John Hughes: Reaching New Levels of Achievement in Hollywood David Bordwell (2006) firmly believes that when faced with the challenge of creating, people ask themselves how they can raise the premises to new levels of achievement, or revive a disreputable genre. He argues that people challenge themselves with the question ‘How can I make casual connections more felicitous, twists more unexpected, character psychology more involving, excitement more intense, motifs more tightly woven? How can I display my own virtuosity? Following this quote and my own research, I’ve come to believe that John Hughes is a very significant example of a filmmaker to reach a whole new level of achievement in Hollywood. As the director and writer of several well-known teen movies such as Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), from the mid-1980s Hughes has been respected as one of the more influential figures of Hollywood for redefining and leaving a long-lasting impression on movies with a teen demographic.
Through deeply focusing on new themes and motifs such as social hierarchy, he undeniably changed the teen movie genre forever by creating sympathy and understanding for adolescent characters. In the 1980s, teenager’s attitudes were changing, and many theorists believe music television was to blame. Shary (2005) states that with celebrity appearances, commercials, and a brand-new, fast-paced style, MTV became “the court where youth culture was told what was cool”.
He also believes that the political changes in America also heavily influenced teenagers perspectives, especially after the “carefree attitudes” of Carter’s presidency turned into the “peremptory dictates of Regan’s decade”. He states that: “The new Republican ethos may have won over voters, but at the same time its naive ‘just say no’ approach to serious adolescent choices gave youth a renewed sense of irritation for adult authority. ” To express their views on America’s politics, the youth became eager to experiment with sex and drugs, and Hollywood felt the effect of the youth’s impact and took note.
At this time period, Hollywood was experiencing a transition of sorts, between what was labelled as the Hollywood Renaissance (Schatz,1993), into a more contemporary style of cinema which theorist Geoff King (2002) labelled as ‘New Hollywood Version 2’. To understand the breakthrough of John Hughes’ movies, we must understand that before his directorial debut of Sixteen Candles, films of the 1980s were not sympathetic to teens, and the majority f said films came in the form of slasher movies, or sex-comedies, where audiences would watch teenagers be embarrassed and hurt in various different forms. In this period of transition, these movies would reap in profits, but did not focus on character psychology or emphasise performance the way earlier examples did. In this transition period, Hughes’ managed, in some form, to stay true to the earlier, character-based films, but still managed to produce a successful profit, without any high-scale production that would turn his films into the newer, blockbuster style pictures.
He often worked on more than one movie at once, and released them very close together, in a way that provided more money for the studios, as his reputation as a director became more well-known and his movies became more successful. It’s important to note also, that his films were released at a time where VCR and home videos were becoming more and more popular, which meant that young adults could watch his films over and over at home, and create a personal relationship with the characters.
As a director, Hughes knew exactly what he wanted; to show teenagers as important, intelligent, and not the sex-crazed and shallow adolescents that earlier movies portrayed them to be. Gora (2010) proposes that: “What would set Hughes apart, in an age when other filmmakers were quick to portray teens as vapid, horny, pimpled caricatures, was that he was wise enough to present the teenage experience with the pain, seriousness, and melodrama that so often imbues age. As proven by films such as Losin’ It (1983) and Little Darlings (1980), many movies in the early 1980s revolved simply around “the quest of teens to lose their virginity” (Shary, 2005). Although Hughes has focused on the theme of sex, it is just one of many different themes and motifs in his films, including the ever-popular idea of social hierarchy, or parental pressure. Sixteen Candles, centres around the story of sixteen-year old Sam (portrayed by Molly Ringwald), whose birthday is forgotten by her family in favour of her older sister’s wedding the next day.
This film includes the only completely nude scene of any of Hughes’ movies, and was only included due to pressure from the network, who insisted that it was needed in order to compete with the other teen films on the market. The scene itself is not remotely sexual however, and exists only to emphasise Sam’s self-consciousness, when she and her best friend spy on the girlfriend of her biggest crush whilst in the shower after gym. It does include many of the cliches, such as the virgin esperate to have sex, the rich teen driving an expensive car which will undoubtedly be wrecked somehow, or a house party where the house is destroyed, but unlike other teen films, it encourages us to laugh with the characters rather than at them. To portray the idea of social hierarchy, where some sort of clique is ‘better’ than another, Hughes’ often uses a form of what Roz Kaveney (2006) entitles the ‘anthropology shot’. Kaveney states that “such shots establish a number of social groups among high school students and pan between them to demonstrate social divisions”.
