Who doesn’t remember the ending scene of “The Breakfast Club”? And who wasn’t disappointed that Duckie didn’t get the girl in “Pretty in Pink”?
Those of us “of a certain age” don’t have to ask what those movies were about or who was in them. They were so much a part of our culture—our lives—that even 30 years later, they’re almost a part of us.
But why did they mean so much to us? Why weren’t they “just entertainment,” like most of the other films of the decade, even the most memorable ones?
And how did writer/director John Hughes know so much about teen angst?
(And who nicknamed those “kids” The Brat Pack, anyway?)*
For those who don’t remember (or weren’t paying attention), The Brat Pack are a group of young actors (not all teens at the time) who starred in a series of movies about adolescence and young adulthood in the mid-80s.
The strict definition of Brat Pack actors includes those who starred in two particular films: “The Breakfast Club” and “St. Elmo’s Fire.”
They were (in alphabetic order): Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, and Ally Sheedy.
“Honorary members” include other actors who had been in a Brat Pack movie with at least one of the core members. Most lists include Matthew Broderick, Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Robert Downey, Jr., C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Mary Stuart Masterson, Eric Stoltz, Patrick Swayze, and Lea Thompson.
So yes, the two movies included in the strict definition of Brat Packer were “The Breakfast Club” and “St. Elmo’s Fire.”
But the best of the Brat Pack films were written and directed and/or produced by John Hughes. (St. Elmo’s Fire was directed by Joel Schumacher and written by Schumacher and Carl Kurlander.)
According to author Susannah Gora in her book “You Couldn’t Ignore Me if You Tried,” a tribute to Hughes, these films “changed the way many young people looked at everything from class distinction to friendship, from love to sex and fashion to music.”
According to her, they are considered “among the most influential pop cultural contributions of their time.”
Of course, we didn’t realize all of that at the time. What we did get was that these movies showed a real understanding of what it meant to be different. To resent the popular kids while also wanting to be them, or to date them.
Hughes understood the importance of belonging when you’re a teen, that fitting in was everything.
Before John Hughes, films made for teens were either condescending or crass comedies focused on meaningless sex, wild partying, and crude jokes.
Think “Porky’s” (1981), “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982), and “Revenge of the Nerds” (1984).
At that time, there were few films that teens could identify with in a meaningful way. Entertainment, sure, but a film that “got them,” that really understood the struggles they dealt with every day? Such a film was rare, if it existed at all.
John Hughes’s Brat Pack films were looking at teens’ lives in a whole new way. Rather than trivializing the minefield that is adolescence, or presenting it as nothing more than fodder for crude jokes, they were taking teens’ concerns seriously.
They treated adolescents with respect.
Arguably, the best of the John Hughes-Brat Pack films were the Molly Ringwald trilogy – “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles,” and “Pretty in Pink.”
The premise of the “The Breakfast Club” on first glance was fundamentally cliche. It took a group of kids who were unlikely to interact otherwise and threw them together in an unnatural setting—a Saturday in detention.
There was the beauty, the brain, the jock, the social outcast, and the rebel. Stereotypes, certainly.
But all of us can name any number of classmates who, to our minds in those days, fit those descriptions. They weren’t just stereotypes to us.
They were an accurate representation of the social hierarchy of any American high school.
We could relate. And in this film we learned that we weren’t so different after all.
Hughes somehow understood that middle space between childhood and adulthood and that adolescence is a tough time. That teen struggles were not just “kid stuff.” They went deep, and they mattered.
In “Pretty in Pink,” the central conflict was the haves versus the have-nots. Again, how many of us are unable to relate to that?
The kids from the “right” families had the “right” clothes, nice cars (or even any car at all!), and almost always, the popularity. Life seemed to hand them everything we thought we wanted.
It took John Hughes’s Brat Pack movies to show us that even those on the top of the social ladder had doubts, confidence issues, and problems of their own.
That our struggles and fears were universal.
In “Sixteen Candles,” there is a memorable scene where Samantha (Ringwald) and Geek (Anthony Michael Hall) have a heart-to-heart in the shop building that leads to an actual connection. They both realize that the other is lonely.
Once again, we could relate. When you’re a teen, you believe that your experiences are unique to you. If you’re not fitting in with your peers, you assume that there must be something wrong with you.
Hughes had his characters talking to each other, getting to know each other in meaningful ways. Exposing their vulnerabilities. Helping us all to realize that we weren’t alone.
For those of us who didn’t quite fit in, this was more than just a revelation.
It was a lifeline.
*It was David Blum in New York magazine, an article entitled “Hollywood’s Brat Pack” on June 10, 1985.