***/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras A
starring Emilio Estevez, Paul Gleason, Anthony Michael Hall, John Kapelos
written and directed by John Hughes
by Bill Chambers Necessity is the mother of invention, and The Breakfast Club's iconic plot--aped so often it's become a modern myth, like Rashomon--was designed to ease John Hughes into directing and keep the budget low. The script wasn't just a formality, though, proof of that being his refusal to cast Jimmie "J.J." Walker (then in his mid-30s and a frequent passenger on "The Love Boat") as Bender in exchange for financing from Canadian dentists; he was still able to draw a line between artistic compromise--which had given shape to the material--and selling out. Nor was it some cynical "calling-card," unlike those one-and-done horror movies career-minded filmmakers like making to get their foot in the door. Yes, The Breakfast Club wound up capitalizing on a bull market for teen fare, but Hughes had an honest interest in telling stories about youth. Proof of that being his screenplay for National Lampoon's Vacation, doctored by director Harold Ramis to shift the dominant P.O.V. from the kids in the backseat (as in the LAMPOON piece that inspired it, Hughes's "Vacation '58") to the paterfamilias. Through a mixture of savvy and kismet, Hughes had crafted the platonic ideal of a directorial debut for himself, and then something funny happened: the comparatively epic Sixteen Candles became his first feature instead.
Owing to its politically-incorrect tenor, there is a tendency to speak of Sixteen Candles in hushed tones now, and Hughes didn't help the movie's cause by continually referring to The Breakfast Club, its follow-up, as his "film school," making it sound like a do-over. But Sixteen Candles is surprisingly polished, with many of Hughes's formal signatures already in place; and it offers more than its share of grace notes, if you can stomach its considerable lapses in taste (which aren't limited to the Long Duk Dong character). It was better in the long run that it worked out this way, not only because Sixteen Candles put Hughes in the orbit of actors and craftspeople who would become part of his stock company and serve him well on his next production, but also because it gave The Breakfast Club something to respond to, a bar to clear. Instead of ingenuity, The Breakfast Club wound up demonstrating Hughes's versatility. Moreover, Sixteen Candles effectively confirmed that The Breakfast Club was a passion project, transforming its built-in compromises into artistic choices. Sixteen Candles had, after all, scratched his itch to make just anything.
"Dear Mr. Vernon:
We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. What we did was wrong, but we think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms with the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. That's the way we saw each other at 7 o'clock this morning.
We were brainwashed."
The "Brain," Anthony Michael Hall's Brian, recites these words over deadpan tableaux of Shermer High School's deserted but haunted halls, familiarizing us with the five individuals about to spend an entire Saturday1 together in detention. Hall reads a curiously streamlined version of this missive again at the end of the picture (with a parting shot tacked on: "Does that answer your question? Sincerely Yours, the Breakfast Club"), this time with the voices of his co-stars cutting in during the encore of personality types, suggesting they've transcended archetype in the interim to become flesh-and-blood beings, as the letter implies. Between these bookends, the students experience a dark night of the soul, albeit in the daytime because they're not adults. It's kind of funny if you think about it--Eugene O'Neill for kids--but it turns out to be the exact right approach in getting both teenagers and adults on the movie's side. It's just pretentious enough to signal a seriousness of intent that's flattering to a young audience and endearing to an older one.
The Breakfast Club are introduced in the parking lot before detention; in an inspired précis, you know where these people come from by how they're dropped off--or not dropped off, in the case of the Criminal, Bender (Judd Nelson), who arrives on foot. Brian's mom (Mercedes Hall, Anthony Michael Hall's real-life mother) acts ashamed and infantilizing towards him, while his little sister (Mary Christian, Hall's real-life sister) nests between them, gloating.2 Claire (Molly Ringwald), the Princess, pouts in Daddy's BMW as her father (Tim Gamble, whose son Mason would play Dennis the Menace for Hughes years later) promises to "make it up" to her for not getting her out of this obligation. The Athlete, Andrew (Emilio Estevez), endures a coach-like pep talk-cum-guilt trip from his dad (Ron Dean). Bender is nearly struck by the car driving Allison (Ally Sheedy), the Basket Case, who is stopped short when she exits the vehicle and the driver just peels off. This is good storytelling, consistent with Hughes's knack for quick-and-dirty character sketches that hum with life.
None of them seem to know each other, except by reputation. About the only thing the Breakfast Club has in common is that transgressing--or at least getting caught transgressing--is uncharted territory for them, with the obvious exception of Bender, a loose cannon who spends the first few minutes of detention earning more detentions from Principal Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason, so brilliant at capturing the tetchy swagger of middle management) in a verbal sparring match that loses none of its charge from being later parodied in Not Another Teen Movie, complete with Gleason reprising his role. The others take an instant dislike to Bender, who comes on too strong, but they try, fruitlessly, to save him from himself here. It's their first step towards a united front, though Hughes doesn't betray his already-well-developed personalities--Brian spontaneously volunteers Bender's detention count when Vernon loses track.
