could never exist in the cynical times we’ve lived in since Reagan left the White House. Teen movies since Hughes have had trouble with sentimental elements and have eschewed such “cheesy” things for irony, parody and that silly word that passes for heartfelt these days, twee. An earnest essay/letter would probably be laughed at rather than fondly remembered if it were to bookend a teen movie today.
Exclusion of African-American Characters
One of the signature Hughes elements that’s not favorable is the whiteness of his young casts. Sixteen Candles may have prominently featured Asian-American actor Gedde Watanabe (see Permissable Stereotyping below), but otherwise there weren’t too many minorities represented, not even a “token black guy.” Could High School Musical’s Vanessa Hudgens and Chris Warren Jr. starred in a Hughes movie, or are they too ethnic to have lived in the Chicago suburbs depicted in his works? Though some ‘80s teen movies, such as Hiding Out, had a stereotypically rapping African-American, there wasn’t much interracial socializing going on in teen movies until the 2000s, when films like Bring It On initially pitted whites and blacks as enemies from separate schools. In Hughes’ world, African-Americans were the sorts of people who hung out in smokey blues clubs where the record scratches whenever white people enter, as seen in Weird Science.
Hughes’ movies were known for defining teen stereotypes and cliques, even if the film most remembered for its classifications, The Breakfast Club, kind of meant to break from the labels in the end (see the Endearing Letter). But we accepted the filmmaker’s stereotyping, as thinly characterizing as they sometimes were. Even Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe) from Sixteen Candles was defended by Roger Ebert, who argued that Watanabe “elevates his role from a potentially offensive stereotype to high comedy.” And it’s true, the character is endearing, enough that we may almost forgive the gong sound effect that accompanies his appearances. Today’s teen movies are actually far worse with their stereotypes, and so many attempt to present an introductory stereotype/clique montage, which is always more offensive than anything in a Hughes film.
Smoking is OK
Though not limited to Hughes’ movies, which actually rarely showed their protagonists with a cigarette in hand, smoking is still something that doesn’t show up as much as it used to, especially in teen movies. Depictions of teenage smoking does occur occasionally, however, in order to have the main characters spout some kind of anti-smoking remark, as is the case in 10 Things I Hate About You and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. In Hughes’ world, bad guys like Chet (Bill Paxton) in Weird Science and Steff (James Spader) in Pretty in Pink definitely light up. But also in Pretty, Andie’s club friends smoked, and it seemed okay by her. And let’s not forget how much attention was given to Andrew Dice Clay and his cigarette shtick in the same film. And it seems Anthony Michael Hall was always given at least one smoking scene, likely because it was funny to see the geek with a cigarette or cigar in his mouth.
Soundtracks For a Generation
Everyone recognizes how important music was to Hughes’ teen movies, but just saying the filmmaker had memorable soundtracks isn’t enough. Think of all the songs that are forever linked to the Hughes films they play in, from Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (forget about me)” in The Breakfast Club to Thompson Twins’ “If You Were Here” in Sixteen Candles to The Psychedelic Furs’ title track “Pretty in Pink” to the diverse contexts of the different versions of “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Pretty in Pink. Other ‘80s teen movies, especially the two from Cameron Crowe, had similar impacts on and with music, but Hughes did it most consistently. Outside of High School Musical, what teen movies have of today have come close to having that kind of soundtrack significance? Most modern teen movies just reference those songs we know from Hughes’ films. Even American Pie, which is one of the few recent examples of the genre to be influential, featured a cover of “Don’t You (Forget About Me).”
Overall it seems adults in modern teen movies are anything but three-dimensional characters, but principals have always had it worse, and it’s probably partially due to the way Hughes made it obligatory to make the role the villain of the genre, even more so than the school bully. Yet as seemingly cartoonish as The Breakfast Club’s Dick Vernon (Paul Gleason) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’s Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) are, they’re actually very well-developed characters. You even sympathize with them at times. It helps that both of these iconic principals were played by such terrific character actors, but it’s also worth recognizing how Hughes wrote them and how he gave them their own scenes outside of their interactions with the teen protagonists. Do any of today’s teen movies have principals that are as memorable if not more so than their young costars? Definitely not in any way comparable to how beloved the characters of Vernon and Rooney are.