There are certain elements that exist in every John Hughes movie: someone lives on the wrong side of the tracks (and there are actual tracks); money is a big part of people’s lives, whether they have it or they don’t; the music is perfect; and the beautiful agony of being a teenager is treated, for once, with respect and kindness.
My parents were strict about age-appropriate entertainment, so my early John Hughes exposure occurred only after the movies were available on video and were in rotation as the Sunday afternoon movie. My elementary school best friend, through a combination of benignly negligent parents and her own VCR, was the main supplier.
I can’t remember in what order I saw them or exactly how old I was but for me, there are five main films that constitute what it means to be a John Hughes fan: "Sixteen Candles," "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off," "Pretty in Pink," "The Breakfast Club" and the slightly ancillary (due to lack of Ringwald) "Some Kind of Wonderful."
Needless to say, I wanted to be Molly Ringwald because she wasn’t close to perfect. In the '80s, it was OK to have messy hair, wear weird clothes, listen to strange music and look different. In fact, it was cool. I wasn’t really any of those things but I liked having the option.
It helped that Molly always got her man but that wasn’t the main thing -- it was that she stayed who she was and still got her man. That she kind of disappeared afterwards only made her cooler.
A few years ago, I was walking through Herald Square in NYC and she was just standing there, talking on the phone (“This is Molly, calling collect”) and my inner teenager nearly lost it. Yes, there are some people who would freak out about seeing say … the Dalai Lama but you know what, when I was 13 year old, Molly Ringwald was the Dalai Lama, just in better clothes.
Not only wasn’t I Molly, but none of the elements from Hughes’ movies had any real bearing on my real life. Although there were train tracks in my neighborhood, living on the other side of them didn’t have a social stigma and they certainly weren’t tracks that you could moodily walk along like Eric Stolz.
I went to all girls’ schools so the romances in the movies were 100 percent vicarious. Money wasn’t talked about much -- some people had more than others but it didn’t manifest itself in everyday life. Only two things were really true -- the music was exactly what I was feeling so I wore out my soundtrack tapes (yes, tapes) and being a teenager was simultaneously heaven and hell.
Everyone wanted to be like Ferris, but no one was really that confident. We quoted that movie endlessly pretending to feel like Ferris when most of us really thought we were Cameron.
"Sixteen Candles" was fun, but it lacked the depth of "Pretty in Pink" and the magic of Duckie. Everyone wanted a Duckie in their life, someone who would ask if they could admire us again today and even though Andie ends up with Blane (“That’s a major appliance, not a name!”) who’s the “right choice,” everyone knew that she should have chosen Duckie.
"The Breakfast Club" is as close to perfection as you can get. It has the perfect cast, it has amazing lines and it manages to be sweet without losing a bit of edge. I can’t tell you that impact Judd Nelson made on me when he offered himself to Claire as a way to get back at her parents and when he gave her his diamond stud … ”don’t, don’t, don’t you forget about me.”
"Some Kind of Wonderful" never got the same love as the other movies, and I blame Lea Thompson for sucking all the air out of her role. The flip side is that for every girl who thought Jo was the coolest of the "Facts of Life" girls, Mary Stuart Masterson’s Watts became the ultimate tough girl (who secretly hard a soft center). It’s not that this movie doesn’t deserve classic status, there’s just something missing and it doesn’t get people as misty-eyed as the other four.
Growing up in the '80’s and '90s was different in ways that today’s teenagers can’t even fathom. In fact, in some ways, it seems like there’s more of a generation gap between people who are 10 years younger than me than people who are 10 years older. Talking on the phone with your friends meant heavily negotiated time on the family phone. You got a Walkman for your birthday, if you were lucky. There were only two sources of real entertainment -- TV and movies -- and if you missed your favorite show, you’d have to wait until it repeated to figure out what happened.
Even writing this now, it seems bizarre to consider that the thousands of notes we passed in class would have been replaced by texts. There were other things that existed too -- like communism and the concept of nuclear war. There was apartheid. Challenger exploded. Hijackings were not a rare occurrence. It seemed like the world was generally unstable and uncertain which when you’re a teenager, makes perfect sense because for you, everything is unstable and uncertain.
One of the greatest gifts human beings have is the ability to forget. But John Hughes never forgot exactly what it felt like to be a teenager and his ability to recreate it onscreen, in all its painful, messy, funny and heartbreaking glory helped make being a teenager bearable. I
’ve never wondered why he, and many of his stable of actors, were never able to recapture those moments or why he never really wrote as well again. If you’ve been lucky enough to be part of something so … perfect that feels like it’ll live forever, it would be beyond selfish to insist that it happen twice.
When I heard that he died as he was walking through my city, I hoped that before it happened, he was given a moment like the one that he gave to so many of us. Maybe he was listening to music and a really great song was playing while a girl walked by dressed a little like Andie or Sam and for that one second, everything just felt fine.