The Breakfast Club may be a gourmet teen movie, but it's also an episode of "Hogan's Heroes" with Vernon as Colonel Klink and Bender, I guess, as Hogan. Hogan, if he had a pretty severe chip on his shoulder. Maybe that trivializes things, but nobody's trying to escape, nobody's going to die, it's coed; the stakes are, for the most part, low. The Breakfast Club is a film in which the monotony of institutional limbo leads to mischief and pranks, which leads to bonding and group therapy. Perhaps One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is the better comparison, given Bender's battle of wills with Vernon, his own personal Nurse Ratched, for whom Bender is the nail that sticks up and therefore must be hammered down, according to the Japanese proverb. At any rate, somewhere between these two poles, "Hogan's Heroes" and Cuckoo's Nest, lies The Breakfast Club, a movie that nails the way that time passes 'on the inside' at the pace of an I.V. drip and even lampoons it--Allison has time to sketch an elaborate winter scene (more absurdist than he's ever given credit for, Hughes then has her shake dandruff on it to create snow)--without becoming tedious to watch.
What's curious is that The Breakfast Club relies on montage as much as any '80s movie to compress time (it was the heyday of MTV, after all), yet somehow the lasting impression is of a film that's unusually patient with the leisurely tempo of a school day, to the benefit of character ingratiation. (This is all the more impressive when you consider that Hughes and editor Dede Allen pared the movie down to 97 minutes from about 142 prior to release.) A lot of that has to do with the picture's cathartic centrepiece and emotional climax, a marathon rap session in which our teenage heroes sit on the floor in a secluded section of the library to purge themselves of the sins that landed them in detention. Using long lenses to birdwatch unobtrusively, Hughes and DP Thomas Del Ruth, son of journeyman director Roy Del Ruth (It Happened on Fifth Avenue) and still fairly new to features, shoot most of the movie with the frame stationary unless it's following someone, instead creating motion through cutting--a strategy that aided Allen, who couldn't have been better prepared for the geographical and temporal restrictions of The Breakfast Club as the editor of Dog Day Afternoon, in plucking reaction shots from virtually anywhere and restructuring scenes on the fly. But the filmmakers' M.O. changes for this pivotal sequence. Here, the camera makes a rare "non-diegetically"-motivated move, orbiting a guilt-wracked Andrew as he breaks down, and takes run longer, with Hughes burning 200,000 feet--or 37 hours--of film on these 19 minutes and 38 seconds, according to Kirk Honeycutt's John Hughes: A Life in Film. Two-and-a-half minutes have elapsed before the dolly has completed this revolution around Estevez, for example, with nary a cutaway to hide any seams. One static close-up of Ringwald lasts a staggering 26 seconds3--Hughes lingers on her face as her simmering rage boils over, and for a moment it feels as if we're witnessing the resurrection of Dreyer and Falconetti. I suppose that sooner or later, every male director with a short-haired muse gets around to remaking The Passion of Joan of Arc.
The performances are of an unusually high calibre considering the St. Elmo's Fires and Blue Citys that were in store for this cast. Hughes was patient, rigorous, and indulgent with his ensemble in a quest for truth that Allen helped spearhead. He shot the film in sequence to evolve the group dynamic organically, in a real high school--Chicago's Maine North High School, a borderline satirical concrete slab of a building that had shut down years earlier--to keep Hollywood out, literally and figuratively. When the actors were curious to know how their characters had evolved over time, Hughes invited them to sift through earlier drafts of the screenplay. The shooting script was something of a salvage operation based on their input--a sort of primitive version of the Mike Leigh method of shaping transcribed improvisations into something formal. This process had the added benefit of subjecting the material to the bullshit detectors of actual teens and near-teens (Nelson, at 24, was the oldest person in the cast by three years, while Hall and Ringwald were both 16 in real life), and they did let Hughes know when they found some. Sheedy and Ringwald especially objected to a sequence where Vernon spied on the attractive coach (Karen Leigh Hopkins) of the girls' swim team undressing, believing this gratuitous exploitation of the female form to be, well, sexist, and moreover tonally at odds with the rest of the film. Hughes caved, knowing they were right and that the scene was conceived in a moment of cynicism, since the teen genre had come to lean on smut like a crutch. As a hormonal child of the '80s, I have to say I appreciated this about the teen genre. As an adult, I recognize that The Breakfast Club made it into the Criterion Collection before Just One of the Guys4 or Secret Admirer.5
Of course, it's still an '80s movie. In other words, we need to talk about Bender.
