Richard Vernon: You think about this: when you get old, these kids – when I get old – they’re going to be running the country.
Richard Vernon: Now this is the thought that wakes me up in the middle of the night. That when I get older, these kids are going to take care of me.
Carl: I wouldn’t count on it.
The Breakfast Club is perhaps John Hughes’ most coherent vision. It focuses narrowly on one premise: five students from different cliques in an affluent suburban high school spend a Saturday in detention. Their revelation is summarized in a letter written to address their detention supervisor, Richard Vernon’s (Paul Gleason) question: Who do you think you are? The evolved response bookends the film.
If Hughes’ directorial debut, Sixteen Candles, was a muddled effort featuring the most nauseating racial stereotype since Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), this picture benefits from remaining narrowly focused on the universality of the five archetypes as laid out by the film’s protagonist, Brian (Anthony Michael Hall), “A brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess and a criminal.”
Hughes was a generation removed from the problems of children of the 80’s. Quoted in the title card, Bowie’s “Changes” was released in 1971. My brother, who graduated Class of 1985, would have been four years old; Hughes had by that time dropped out of University of Arizona to work as a copywriter. In retrospect, I’m not sure if Hughes “got” us or avoided the specifics of our experiences so deftly, working like Michael Mann around the edges to create a look and feel that we, in turn, emulated: I went to school with a carbon copy of John Bender—flannel, jeans, unlaced boots and all. Years later, I married my girlfriend from Canada. Addendum: The truth is that Hughes went through numerous script revisions and relied a lot on the actors’ sensibilities to imbue the story with topical pop culture.
Enter Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald), clearly a descendant of Cpt. Myles Standish of the Plymouth Colony. Hers seems the most conscientiously-engineered image in the film. Consider, if you will, the Jeopardy-like theme of her family’s sense of style: Burberry, BMW, Bento. (What are “Things That Begin With the Letter ‘b’?”).
Prior to Hughes’ work, the teen comedies of the 1970’s, like Porky’s and Animal House, banked on slapstick and softcore rather than meaningful dialogues. Ignore for a moment the glaring consent issues rampant in Sixteen Candles, intensely unsettling to watch after the first time you notice them. Universal Pictures supposedly pressed Hughes to do the bankable thing and work nudity into the movie. Over-emphasizing Molly Ringwald to the detriment of the other characters’ development was perhaps the concession: if they couldn’t have another Haviland Morris body double to finance the picture, by god they would at least have Ms. Ringwald dancing spastically in slouch boots to hip 45’s that somehow found their way into the office of a man who raids Barry Manilow’s wardrobe. Sidenote: That I never noticed the RIDGID calendar on Vernon’s wall until now tells you I’ve hit middle age with a resounding thud.
One by one, we learn that Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) is an attention-seeking kleptomaniac, Brian Johnson (Hall) is a suicidal flare gun-wielding academe who can’t make an elephant lamp to save his life, John Bender is Judd Nelson, and Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez) can get high and tape everybody’s buns together. Like Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, the film is a tight ensemble stage play but operates more free-form: Lumet and his cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, sequentially changed focal lengths so the jury room looks smaller and smaller as the drama progresses. Club isn’t a morality play, it’s a character study of faultless children and the parental transgressions under which they’ve incubated.
While Andrew’s mind is still stuck in the microeconomics of weekend parties, Bender breaks the ice first asking Claire whether she prefers her father or mother. This scene is preceded by a dialogue in which he pretends to give not one shit about the works of Molière, mispronouncing the author’s name almost too deliberately, but then he establishes that he’s smarter than he looks: Molière’s most famous work, Tartuffe, is about a pious fraud who turns out to be a criminal. The joke isn’t merely that Bender then turns his energy to proving Claire isn’t the virgin she claims to be—she is. The joke is that Bender is a criminal fraud who turns out to be pious, albeit deeply wounded by an abusive father. His internalized anger froths to the top at exactly the midpoint of the film. Pay close attention to Molly Ringwald’s acting masterclass as her lip curls are positively correlated with the burgeoning cracks in Bender’s armor.
