John Hughes’s most famous film, but not quite his best. (And Happy New Year, everyone!)
Five very different teenagers arrive for Saturday detention at their Shermer high school. Most want to get past the day quietly, all save teen delinquent John Bender (Judd Nelson) who wreaks havoc in the room until, in a development that surprises even him, the group begins to open up and talk with one another. By the end of the day, the teens have formed a bond and dub themselves The Breakfast Club.
John Hughes intended The Breakfast Club to be his directorial debut after breaking into Hollywood with scripts for Vacation and Mr. Mom, but he was sidetracked by Molly Ringwald’s headshot and Sixteen Candles. Once Candles was in the can, Hughes immediately began production on Club and was deep into shooting before Candles saw release. It was the “overnight” success of both films that cemented Hughes’s reputation as the man who could draw the elusive teen demographic to theatres. As usual, Hughes filmed Club in Illinois, this time at Maine North High School. He used the same school for his follow-up, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Be honest. Do you want a paragraph about the various highs and lows of the film’s legendary soundtrack and score? Or do you just want to hear Simple Minds do their thing?
At 26, Judd Nelson was the oldest of the “teen” actors and his experience and raw talent helped him dominate the room as Bender, the outlaw student that shakes the other four out of their clique-centric routines. Bender is merciless and sharp, and he treats the other students in the room like a science experiment or, more accurately, like ants under threat of his magnifying glass. He zeroes in on the others like a predator, and they alternately herd together or break apart at his whim. It’s a well-written character—one of Hughes’s best— and Nelson nails it. The audience can almost see the demons wrestling around inside of his skin, and his performance turns Bender into one of the most iconic characters of the 1980s. It may be overstating it to put Nelson’s work alongside the early, tortured performances of James Dean and Marlon Brando, but that’s only because as good as Nelson was as Bender, the rest of his career has been wholly unremarkable. Still, try to keep your eyes off of him any time he’s on screen. He is the movie.
Can someone explain to me why Claire and Bender wind up together at the end? Sure, there’s sexual tension between them right from the start, but before she sneaks into solitary confinement to make out with him, their last conversation ends with her in tears as Bender verbally dismantles her self-esteem. Hey, asshole, let’s see you apply lipstick with your breasts.
At one point during The Breakfast Club, rebel-without-an-off-button John Bender tells himself a joke while crawling through the ductwork in the ceiling of his school. The setup is promising—a woman, a dog, a bar, and a salami—but gravity finds him before he gets to the punchline and the joke is forever unfinished. That more or less sums up my feelings about The Breakfast Club, a film that most Hughes fans (and non-fans) consider to be the director’s finest 97 minutes of work, but a film that, for me, never quite sticks its own landing. So close, and yet down through the ceiling it goes.
A Jock. A Princess. A Criminal. A Brain. A Basket Case. The list sounds like another joke, even minus the dog and the salami, but these adjectives are where the problem begins. For evidence, look at the fan outrage over the remaking of Allison (Ally Sheedy). Allison begins the film as a quirky, Harpo-like fruitcake, but then Claire (Molly Ringwald) fixes her hair and off comes the sweater and bam, faster than you can say She’s All That, Allison has snared the football star. Fans sneer at the implied message: Allison must become Claire to land a boy. Even Sheedy admits the film took a wrong turn. The Basket Case shouldn’t have to become the Princess.
But isn’t that the whole point? The jock (Emilio Estevez) smokes weed and shatters glass with his rebel yell, just like a criminal. The princess throws off her tiara by kissing Bender, who wears her earring on the way off campus (while walking across the jock’s field.) And the brain… well, OK, they still make Anthony Michael Hall write their detention paper.
The point of Hughes’s film is that roles are meaningless. Hughes himself often fielded questions about which one he was in high school. His answer was always “none of them,” and I believe that’s what we’re meant to take away. These kids are not their roles and at the same time they are all of them, but still fans can’t accept that Allison—clearly a damaged, troubled girl—pulls back her hair and kisses a boy because she’s “abandoning” her part. The buried message is for teens to cast off their divisions, but teens identify too greedily and too deep.
The genius of The Breakfast Club is that it rallies its young audience with soul-gnashing pop profundity (“When you get old, your heart dies”), while secretly feeding them a grown-up lecture to get over their bullshit. Even while unspooling his anti-clique message, Hughes makes time to declare that high school ain’t shit via the film’s only adult characters. One is a janitor, revealed as a former top man on campus in a blink-and-miss-it early shot, but now toiling in a job that’s film shorthand for missed opportunities.
The other is Principal Vernon (Paul Gleason), drunk on his own importance in a job that shovels just as much garbage, but with better dental. These men could team up to give the kids a lesson they really need—just keep your heads down until college. Instead, teacher and former student wind up in the basement together, where the student still calls out the teacher as a pompous windbag, and the teacher still dismisses the student as unworthy to speak. When the conversation is over, both are still in the basement.
Some people wonder where the Breakfast Club would be today, but that strikes me as a strange question. These characters are special only because of their total lack of speciality. That’s not an insult. Every senior class has a batch of kids exactly like these, anonymous both before and after their one brush with detention. Like a red-brick office building, these kids are just generic enough to be specifically anything. Where are they now? They’re where everyone else is, trudging and hoping. This is why they’re universal. This is why every teen looks into the film and finds themselves, and it’s this self-discovery that makes them so unwilling to hear Hughes’s plea to let all of that crap go. The film’s universality is what makes it great, but also why it’s never finished its mission. There are still jocks and nerds and criminals and princesses and brains, and they all look at this film and say “this is me.” But it isn’t. Or perhaps it is, but, we hope, not for long.
The John Hughes Project
2. The Breakfast Club
6. Uncle Buck
8. Curly Sue