"They were five strangers with nothing in common. Meeting for the first time. A brain, a beauty, a jock, a rebel, and a recluse." This week, in 1985, The Breakfast Club hit theaters. It's the pearl anniversary, and three decades later, the story of five kids stuck in Saturday detention resonates just as powerfully as it did back then, when we teenagers over-gelled our hair and talked on landlines.
Maybe the film is outdated; maybe life is way more complicated for a teenager in 2015; maybe no one says "Neo-Maxi-Zoom-Dweebie" anymore (or ever, really); but I think it's safe to say that the film has officially entered classic status, up there with other American comedy dramas like Annie Hall, The Graduate, and Do The Right Thing — one of those flicks that both defines and defies a genre. People who say they don't like it are just being overly critical, bitter, or contrary just for the sake of it. It's like saying "I don't like cake." This is hard to say about other teen movies. It's not like we all walk around thinking "I want a BFF like Regina in Mean Girls!" or “I really want to live like James Dean in A Rebel Without a Cause!" or "I want to be sent to kill other kids my age in a giant man-made jungle like Katniss!" But we all, no matter what age or generation, want to connect the way that Claire, Andy, Brian, Allison, and Bender do. We all want to be understood.
The film made stars out of Molly Ringwald (Claire), Anthony Michael Hall (Brian), Judd Nelson (Bender), Ally Sheedy (Allison), and Emilio Estevez (Andrew), and affixed the legacy of writer and director John Hughes as the voice of the '80s teen psyche. The film also elevated the teen comedy (at least for a little bit) out of being a collection of gratuitous boob shots and stock characters: the horny guy ogling a cheerleader, a geek losing his virginity to a sexy teacher, a kid looking through a peephole at a naked woman. The elegant simplicity of The Breakfast Club — one location, little action, emotional clarity — still stands out as a rarity. And, like many rare classics, the film survived a number of obstacles, missteps, and bottom-line-minded Hollywood execs that could have turned the film into just another mindless teensploitation turd. (The casting alone is fascinating. Bender was almost played by John Cusak, and the role of Allison was originally meant for Ringwald.) Hughes, who went through dozens of revisions of the script, even had a scene in one draft of the principal Vernon (played by Paul Gleason) looking through a peephole at a female coach swimming naked.
But, Hughes, who sadly and suddenly died of a heart attack in 2009, was not a delusional auteur. All the actors agree, in various interviews over the years, that Hughes was "one of us," often more comfortable with his young actors than with other adults. During the memorable scene when the characters sit in a semi-circle and bare their souls (Brian admitting he attempted suicide, Andrew confessing he bullied an unpopular classmate, Claire admitting she is a virgin), Hughes was sitting there too, under the camera, completing the circle. After writing hits like National Lampoon's Vacation, Sixteen Candles, and Mr. Mom, Hughes had reached a level of clout in Hollywood. Still, this was meant to be his directorial debut, and he was admittedly nervous. Creating a film that is set all in one room was his way of keeping things simple. They shot in an empty high school in a suburban development of Des Plaines, IL, converting the gym into a huge library, complete with a big lumpy sculpture that was inspired by one in the Universal lobby. Hughes trusted his actors: He lavished them with a three-week rehearsal process, and shot the scenes in sequence, both unheard of in films, then and now. "We rehearsed it like a play…just sitting together and we just read through the script every day…like team practice, or a family praying together," Anthony Michael Hall remembers in Susannah Gora's fascinating 2010 book about Hughes' films, You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried. Hughes was also extremely flexible with his script, before and during the production. "He is the only writer-director with whom I have worked who is courageous enough to totally let his script go," wrote Ally Sheedy in her introduction to the essay collection, Don't You Forget About Me: Contemporary Writers on the Films of John Hughes. For example, it was Sheedy's idea to place Cap'n Crunch between two slices of bread and munch down on it. And, it was Ringwald who questioned the peephole scene after reading a final version of the script. Hearing from his actors, Hughes pulled out all the old drafts and, before rehearsals, invited the them to find cut material that appealed to them. Some of these are surprising, crucial moments in the final film, like when Bender taunts Claire about whether she has been felt up ("Calvins in a ball on the front seat"), and Andrew's confession about how taping up his bullied victim's butt broke his skin. Hughes also heard from Sheedy about Allison's makeover, which, at one time in the script, had Claire applying makeup to doll her up. Sheedy felt that the makeover should be a makeunder, with Claire wiping away Allison's eyeliner and white pancake foundation to reveal her natural beauty. "I think perhaps the only misstep we made was in changing Allison's appearance so drastically at the end…unfortunately we ended up with a lace bow à la Madonna. Remember, this was the '80s," Sheedy explained in the intro.
The characters Hughes and his actors created for the film may seem like obvious stereotypes — but only so that those stereotypes can be broken down. I remember, in 1985, watching The Breakfast Club in the theater and thinking I didn’t completely identify with one character. I felt that I was a mix of Allison, Brian, and Claire, because I was arty, nerdy, and desperate to be popular. I also remember being angry and heartbroken by the film, especially when Brian asks Claire if they will all be friends on Monday, and she answers plaintively, "Do you want the truth?…I don't think so." I also was devastated (like most fans of the film) when Allison utters her famous line: "When you grow up, your heart dies." The film is really a drama in a comedic mask.
Around the '00s, life got exponentially more complicated for a teen. On came Britney Spears, Juicy Couture pink sweats as evening wear, school shootings, and, in a good way, a liberation of gender roles and sexuality. It may be hard to feel the impact now of Claire's conflicts — having to pretend she was sexually confident to be popular, then admitting she was a virgin. "The history of '80s virginity can be broken into two eras — pre-Breakfast Club and post-Breakfast Club. Because, that's when the truth was first spoken — The Prude/Slut trap, the Double-Edged Sword of our Fragile Sexuality,” writes Julianna Baggott in her essay for Don't You Forget About Me. The '90s and '00s have seen their share of good high school films, and the emotional intensity of My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks have set a similar gold standard for teen TV drama. But, teensploitation happens now just as often as it did back then. Stereotypes are still set in stone — the popular people are evil, the outcasts are misunderstood — especially if there are vampires and werewolves in your school. Even in better movies of the genre, like Heathers, Mean Girls, or Jawbreaker, the popular girls are all-powerful and there is always a scene where they walk down the hall in slow motion with sexy, stern looks on their faces. It's just as difficult now to make a high school film with heart. Which makes The Breakfast Club's emotional impact just as powerful as it always has been. It's not, as Allison says, that when you grow older your heart dies; it's that, when you are growing up, you can be discouraged to even have one. Just five years ago, when celebrating the film's 25th anniversary, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, and Anthony Michael Hall convened on ABC's Good Morning America. (Estevez was apparently on location.) Robin Roberts asked the cast what their favorite line of the film was, and Ringwald responded it was Sheedy's line. Roberts asked them if they thought it was true. "I think I believe it then; I don't believe it so much now," said Sheedy. "Yeah," Ringwald agreed. "It gets broken and smashed and then mushed back together." An anniversary edition of the movie will be available on Blu-Ray and DVD will be available March 10, and the film is in select theaters for two nights only, on March 26 and March 31.