Andrew: What’d they do to you?
Allison: They ignore me.
Aside from the confusing message sent by Allison’s makeover, an unnecessary element, the Andrew-Allison dichotomy is that his parents have an image of who they want him to be, and Allison’s parents are too self-involved to care who she wants to be. He’s in detention because he was trying to impress his father with a fratboy prank. She’s desperate for attention but couldn’t get it from her parents if she set herself on fire. We don’t ever meet Allison’s parents, so we’re just as lost about their role in her life as she is.
Despite this, Allison is the worldly center of the film. Even though she’s completely bullshitting Claire about her sexual exploits, her take on relationships and human dynamics in general is mysteriously a decade or two ahead of that of her peers. Clearly a latchkey kid, Allison’s conclusions are a matter of necessity.
The second act connects to the third in the filing room. Note the change in expression on Vernon’s face when he realizes that Carl’s observation is spot-on: The entire reason Vernon began teaching twenty-two years ago has become completely lost on himself. The curtains pull back with the coerced admission from Claire, and Andrew’s observation in response, “We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.” It’s been said that the Larry Lester story was ad-libbed by Estevez. Given the history of his acting family, their successes and failures, it’s a feat of courage on Emilio’s part to take on the role of Andrew. After rounding out their stories, he contemplates, “My god, are we gonna be like our parents?”
Apropos, Anthony Michael Hall grew up to play Bill Gates in the televised film Pirates of Silicon Valley, but in 1985 the geek was still outcast. He is obviously Hughes’ favorite character and the one to whom the geek in Hughes relates most closely. I don’t have many upbeat stories about my connection to Brian, and it’s not my intention to overemphasize his role in the film, but I’ll give you two relevant ones.
The first story takes place in eighth grade: What happens when you throw a paper airplane in study hall? The teacher demands a 250 word essay on airplanes. What happens when that assignment is given to an aviation geek? The teacher gets back a one thousand word essay on the history of aviation dating back to the Montgolfier brothers first manned balloon flight in 1783.
The second story: A couple of years after I graduated the hell that was high school, I happened upon a classmate who we could describe as a popular cheerleader. She was a sweetheart, always kind to me and everybody else. I was studying in college and she was a single mother at 22, working two minimum wage jobs to make ends meet. The central lesson of The Breakfast Club is that we enter into this world through a set of circumstances that aren’t entirely of our own doing, trying to figure out who we are while others try to define us. We each think the other is more put together than we are. Our problems are relative to our immediate circumstances.
Social media today has put an interesting lens on the never-ending exercise of forging your own identity, or “building your brand” as the charlatan self-help gurus like to call it. At thirty, you’re still improvising and learning. At forty, you’re the same vehicle you were at 15 only the warranty has expired and you wind up in the shop more often.
“Maybe you’ll learn a little something about yourself,” says Vernon. I like the way the film compartmentalizes the characters’ ideas of themselves. When Vernon interacts with the kids, his patter suggests a wannabe drill sergeant. He sees himself as the wise leader they will never be. But when schmoozing with Carl the janitor (John Kapelos, probably the most versatile in Hughes’ teen comedy pantheon of actors), Vernon appears immature. It’s the cleverness of Hughes’ writing and Gleason’s acting that Vernon is often mistaken for the school’s principal—like many teachers conveying more authority in the teenager’s narrow world than they actually inhabit among the rest of us grown adults.
To every Brian, Claire, Andrew, John and Allison, past, present and future, know this: Nobody can tell you who you are but you. In this life in which we’re all winging it, trying to figure out who we are, Mr. Vernon somehow stumbled his way into a position of minuscule, inconsequential authority. What keeps him up at night is not the thought that these kids will some day be running the world he retires in. What keeps him up at night is that he’s just a taller, older version of them. But unlike them, he’s still stuck in that god forsaken high school thirty years later.
For its thirtieth anniversary, The Breakfast Club is being theatrically re-released on March 26 in select theaters nationwide.