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if you were there 

The Breakfast Club remembered by Jonathan Westwood


Teen angst has been a mainstay of Hollywood since James Dean helped invent the 'teenager', but John Hughes injected new impetus into a flagging genre with a series of pictures he wrote, produced and/or directed in the mid-80s - Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Some Kind Of Wonderful - and in which he depicted teenagers as more than simply hormone-fuelled hedonists. Though this body of work each appears regularly on movie channels twenty years later and while the latter two are arguably better movies, only The Breakfast Club permeated mainstream consciousness and remains one of the most loved - and reviled - movies of a decade it helped to define.

Dominated by the right-wing rhetoric of Reagan, Thatcher and Kohl and the final years of the Cold War, the Eighties and its popular culture were often flashy, trashy and entirely lacking in soul and substance. It is deliciously poignant, then, that one of the most enduringly popular movies of that decade should have a quasi-socialist value at its core: the five Breakfast Clubbers entered detention on the morning of Saturday 24th March 1984 as five disparate individuals to emerge eight hours later as one collective soul.

The film is liberal in its use of language and its apparent endorsement of marijuana (particularly surprising given the Reaganite 'Just Say No' hysteria of the time) yet, like the contradictions within the Club members themselves, the movie also remains squarely conservative. The students are exclusively white; most are resolutely middle class; their orthodontics are immaculate; the school building is vast and shining and its library luxuriously well-stocked; the pre-AIDS era sex is surprisingly chaste.

Allison's makeover (left) hints that social acceptance is merely a matter of presentation, despite the "be true to yourself" attitude permeating the majority of the script. Most depressing is the exchange towards the end of the film when the Clubbers admit that, despite the day's events, they will probably not be friends come Monday morning, when they will revert to the cliques whose peer pressure means that they will ignore each other in the school corridors.

Ultimately, the prevalent mood within The Breakfast Club is that the kids are generally speaking all right and just want to have fun on their own terms - that it is the company of peers and the pressure from adults that corrupts their minds and morality.

Perhaps the most curious aspect surrounding The Breakfast Club is the failure of any of its protagonists to fulfil their undoubted potential. John Hughes moved on to inflict Macaulay Culkin on an unsuspecting world in Uncle Buck and has not directed a movie since 1991's execrable Curly Sue. As a writer he has concentrated on churning out scripts for franchises - four Home Alones, five Beethovens (albeit under the pseudonym Edmond DantÚs) and a handful of National Lampoon Vacations.

After a couple more semi-hits - Stakeout and Young Guns - Emilio Estevez has spent much of the last decade proving the law of diminishing returns in the Mighty Ducks series of films. Thanks to TV movies Judd Nelson and Anthony Michael Hall have rarely been out of work, but Nelson's most notable output has been in the tame sitcom Suddenly Susan that ran in the late 90s while Hall has managed cameos in Edward Scissorhands and Six Degrees Of Separation.

The film's female stars - arguably the more talented of the actors - both had Hollywood at their feet in 1986. The Breakfast Club formed a string of Ally Sheedy hits alongside War Games and St. Elmo's Fire but Sheedy slipped quickly and quietly from prominence.

Catastrophically for her career she turned down the Kelly McGillis role in Top Gun and 1990's Fear proved to be her last major studio role, though she won acclaim and awards for her 1998 performance in Lisa Cholodenko's High Art. Having appeared in each of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Pretty In Pink, Molly Ringwald (right) was a major star; yet Pretty In Pink proved to be her last hit. Within a few years she was reduced to baring her breasts in B-movies and scrabbling around for parts in minor European flicks. One of her most recent Hollywood roles was as 'Flight Attendant' in 2001's Not Another Teen Movie, known in Europe as Sex Academy.

Without The Breakfast Club there would have been no Heathers, no My So-Called Life. The Breakfast Club enabled Hollywood teenagers' thoughts and deeds to become darker and darker still. Without The Breakfast Club there would have been no Igby Goes Down and no Donnie Darko.

Though the music, make-up, hairstyles and fashions in the film increasingly make it look like a period piece, its prescience in some respects is unnerving. Brian's character is the geeky brain struggling to maintain his grades in the face of social isolation and parental demands: the gun in his locker eerily preceded the Columbine massacre by a decade. Vernon's violation of the school's confidential student files heralded successive scandals in which US high school management sought to weed out students perceived as under-achievers in order to boost artificially the schools' examination results (a cause later championed in another teenage movie, Pump Up The Volume).

Bender (left) is a victim of parental abuse years before that unpalatable aspect of human behaviour became a regular item on the evening news. Despite those facets of the movie that date it to a very specific and readily identifiable point in time, the film's concerns - drugs, suicide, sex, guns, bullying, pressure on children to succeed against an adult assessment of "success" - remain of supreme relevance to teenagers today.

For middle-aged movie critics to slate The Breakfast Club for its "amateur psychology" is to miss entirely the point that the Club members are teenagers concerned with academic or sporting success, popularity, acceptance and their fears for their future. They don't have mortgages; they don't have kids; they don't have dead-end careers: their concerns, while valid and real, are not those of the adult world.

Neither a comedy nor a drama, heavy on dialogue (it should be noted that Bender utters the immortal, "Eat my shorts," a full four years before Bart Simpson), light on action, remarkably free of incidental music and edited unadventurously, this movie is a true ensemble piece (though Judd Nelson undoubtedly gets the best lines) in which the writing and acting is given room to breathe and develop. That writing and acting are both flawed - the clunking dance scene is worth a Golden Raspberry Award or three - and it is unlikely ever to feature in a list of the best movies ever made, but The Breakfast Club remains a movie that simply works as being more than the sum of its collective parts.

©Jonathan Westwood 2004


The Breakfast Club  1985  97 minutes  Director John Hughes  Writer John Hughes   Actors Molly Ringwald  Anthony Michael Hall  Judd Nelson  Ally Sheedy  Emilio Estevez  Paul Gleason   Photography Thomas del Ruth  Score Gary Chang & Keith Forsey