It’s impossible to think of those years and not mention writer and director John Hughes. Although he continued writing and directing films in later decades, his name will forever be linked to the 80s. What’s odd is that toward the end of his life, he remained in relative obscurity in his native Chicago and avoided interviews and public appearances. He even started writing under a pseudonym (Edmond Dantès, in honor of the protagonist of The Count of Montecristo). Did you know that he wrote such popular films as 101 Dalmatians (1996) and Maid in Manhattan (2002)? Before doing research for this article, I had no idea. (And I’m supposed to be a fan!) Why did he make the choice of using a pen name? And why did he live in Chicago, away from the spotlight, and not in Hollywood? Perhaps we’ll never know the answers to these questions, although some people claim his decision had to do with his deep sadness after the passing of comedian John Candy.Whatever the reason (s) may have been for Hughes’s decisions, we cannot deny the legacy of his films in popular culture.
|Molly Ringwald, John Hughes and the actor forever known as Jake Ryan.|
However, I'm not sure Hughes ever got the recognition he deserved. Not if we compare him to writers and directors of “serious” fiction. In our culture we seem to think that drama or films with big budgets are more impressive and deserve more awards. But comedy serves an important role, too. (And it’s so hard to write well!) If all entertainment offered was tragedy, where could we go to escape our own problems? Yes, tears can be therapeutic (not according to my husband!) but so is laughter.
So what was it about the 80s that made such an impact on us? I know we were young and impressionable, but so are other generations of teenagers who grew up in other decades, yet we all keep going back to this era.
In an attempt to understand the 80s cultural phenomena and Hughes's (and other directors') contributions, I’ve come up with a few theories of my own (feel free to add yours or reject mine).
1. Teenage comedies thrived during the 80s.
Books and films for teenagers in the 70s were mostly dark. We had horror (Carrie, Halloween) and cautionary tales that talked about drug addiction, unsafe sex, rapes and/or teenage pregancies, as though filmmakers were trying to show kids the consequences of these kinds of behaviors. (Some examples are: Sarah T.: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, Go Ask Alice, Born Innocent and Ode to Billy Joe.) Not surprisingly, the 70s were postwar years filled with experimentation so in a way, it’s understandable that the adults of the time would make “didactic” films. As Sister Malena recently pointed out to me, other teenage films and TV shows from the 70s were set in other eras: Remember When and The Summer of my German Soldier in the 40s, Grease and American Graffiti in the 50s, and I Wanna Hold Your Hand in the 60s.
The 60s had a more positive take on teenage years, I think, but it seems like most of them focused on teen idols such as Elvis, Sandra Dee, Patty Duke or Frankie Avalon. (Picture guitars and bikinis!)
Eighties films, on the other hand, presented us with common problems of adolescence outside the beach: high school crushes (Some Kind of Wonderful, Secret Admirer, Sixteen Candles, well, probably all of them!), social divisions (Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles), principal/student conflicts (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), exchange students (who can forget Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles or Monique in Better Off Dead?) car problems (License to Drive, Ferris Bueller), etc. I know, once in a while we were exposed to drug use (St. Elmos Fire, Less than Zero) but overall the vibe of the decade was more positive than in the one prior.
|Hughes understood sexual tension. He nails it in Some Kind of Wonderful (1987).|
Never have teenage films been more popular than in the 80s. Notice how different they are now? How did we go from normal teenage angst to teenagers falling in love and/or fighting vampires/werewolves/angels/whatever OR behaving like adults (having sex with everything that moves?!)