Hughes decided to replace the swimming coach altogether with wily Carl the janitor.6 He initially cast Rick Moranis, who approached the smallish role too much like the sketch comic he was, donning gold teeth and a Russian accent. Though nobody liked what Moranis was doing (i.e., putting a hat on a hat), Hughes was too cowardly to fire him and waited for the studio to do his dirty work. (It didn't take long once they started seeing dailies.) Sixteen Candles' John Kapelos, who would also appear in Hughes's Weird Science, took his place and quickly earned the enmity of his co-stars by trying to break the ice with jokes about Martin Sheen's heart attack on the set of Apocalypse Now, unaware that Estevez was Sheen's son. Oops. Alas, these were minor changes compared to the recasting of Bender, who was set to be played by John Cusack until Universal took over the production from previous backer A&M Films. Casting director Jackie Burch convinced Hughes that Cusack, unlike Nelson, didn't look tough enough for the part.7 Possibly he had to be convinced because he lacked empathy for the character, preventing a clear image of him: On set, he and Nelson debated the veracity of Bender's claim that his father stubbed out a cigar on his arm for spilling paint in the garage, Nelson defending Bender's honour against Hughes's charges of fabulism. From the get-go, Nelson's rabid Method antics earned Hughes's ire. "Judd was...trying to get under my skin, ad libbing a lot of stuff that was meant to be offensive to me," Ringwald recalled in Sean M. Smith's oral history of The Breakfast Club from 1999. "I didn't think it was such a big deal, but John was very protective of me, and he may have had other issues." Cooler heads prevailed before Hughes went as far as giving Nelson the boot. It's difficult to imagine him finding the alternative, the actor who auditioned alongside Nelson following Cusack's departure, any more manageable: Nicolas Cage.
I'm inclined to side with Nelson over Hughes that Bender was abused at home, because most monsters start with a Frankenstein. I frankly don't buy that Hughes ever intended the legitimacy of Bender's sob story to be up for debate. Whether Bender began as a vicarious bad-boy fantasy or an attempt to reckon with the humanity and inevitability of bullies, it's not nothing that his first name is John. There's a point of identification there.8 It isn't terribly difficult to imagine Nelson's off-camera bad-boy posturing, which grew more benign but didn't let up completely, bringing out the spite in the conservative Hughes. (It was winning him too many female fans on set for Hughes not to bristle.) Fascinating to see a possible parallel to the Vernon/Bender dynamic in Hughes and Nelson's: Allison's anthemic line "When you grow up your heart dies" loses some of its spiritual integrity.
Perhaps Hughes's contemptuous gaze is the problem, then, but Bender is still a rebel without a cause from an era that equated cool with casual cruelty and misogyny. Bottom line: Bender's a drag. Don't get me wrong, Nelson is perfectly iconic in the film, such that his silhouette lingers as its defining image. He pursued the role with abandon, confident it was his to lose. It could be that Nelson identified with Bender's thirst for drama as an actor fresh on the scene (The Breakfast Club was his fourth film and second lead, if in fact it has a lead). That's a potentially profound insight into the mind of a bully, and certainly the tyrants I knew in school treated bullying like performance art and their victims like a magician's assistant reluctantly enlisted to be sawed in half for a dumbfounded crowd. Most bullies, without an audience or an entourage, are the sound of one hand clapping. And they're humbled in one-on-one situations with a higher authority. This is Bender in a nutshell--or Bender in the broom closet with Vernon, who tries taunting him into throwing a punch. In vain.
That scene is part of the problem, however: I don't buy Bender's shame, except as a matter of convention--this is the part where McMurphy receives shock treatment. Nelson is so spiky that moments of vulnerability don't ring true. I find myself wondering why Bender reports for Saturday detention in the first place. His dutifulness and anarchism, nay, nihilism, are diametrically opposed. I find myself unable to picture him setting his alarm. (He's not even the last one to arrive!) He's exceedingly vicious to Claire, mock threatening her with gang-rape early on ("Hey homeboy," he calls out to Andrew, "what do you say you close that door, we'll get the prom queen impregnated?"), putting his head between her legs when she hides him from Vernon, and going back on his promise not to tease her when she does her Stupid Human Trick of applying lipstick without using her arms. He yells at her until she cries. He rubs her nose in her privilege, making her feel bad for having diamond earrings. ("You know what I got for Christmas this year?...I got a carton of cigarettes!") And at the end of the film, he's falsely redeemed in the sugar rush of Simple Minds' "Don't You Forget About Me": Claire gifts him with one of those diamond earrings and a tender kiss. No wonder Bender's stoked, walking home through the football field--he stuck the landing on a textbook negging.
