by Linda Holmes
UPDATE: If you haven't yet read this great story about John Hughes that's been kicking around Facebook and Twitter all day, I highly recommend it.
John Hughes never won an Oscar. He really never won awards at all. He made mainstream, popular entertainment. But for a period of time in the late 1980s, he made a series of movies, mostly about teenagers, that people still watch, still love, and still quote. And those movies have never really been replaced, because the guy knew something. These five moments are the best explanation I have of what it is he knew.
1. "Never had one lesson." There are many more famous moments in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, but none is as important as Ferris (Matthew Broderick) squeaking incompetently away on a clarinet shortly after getting rid of his parents for the day, then leaning forward and declaring — in the fourth-wall-breaking style of the film — "Never had one lesson!"
Unlike a lot of the kids at the center of Hughes films, Ferris Bueller isn't an outcast; he's at ease everywhere. So if he'd conned his way into staying home to make trouble or play video games — or, for that matter, to do nothing — he would just be a brat.
But from the start, he is skipping school because he genuinely believes he has better things to do than attend high school, which is an awfully difficult premise to entirely deny. Skipping school so you can stay in your house isn't really a quest; it's just skipping school. Ferris wants something bigger than school.
John Hughes movies were very good at putting school in its place. Everything isn't about yearbook and cheerleading; kids have inner lives of legitimate importance, and not only with regard to dating. Sometimes those inner lives demand a day spent with your friends, watching baseball and seeing great art, instead of answering to your name in homeroom.
Four more, after the jump...
2. "This is what my girlfriend would look like without skin." In the 1987 romance Some Kind Of Wonderful, you get a classic triangle: Boy (Eric Stoltz), Boy's Overlooked Best Friend (Mary Stuart Masterson), Boy's Object Of Desire (Lea Thompson). The movie is a lovely execution of a very simple story, but what makes it especially good is that everybody in it gets to be a person — not just the three corners of the triangle, but also Duncan (Elias Koteas), who comes on the scene as a menacing, leather-clad bully and ends up as an ally.
At one point, as Duncan and Keith (Stoltz's character) sit in detention together, they discover they're both interested in art. Duncan shows Keith an impressively realistic drawing of a skeleton with spiky hair. "This is what my girlfriend would look like without skin," he says matter-of-factly.
Hughes specialized in these cross-clique friendships — everybody in The Breakfast Club, Jake and Farmer Ted in Sixteen Candles — and he wrote at least one in almost all of these observant high-school stories. They were part of his way of humanizing and sympathizing with everyone, not just the traditional outcast heroes.
3. The She's Having A Baby montage. This one, you can see for yourself. The uneven 1988 romance-drama-comedy, starring Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern, was packed with wild pendulum swings in tone, including frequent lapses into fantasy.
But late in the movie comes this sucker-punch of a montage, featuring Bacon fretting helplessly as the doctors work on safely delivering his new baby, accompanied by the Kate Bush song "This Woman's Work" — which has since landed in countless TV montages, not one of them nearly as effective.
It's got a few stumbles (could have done without that carefully lit single tear, I think), but it works. And it's unabashedly sentimental in a way that has nothing to do with the writing of clever, arch dialogue for teenagers; having a big, hokey heart did a lot to cut the effect of that dialogue, and nowhere is that big, hokey heart more on display than here.
4. The end of Sixteen Candles. The wish-fulfillment movie done perfectly. Not every Hughes ending seemed right — the end of Pretty In Pink feels phony and unearned, and so all the charm of that movie is in the middle. But the end of Sixteen Candles? Well. Poor Sam has had her birthday forgotten and her underwear shown off by a geek; then her sister takes too many muscle relaxers on her wedding day and forgets her veil, and Sam has to run back for it and misses the sendoff. So she has a well-earned sense that she is the unluckiest person ever.
And then there's the cars-parked-at-the-wedding part, and her crush is standing there, and he ushers her into his red car. And wonderfully, her father wordlessly urges her to forget the boring old reception and go for a drive. It's kind of ... implausible, really, in just about every way. They don't even know each other, they've never had a real conversation, she's in her bridesmaid's dress. But none of it matters.
You hear a lot about how Hughes understood teenagers and took their problems seriously, and all of it is true, all of it is important. But he also had fantastic commercial instincts. He knew how to put together a preposterously corny moment of "What if it all came true?" packaged especially for teenage girls — right down to the sports car — and serve it up in a manner that would make it iconic and beloved.
5. Oh, The Breakfast Club. Where to begin? It's such a ridiculous movie, really — the Judd Nelson scenery-chewing and boot-burning, the Ally Sheedy nymphomania declarations, poor Paul Gleason as the principal who actually has to fight Judd Nelson? Who could take this seriously?
And yet ... it lasted, too. It really should not have. The rich girl had sushi for lunch? We're doing makeovers? There's a Cap'n Crunch sandwich? "Make me a turkey pot pie"?
See, that's the trick. I don't get it, but I know it. All of it. From many, many viewings stretching back to 1985. In many ways, I think it's the weakest of these movies creatively, because it was trying so hard and taking itself so seriously, but it might be the one I've seen the most. You see what I mean: He knew something.
For that reason, maybe the moment from The Breakfast Club that makes the point most honestly is the silliest one: the discovery that the library is wired with some kind of DJ booth that permits the blasting of music throughout the stacks (because what high-school library wouldn't install giant speakers and keep plenty of LPs handy?). Which is followed by ... the big dance sequence.
When I dug it up online, I recognized the music.