This shot can be effective because despite the fact that we will only really know a few select characters, it is able to establish the kind of environment they are living in. An example of said shot is used in Sixteen Candles, introducing the ‘geeks’ at the dance. Although Hughes’ did not invent the shot, many films have reproduced the way he used it, such as Mean Girls (2004), where the character Janice introduces Cady to the social cliques in the cafeteria.
As well as the anthropology shot, Hughes’ also used many low-angle shots in his films to connote the sense of inadequacy teenagers feel when looking at the world. This is also used often when the characters talk to adults, and is especially prominent in The Breakfast Club when the characters talk to the principal. This shows the control Principal Vernon has over the kids, and enforces the belief that because they are young, they aren’t as powerful. Hughes,’ as a director, paid a great deal of attention to setting social background in his films.
The opening of The Breakfast Club, the story of five teens of different cliques who must spend their Saturday in detention, uses single shots to give us a feel for each character. Claire, for example, the typical rich and popular ‘princess’ is introduced with the shot of a prom queen poster, although we haven’t officially met her character yet. Similarly, John Bender, the ‘criminal’ problem-child, is introduced using a shot of a vandalized locker with a noose attached.
The film officially opens with a glass-shattering transition to an introductory shot of the high school, which could be read as foreshadowing; eventually, the character’s defences are broken down, and they open up to each other to become friends. The writing of Hughes’ films brought a great deal of attention to motifs that hadn’t been paid much attention before, such as the idea of the child acting like the parent. A prime example of this is Sixteen Candles, where Sam’s mother apologises to her for missing her birthday. In this scene, Sam, the teenager, is the one to comfort her emotional mother, and say “It’s okay, these things happen”.
Themes also explored were the ideas parental pressure, such as The Breakfast Club, where geeky Brian contemplated suicide because he feared his parents would be disappointed in him for failing his first class, or the theme of money and social classes, which Hughes’ addressed by pairing Claire and Bender together; the rich girl with the poor boy. He also brings a new light to female sexuality, which the character of Alison addresses directly; “If you say you haven’t you’re a prude. And if you say you have, you’re a slut. It’s a trap. Seeing such touching scenes on screen empowers teens, and helps the audience sympathize with their experiences. Said themes have since been addressed in many teen movies to this date, such as Clueless (1995) or Easy A (2010). The impact that John Hughes has left on Hollywood is undoubtable and everlasting. Despite the fact that it has been over twenty-five years since The Breakfast Club was released, for example, countless references are still made to the film in today’s pop culture, including homages in NBC’s cult TV show ‘Community’ and a mention in CW’s ‘Gossip Girl’ (“we’re the non-judging Breakfast Club”).
Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons and Futurama, is also a huge fan of the film. Bart Simpson’s famous catchphrase ‘eat my shorts’ is a direct reference to John Bender’s line, which he says defiantly to Principal Vernon. Judd Nelson’s portrayal of the character was also the inspiration for the name of Futurama’s temperamental robot Bender. The movie has also been spoofed in many American advertisements, including the 2008 commercial for chain clothing store JCPenney.
The back-to-school line was heavily influenced by The Breakfast Club, and featured teenagers dancing in a library to the most popular song from the soundtrack, ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’. Not Another Teen Movie (2001) was a complete parody of the majority of Hughes’ material, and featured a cameo from Molly Ringwald as an adult who disapproved of teenagers. To this day, Hughes’ is continually paid homage to, and because of the way he changed the portrayal of teenagers, people will continue to do so for a long time. (Word count: 1,643) References & Bibliography Driscoll, C (2011).
Teen Film: A Critical Introduction. UK: Berg. Easy A, 2010. [DVD] Will Gluck, United States: Sony Pictures. Clueless, 1995. [DVD] Amy Heckerling, United States: Universal Pictures. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1986. [DVD] John Hughes, United States: Paramount Pictures Gora, S (2010). You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and their Impact on a Generation. New York: Crown Publishing Group Kaveney, R (2006). Teen Dreams: Reading Teen Film and Television from Heathers to Veronica Mars. London: I. B. Tauris King, G (2002). New Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction.
London: I. B. Tauris Little Darlings, 1980. [DVD] Ronald F. Maxwell, United States: Stephen Friedman/King’s Road Productions Losin’ It, 1983. [DVD] Curtis Hanson, United States: Tiberius Film Productions Mean Girls, 2004. [DVD] Mark Waters, United States: Paramount Pictures Pretty in Pink, 1986. [DVD] Howard Deutch, United States: Paramount Pictures Shary, T (2005). Teen Movies: American Youth on Screen. London: Wallflower Press Sixteen Candles, 1984. [DVD] John Hughes, United States: Universal Pictures The Breakfast Club, 1985. [DVD] John Hughes, United States: Universal Pictures