I read with sadness of the death of the Hollywood producer, writer and director John Hughes on August 6th. I then spent the weekend indulging my nostalgic streak by viewing his three most important films: Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985) and Pretty In Pink (1986), and saw again what a politically vapid but emotionally poignant period this was for film, and one which provided the entire soundtrack to my childhood.
Hughes’ innovation was to abandon the standard model of the teen comedy as farce, exemplified by films like Animal House (1978), and bring the principles of the romantic comedy to bear on the American high school, running them through the wringer of adolescent angst and the youthful drive for social acceptance.
What is most remarkable is that these films, which are essentially about the drive to conformity and hormonal urges entirely unmitigated by emotional maturity, make good dramatic viewing. This was entirely due to Hughes’ skills as a writer-director and the charisma and acting abilities of his cast, exemplified by his muse, the teenage actress Molly Ringwald.It is both amusing and slightly disturbing that these three Hughes-Ringwald dramas, along with Joel Schumacher’s minutely more mature St Elmo’s Fire (1985) which shared many of those three films’ stars, should come to define a decade in the life of a superpower; a superpower which ten years before had been describing itself with films like The Way We Were (1974), All The President’s Men (1975) and Three Days Of The Condor (1976). Even more bizarre, as the 37-year-old Hughes mentions in an interview by his 18-year-old leading lady (from which the above photo comes), is that in this decade there were noticeably fewer teenagers than in the preceding ones. (It is hard to divine whether Hughes was a cause or a symptom of this ongoing trend in which studio executives green-light projects based on the preferences of an ever dwindling demographic.)
It is also true that these films, despite their nods to the rebellion films of Marlon Brando and James Dean, actually marked the return of generational deference. The strident student politics of the ’60s and ’70s were now replaced by an urge to understand one’s place in one’s largely suburban middle-class peer-group, delegating more serious international…