2. John Hughes, in particular, wrote movies about everyday people.
If you look at Molly Ringwald’s characters, they’re all average girls (except for maybe Claire in The Breakfast Club). Sam and Andie are pretty ordinary, not nerds nor prom queens. The same goes for John Candy’s characters in both Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Uncle Buck, Eric Stoltz in Some Kind of Wonderful, and Kevin Bacon in She’s Having a Baby (I read somewhere that this film was semi-autobiographical). We feel like he know this people (or we could be them). Girls all over the world could identify with Molly’s characters because they were not stereotypes, they were real. And that made them appealing. Sure, he uses some stereotypes here and there, but I’ll talk about that next.
|Okay, so he may not have been that normal. But who is?|
3. Dichotomies and contrast.
John Hughes loved contrast, and when he used archetypes, he liked to mix them up to see what emerged. Arguably, his characters in The Breakfast Club could be considered archetypes-turned-into-stereotypes. We have the prom queen, the athlete, the criminal, the nerd and the eccentric loner. But Hughes made a point at showing us how these initially stereotypical characters become unique by the end. We get to know them, and they get to know each other and themselves. Even more, they grow and change (some more than others) and yes, friends, it only takes a few hours.
Sixteen Candles shows us a variety of contrasting characters: the prom queen with the dork, Sam’s snobbish grandmother vs. the more traditional and warm grandma, and remember the girl the Chinese exchange student picks? The same goes for the villains of Home Alone: one is tall with an eagle nose, and the other one is short and chunky, which lead me to my next point.
|Long Duk Dong finds love.|
Hughes was not alone in his determination that every character in his films should be interesting and complement the protagonist in some way. His colleague, "Savage" Steve Holland, excelled at creating fascinating characters in his film Better Off Dead. Think about Cusack’s younger brother, his mom with her creative cooking, and his best friend (who, mind you, is no dummy after seven years of high school!)
|The most memorable characters in Holland's film have minor roles.|
|"I want my two dollars!"|
|Wait, this thing moves!|
|Hmm... who is the most complex character here?|
5. The villain grows up.
Another characteristic of Hughes’s films is that, in the end, the villain realizes the wrong of his/her ways and changes. Some examples are Uncle Buck’s niece Tia, who makes amends with both her mother and her uncle by the end of the movie; Judd Nelson’s character in The Breakfast Club, who softens and changes his views on the “losers” from his high school; Jake Ryan’s girlfriend in Sixteen Candles, who discovers she likes nerds after all, and Steve Martin in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Though not technically a villain, Martin is a very flawed protagonist: impatient, badly tempered, selfish and judgmental of John Candy’s character. In the end, when he realizes that Candy is alone in the world and homeless, he goes after him and brings him to his Thanksgiving celebration.
|Good morning, honey!|
6. Teenagers were treated with respect and their concerns mattered.
In an interview, John Hughes said he had chosen to write teenage films because he wanted to work with young people so they wouldn’t question his authority or experience (he went into filmmaking after being a copywriter at an advertising agency). So it was a somewhat accidental choice, but this didn’t stop this filmmaker from treating the subjects that concerned teens with respect. We see his thoughtfulness repeatedly in his films: in Sam’s heart to heart with her dad in Sixteen Candles, in Keith’s discussion with his father or his conversations with Watts in Some Kind of Wonderful, or when the characters finally open up to each other in The Breakfast Club.
7. Science nerds were cool.
John Hughes’s Weird Science and Robert J. Rosenthal’s Zapped! could be considered the forefathers of the "cool dorks" of today (i.e., The Big Bang Theory). In these films, smart teens came up with the formula for the perfect woman and the secret of telekinesis (which, of course, the guys from Zapped! used to their advantage to get girls). In the early 90s, Sandra Bullock made a similar film (Love Potion No. 9) where two scientists discover the formula to sexual attraction and use it on members of the opposite sex.
8. Families in the 80s were generally portrayed under a positive light.
Sitcoms reined supreme in the 80s. Most of them portrayed positive role models and parents and children with good relationships. The Cosby Show, Who’s the Boss? and Full House are some popular examples. But do you remember My Sister Sam, Small Wonder, Charles in Charge and Double Trouble? I do! And I LOVED them!
|The Sagal Twins in the sitcom Double Trouble (1984-1985)|
Let’s play a game! Can you name your Top 5 eighties movies, TV shows, actors, actresses, singers and songs?
Simple Minds - Don't You (Forget About Me)
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