The wholesale rejection of Bender wouldn't reflect well on anyone, but some personal accountability would go a long way. On the Criterion Blu-ray, Ringwald talks about how the scene where they all smoke pot together changed from inception--Sheedy threw things into disarray when she refused to toke up as Allison, but initially it was going to be everyone smoking Bender's pot except Bender, something Ringwald saw as a Machiavellian power grab. That's plausible, though I can envision a scenario in which Bender demurring from using drugs has more ambiguity and pathos than that. Because he doesn't know how else to get people to like him. Because he's in recovery. Because he's that resistant to changing his mood. That broken. There is one intriguing beat, caught in master shot at the tail end of the centrepiece confessional, where Bender appears to laugh, genuinely, at Allison's exit line, only to seem aggravated with himself for surrendering to this impulse. My kingdom for more of these moments where Hughes and Nelson ease up on the throttle of Bender's rancour and probe a little harder for a soul. Bender's most and only winning qualities are the charisma, humour, and external beauty Nelson brings to him, although I can't help but wonder if these qualities aren't also worrisome in their superficial allure.
I remember hanging out in the magazine section of a convenience store when I was 12 when in walked this guy from school who liked to torment me. He grabbed some skin mags off the forbidden shelf and proceeded to wave their contents in my face, talking very loudly about how I shouldn't be looking at "pussy" until my embarrassment was palpable and the clerk was yelling at us. For all intents and purposes, that guy was Bender--he had the feathered hair and multiple layers of clothing, that cocoon of thrift-store body armour.9 Looking back, I struggle with this question: was Nelson emulating guys like that, or was that guy emulating Bender? I don't know if he'd seen the film, I just know that I had by that point, so the chances are pretty good that he had, too. (Movies spread like wildfire in junior high.) The fact is that many of Hughes's most ardent fans back in the day were aspiring teenagers, using his films as road maps for adolescence. They may have corrupted us. Hughes coined his own insults so as not to date his dialogue with contemporary slang, for instance, and then we undid his handiwork by incorporating them into our vernacular.10 It's not hard to picture us keeping The Breakfast Club's interpretations of social constructs unnaturally alive, and a 12-year-old malcontent modelling himself on this outrageous character who's not only never forced to reckon with his behaviour, but finally rewarded for it.
Full disclosure that from about seventh to tenth grade I watched a trio of John Hughes movies in constant rotation: Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Some Kind of Wonderful (which he did not direct), and Uncle Buck. She's Having a Baby didn't speak to me, Sixteen Candles and Weird Science were ineffably stuck in their time, and Planes, Trains & Automobiles was too closely associated with Thanksgiving to be enjoyed year-round. As for The Breakfast Club? The tape got chewed up and that was that. Consequently, I saw it once when I was 11 or 12 and then bypassed it in my teen years, when it would've either meant the most to me or had the hardest time penetrating my defenses; I blew my opportunity to give it that crucial litmus test. In fact, I didn't revisit it until I was nearing the end of film school, and that viewing rekindled my dormant love of Hughes's '80s movies at a time when lousy Disney remakes and mean-spirited kiddie fare had made his name anathema among my disillusioned peers. It's possible I was doing a bit of hipster posturing (or practising vulgar auteurism, as liking non-canonical filmmakers was briefly, stupidly known), but Hughes, I remain convinced, never really got his due respect as the diligent, idiosyncratic writer-director he is, partly because the genres he called home--comedy and sub-categories thereof--reflexively discourage a deeper engagement.
I remember a fruitful conversation with the editor of my student films in which we related our favourite abstract 'sound' moments from Ferris Bueller's Day Off, à la the way Ferris dancing to the theme from "I Dream of Jeannie" ends with a cut to someone shouting the name of Ferris's sister ("Jeanie!"). It's as exhilarating as it is witty. Hughes was a hardcore record collector who loved that he willed a hit song into the world with "Don't You Forget About Me." He was a devoted maker of mix tapes (and iPod playlists, later in life) and commissioned limited editions of his soundtracks for members of his fan club. If he was a frustrated musician, it comes through in how internally rhythmic his movies are--the ones he directed, I mean. While favourite films often turn into symphonies on repeat viewings, Hughes's make that transformation faster than most. The Breakfast Club has no shortage of musical flourishes, most obviously when Bender bangs his head under the desk and the others create a cacophony to throw Vernon off the scent. It's a hack comic's joke but Hughes and Allen riff audaciously on "Shave and a Haircut" and punctuate it with Allison's feet falling to the floor like a rimshot. That belated rewatch of The Breakfast Club led me to notice or rediscover these auteur hallmarks, like the class-consciousness that pervades his work. Public school is one of the few times in life poverty and affluence share a roof, such that it can be like friggin' "Upstairs Downstairs". (The Breakfast Club's sobriquets give away which ones come from money.) Hughes was hardly the first filmmaker to acknowledge this, but he was one of the few to desegregate them for the length of a feature, as well as to acknowledge the middle-class.
