As an awkward, religious adolescent with no chance of ever going to a school prom (forbidden by our ultra-orthodox rabbis), I was captivated by the life led by "normal" American teenagers. These exotic beings drove cars and went on dates and attended dances actually organized by their schools. This idea seemed wild—that an institution supervised by adults would allow and even encourage boys and girls to fraternize.
Since that life was out of reach, I looked for a fantasy version in which to immerse myself. Wasn't I lucky to have grown up when John Hughes was in his moviemaking heyday? "Sixteen Candles," "Pretty in Pink" and "The Breakfast Club"—these films exemplify the high school existence I romanticized from afar.
From a certain vantage point, they now seem old-fashioned, but only because there are no vampires or dystopian fight-to-the-death scenes. The stories themselves are timeless: Boy meets girl ... and you know the rest. But beyond the plotlines, these works withstand the test of time. After Hughes died, in 2009, the IFC art house in New York paid tribute to him by adding his movies in their midnight lineup, and they're still screened at theaters all over the country.
Why is it we can still watch these films while other youth-oriented hits of that era—like "Risky Business" and "About Last Night"—seem to crawl along at a sleep-inducing pace?
Hughes was successful because he fused the same elements each time. The first ingredient was his memorable characters. "The Geek" aka Farmer Ted in "Sixteen Candles," played by Anthony Michael Hall, is the best of them all, which isn't surprising given that the character is said to be based on Hughes himself. The female characters, unlike the sexual objects of so many teen films (remember "Porky's"?), are also well-drawn, from Molly Ringwald's vulnerable Samantha Baker in "Sixteen Candles" to Allison, the "basket case" played by Ally Sheedy in "The Breakfast Club."
The director's second signature element was quirky humor. I can still hear the classical kazoo orchestra play as the school bus packed with geeks rolls by in "Sixteen Candles." There are tasteless bits that don't stand up—the whole mocking Asians thing and the physically handicapped Joan Cusack trying to drink from the water fountain in the same movie—but more often the jokes are still funny after all these years.
Another Hughes trademark involved delving into the teenage psyche. He did this most vividly in "The Breakfast Club" in which the geek, Brian (Hall), reveals he's had suicidal thoughts, while the bad boy, Bender (Judd Nelson), talks about the physical abuse he suffered at the hands of his father.
"Pretty in Pink," Hughes' take on "Romeo and Juliet," is the weakest of the three, but it incorporated yet another ingredient that made these films into classics—a pitch-perfect soundtrack. The title track of that movie, by The Psychedelic Furs, sounds even better now without all that hairspray weighing down on our heads. With artists like Simple Minds, OMD and Echo and the Bunnymen, the soundtrack of a John Hughes movie is like a "Best of '80s" compilation minus the top-40 dreck.
Hughes's career went beyond this Molly Ringwald trilogy. He was also responsible for "National Lampoon's Vacation" and its sequels, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and the "Home Alone" franchise. But when you hear the name John Hughes, you immediately think of Ringwald and her Brat Pack co-stars, of teenage angst and love in the suburbs of Chicago, and of a few great movies that made being a teenager in the '80s more bearable.
Because—and this is what I didn't get back then—there never was such a thing as being a normal teenager. Everybody struggles as we creep awkwardly toward adulthood. Anyway, I never could have been like Molly Ringwald; even if I hadn't gone to a parochial school, I would have been no less nerdy and blundering and wouldn't have scored an invitation to the prom. But we too were represented in Hughes' movies. Even those who didn't belong had a place.