And I doubt I minded Bender so much back in university, because I'd conflated the movie's R rating with artistic integrity and his abrasiveness fed into that romantic notion. Now, though--now I have asshole fatigue, thanks primarily to living in 2018. I don't want to unduly punish The Breakfast Club for failing to measure up to any newfound wokeness on my part, but I also don't want to do that '80s kid thing where I pretend something is timeless because I grew up with it. (We were the first generation aggressively catered to by advertisers. With our approval so hotly pursued, why would we ever change an opinion held in childhood?) The Breakfast Club presents a particular conundrum in that the movie itself challenges viewers not to grow up, lest their "heart die." I can't deny there's a passive-aggressive if accidental genius to that, just as I can't deny that this is a problematic film, one that is hemorrhaging relevance in a world where a kid bringing a flare gun to school would be cause for considerably more reproach than a glorified time-out and an all-white cast strikes a hostile note. Indeed, the staggering whiteness of Hughes's work makes me increasingly uncomfortable: Yes, he made films in the '80s--but not the 1880s. How are we to celebrate a man seeing past his age if that same man can't see past his race? The great thing about The Breakfast Club getting inducted into the Criterion Collection is that it reclaims the movie from both mindless detractors and the toxic pull of nostalgia by framing it as epochal--a "defining moment of cinema," per the company's manifesto.
Having said all that, I want to go out by going to the mat for the part of The Breakfast Club everybody always dreads, if the Rocky Horror-ish response to it at a '90s rep screening in Toronto is any indication: Allison's makeover. The set-up is that the day is winding down: the tears have been shed, the dances have been danced, and the teenage instinct to pair off is kicking in. Claire, the Princess, charms Brian into writing the assigned essay11 on behalf of the group. She's using him, they all are, but she's also sparing him the pain of being the inevitable odd man out. (He's too dorky, too needy, too young. Oh, Hall is so adorable in this.) Side-eyeing Andrew and Allison--who've privately bonded as far as their imaginations will let them--as they sit side by side in awkward silence, Claire gets an idea to force Cupid's hand. ("Don't do it!" those Toronto moviegoers shouted at the screen as Claire ushered Allison out of the room.) Watching The Breakfast Club for the first time in just over a decade, I focused more on Allison than I ever have before. Although Allison is the Basket Case, I'm not sure I'd describe any of her behaviour as neurotic per se. Maybe "Goth" wasn't in vogue yet. Maybe "Wallflower" sounded too Victorian and "Freak" too unchivalrous.
Truthfully, she's a trickster goddess, a designation that falls well outside the teen purview, even if the archetype itself does not. (One of the most sublime moments in the film has Bender stabbing a chair with a switchblade to terrorize his cellmates and Allison's arm swooping into the frame with Bugs Bunny swiftness to steal it, unnoticed.) An unreliable counterpoint to Brian's reliable narrator, she showcases Hughes's gift for depicting eccentricity without indicting or mocking a specific pathology. She's comic relief but maintains a mystique that is soulful and flattering to the black sheep in the crowd, for whom she functions as a Rorschach blot of sorts. In Allison, Hughes may have loosely templated Heathers' Veronica or Ghost World's Enid, yet for all her outward morbidity--Sheedy unsuccessfully auditioned for Sixteen Candles fresh from a head injury that left her with two black eyes, an aesthetic Hughes banked for Allison--she's tickled by her own weirdness and the reactions it gets, not weighed down by it like a millstone. In short, she's a vital member of the Breakfast Club because having her in the film breaks up the monotony of everyone else being normies. Which is precisely why devotees are disappointed by her eventual gentrification. I feel their pain; but Allison consenting to Claire's Pygmalioning of her is in keeping with everything we know about her yen for disruption.
There is, as always, more to a Hughes than meets the eye. Claire turns Allison into a preppy girl, taming her hair, streamlining her eye shadow, and magicking her a cute pink top and foofy white headband. When Andrew is thunderstruck by her new look, Allison is quick to throw Claire under the bus, but it doesn't take her long to grasp the power she now has over her male classmates. (Brian, too, is wowed by the transformation. She silently thanks him.) Allison hasn't disappeared with a paint job, she's discovered a new tool in her arsenal for fucking with people; for all we know, this "compulsive liar" (her words, after convincing her fellow detainees that being a nymphomaniac is what landed her in the clink with them) has taken a costume off rather than put one on. I look at this bashful seduction of Andrew as next-level trolling before there was a term for such a thing. The risk that the film is advocating seeking attention from the opposite sex as a patch for getting ignored by your parents--Allison confides to Andrew, uncontested, that she's invisible at home--is mitigated, I think, by the fact that Allison emerges from her cocoon Disney pretty as opposed to centrefold-ready, and by what a thorny piece of character development this is for Claire, a confessed coward when it comes to defying her snotty clique's rigid social standards. As much as Claire might want to play matchmaker, there's a hint of self-preservation in making Allison more externally presentable for her judgmental friends come that mythical Monday.12 I've cooled on The Breakfast Club but warmed to Allison 2.0. My heart lives to beat another day, I hope.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion presents The Breakfast Club on Blu-ray in a remarkable 1.85:1, 1080p transfer, sourced from a 4K scan of the original negative. Allegedly, the same master served as the basis for Universal's 30th Anniversary reissue in 2015. It certainly boasts none of the dreaded Universal peccadilloes (edge-enhancement, oversaturation), delivering a well-defined, fine-grain image and indeed a tonier one than that to which the majority of fans are surely accustomed. There's a depth of colour to Ringwald's red hair that simply wasn't there before on home video, and to Andrew's varsity blues. The library set--in reality a gymnasium--was so large it had to be flooded with light to expose properly, like one of Ken Adam's James Bond lairs, and Criterion's trademark deep contrasts, though threatening to crush blacks, pre-empt the flat, televisual gleam this typically engenders. The Breakfast Club's soundtrack comes in two flavours: lossless 1.0 and 5.1 DTS-HD MA. The centre-channel option brought back VHS memories while sounding infinitely crisper and fuller than I remembered. My unorthodox advice is to switch to 5.1 for the songs to hear stereo separation but otherwise play it in mono. Jason Hillhouse, who produced the companion featurette "Sincerely Yours" (see below), moderates a feature-length commentary with Nelson and Hall that first appeared in 2008, although Criterion has annotated it like one of their own with titled chapter stops. I listened to this last when auditing the platter and was pleasantly surprised by the lack of informational overlap. At the outset, Dede Allen's credit sparks a refreshing dialogue about looping (Allen was a proponent of ADR not merely for cleaning up the soundtrack but for expository purposes, too), and the pair gratifyingly expands on a subject that comes up elsewhere in a discussion of the rehearsal process, believing it to be invaluable in this movie's case as well as an undervalued practice in general. The mood of this yakker is upbeat but by no means whitewashed.
The real coup of this Criterion release is that it unearths some 51 minutes and 39 seconds of deleted and extended scenes, previously unseen by anyone outside of Hughes's inner circle. Presented pillarboxed at 1.33:1, they come from a variety of SD sources that vary in quality but are never significantly worse-looking than the VHS tape you grew up with, save the "Property of MCA" watermark. (Tape hiss is, unfortunately, prevalent.) The first elision is the funniest and most trying, as Hughes captures the characters filing into the library one at a time in a manner that begs a chirpy sitcom theme and an "and Ally Sheedy as Allison" credit as Sheedy enters last and briefly pauses to gasp in the camera's direction. (Some of this material is better labelled "outtakes.") Allison arguably suffered the unkindest cuts. Her silence is portrayed more as an act of defiance than of reserve, especially in a sequence where she shuts down Claire's attempts to bond with her in the girls' bathroom. She eats chips on the toilet; Claire is not cool with that, nor with Allison's subsequent attempt to mollify her by washing a chip first. At another point, she uses the purloined switchblade to ransack a student's locker, to Andrew's dismay. The word I'd use to describe Allison's behaviour in these is feral. And we discover that her makeover wasn't intentionally saved for a big Elephant Man reveal. When Claire is finished, Hughes uneventfully cuts to Allison's face, and the two exchange the following dialogue:
"Claire, I can't go out there."
"What if they laugh at me?"
"They won't laugh."
Then Claire hugs her reassuringly. It's at once sweet and reductive. Claire looks too benevolent, Allison too fragile.
These are sensitive edits, not butchery; I wish that Hughes and Allen were around to defend them. I personally loved the longer version of Carl's answer to Bender's sarcastic inquiry about how one becomes a janitor, but it's deeply cynical for an up-with-teens flick. And for what it's worth, this footage dump can't be everything that didn't make it in, seeing as how it doesn't shed any light on those behind-the-scenes glimpses of Brian in an astronaut uniform. Evidently they were from a fantasy sequence that Allison was to have while everybody slept.
A compilation of interviews new and vintage begins with Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy reflecting on The Breakfast Club (and Hughes) circa 2017, in alternating talking-heads (19 mins., HD). After repeating an oft-disputed claim that Hughes originally wanted her to play Allison13, Ringwald realizes how unlike Hughes she was in that she's repressed her teen years whereas he wallowed in them. Sheedy takes credit for the Bowie quote at the head of the film and touches on the mutual appreciation society between her and editor Allen. The requisite "what happened on Monday?" question falls to Ringwald, who says her answer depends on her mood but offers a few speculations regardless, one of which hadn't crossed my mind: that paranoia could get the best of the fivesome since they shared such intimate secrets. Sheedy additionally materializes in one of four archival interviews, ranging from 9 to 16 minutes apiece, that were videotaped on set in 1984; Nelson, Gleason, and studio teacher Irene Brafstein (!) are the other three subjects. Having not quite shaken the residue of Allison, Sheedy speaks of forming a sisterly bond with co-star Ringwald but tantalizingly adds that she (Ringwald) is an enigma in certain respects. Nelson expresses appreciation for the latitude Hughes has granted him and his co-stars, while Gleason--charming and easygoing in a plaid shirt--has only kind words for the young auteur. (He likes that Hughes laughs.) The appeal of the Brafstein segment is limited but it's to the benefit of posterity that this account of what it's like to be the real-life version of Paul Rust's character from "Love" has been digitally preserved. From this same period comes a bifurcated "Today Show" clip (10 mins.) in which Jane Pauley talks first with Ringwald and a clean-cut Nelson, second with Sheedy, Nelson, and Hall. Nelson makes no bones about his prep-school education when Pauley brings it up but says he spent a couple weeks of enrolled in a public high school as Bender, where he was met with a condescension that fuelled his portrayal. (Could it be that they looked down on him because he was a 24-year-old taking trigonometry?) With Sheedy, Estevez, and Hall, Pauley cites the fashionable cliché that The Breakfast Club is The Big Chill for teenagers, a comparison "Michael" gently rebuffs. She also makes Sheedy visibly uncomfortable by reassuring her she had the goods to play Claire, i.e., the pretty one.
This disc is nothing short of a time capsule, lovingly curated with the assistance of the Hughes family. It reminds me in its scope of those elegant Taschen books on Kubrick, Bergman, et al, nowhere more so than in "Describe the Ruckus" (13 mins., HD), a virtual tour of the copious notes Hughes jotted down circa The Breakfast Club. His handwritten musings on everything from how to be more cinematic with such a theatrical conceit to the appropriate colour-coding for each individual character are read aloud by Nelson and illustrated by relevant clips from the film. Crafty but electric, the piece is so evocative of late-night brainstorming sessions in its caffeinated pacing that it practically demands a second viewing on the spot just to catch everything. Hughes himself is resurrected as a disembodied voice in a lengthy seminar he delivered at the AFI in 1985 (48 mins.) and in a radio interview from 1999, his last year in the limelight. (That was when he participated in career retrospectives for PREMIERE and ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY and recorded an audio commentary for Ferris Bueller's Day Off that has vanished from circulation.) In his nasally baritone Hughes regales the AFI crowd with verbal snapshots of an already-momentous career; he starts taking questions from the audience at around the 18-minute mark, after exhausting a batch of Breakfast Club anecdotes. It's great to hear him ruminate on his collaboration with Allen, who proved to him that "story is character," but the whole thing is a fraction as revelatory as "Describe the Ruckus". Hughes's appearance on the Chicago-based "Sound Opinions" places him in a studio with Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot of rival newspapers the CHICAGO SUN TIMES and the CHICAGO TRIBUNE, respectively. The hosts probe Hughes for insights into the eclectic taste he brought to his soundtracks, with Pretty in Pink exerting a strange gravitational pull on the conversation. He credits the trendsetting Chicago record emporium Wax Trax!--though not key collaborators like Keith Forsey and Tarquin Gotch--with keeping him away from obvious needle-drops when he was making teen movies and laments that places like Best Buy have depersonalized the experience of buying music. This had me raising my fist, Bender-style, in solidarity, before it dawned on me that the resurgence of vinyl has sent people scurrying back to the mom-and-pop shops. Circle of life, man.
Last among the audio-based features is a segment from "This American Life" (16 mins.) featuring Ringwald. Despite that the topic is raising children as a former teen idol, Ringwald's authority on the subject seems to take a backseat to host Ira Glass's conjecture. "The Electronic Press Kit" (24 mins.), raided for its B-roll by Criterion's content producers, is a glorified infomercial from 1985 whose slickness is sometimes undercut by the rough edges of the relatively unseasoned cast and crew. When Emilio Estevez credits his orderly ways to a past life in the military, is he speaking for himself or for Andrew? Who knows. The cast bios here mention some deep cuts, for what it's worth, like the children's book Sheedy wrote and published in 1977 (She Was Nice to Mice), at the ripe old age of 12. This is, by the by, our only opportunity to hear directly from Dede Allen, seated in front of a great big gorgeous Steenbeck; that the editor gets a profile all to herself--as part of an EPK, no less--underscores how integral she was to the movie's outcome. She talks about how editing is sometimes making sure that two performers going in different directions arrive at the same place. Producer Michelle Manning, maddeningly uncredited (it took me forever to match her face to an online publicity still), chimes in, too, calling Hughes "the Norman Rockwell of movies." "He is in touch with the public," she clarifies. "He creates an environment and a world that is John Hughes Land, which doesn't exist really anywhere else and doesn't even exist in America but that everyone can identify with." That's an incredibly sharp and prescient observation for 1985. Returning from prior DVD and Blu-ray editions of The Breakfast Club is "Sincerely Yours" (51 mins., 16x9 SD), a 2008 retrospective that rounds up the cast (including Kapelos though minus Ringwald, Estevez, and Gleason) and storied admirers for what amounts to a Tom Sawyer funeral for Hughes, who was still very much alive. (You can tell it's 2008 because Diablo Cody and Marcos Siega show up.) Amy Heckerling, sadly, speaks in generalities as a fellow specialist in the teen genre rather than from first-hand experience as the director of National Lampoon's European Vacation, a troubled production co-scripted by Hughes.
Rounding out the video-based supplements is the theatrical trailer. It goes unspoken but an apathetic (if not antipathetic) Universal, saddled with the picture following a regime change, subcontracted this trailer to future Pretty in Pink helmer Howard Deutch and his New York marketing firm. Having no idea they were sitting on a sleeper hit, the studio meanwhile threw responsibility for the poster back on former ad man Hughes, who hired the great Annie Leibovitz to stage a cast photo and gave her only one instruction: don't let them smile. If you're wondering why The Breakfast Club's PR was unusually strong, there's your answer. (This same studio regime would later attempt to bury Brazil and be ousted over Howard the Duck.) I do think it's odd that Criterion didn't devote a feature to Leibovitz--or to Simple Minds, for that matter--but that is surely nitpicking, as neither is wanting for documentation. In the accompanying booklet essay, David Kamp, who wrote that wonderful piece on Hughes's notebooks for VANITY FAIR, traces a line from American Graffiti to "Broad City" that intersects with The Breakfast Club and grapples with Hughes's Baby Boomer status. It's what you should be reading instead of this--though not before you read that absolutely essential NEW YORKER article by Molly Ringwald in which she filters her conflicted feelings about former mentor Hughes through the prism of the #MeToo movement. It was published too late in the writing of this review for me to sufficiently address it.
1 The title, by Hughes's own admission, was a cheat--a "breakfast club" actually refers to students serving early-morning detention.
2 It's interesting to try to extrapolate Brian's home life from his kid sister's presence in the car. Most likely she had to tag along because there was no one else at home to watch her, suggesting that she and Brian are being raised by a single-mother. Does Brian feel any pressure to be the "man of the house"? If so, it's only natural that his response to failing shop--a class generally seen as the male counterpart to home-ec--is a suicidal one. I cringe when his mother and sister admonish him to spend detention "studying," as I sense they're taking pleasure in castrating him now that his grades are inextricably linked with his masculinity.
3 Sound short? Fix your eyes on something in the room you're in and count your one-Mississippis to 26 and you will feel the weight of that time in cinematic terms.
4 A genuinely provocative film from a woman director. Let's talk about it someday.
5 But, y'know, pointing the camera between Claire's legs at her underwear isn't not prurient. (Ringwald had a body-double.) It's in fact a discomfiting precursor to the notorious beaver shot in Larry Clark's controversial Bully.
6 The irony of Sheedy and Ringwald protesting Hughes's chauvinism is that it led to the firing of numerous actresses slated to appear in the film.
7 The fountainhead of Cusack's "complicated relationship with the movies of John Hughes"?
8 "John," you might not know, was the name of Hughes's father as well.
9 Bullies insulate themselves; it's their first line of defense. (See: Steve Bannon.)
10 Well, maybe not "neo-maxi-zum-dweeby," one of Bender's nicknames for Brian.
11 Some essay, by the way: 100 words, give or take.
12 Allison asks her, point blank, "What if I came up to you?" Claire acknowledges she'd have trouble facing her in front of her friends.
13 In said oral history, from the December 1999 issue of PREMIERE, Hughes says Ringwald may have thought he wanted her for Allison but was mistaken; Burch says Ringwald tried to talk her and Hughes into letting her swap roles with Sheedy; and Sheedy says that halfway through the shoot Ringwald confessed to her that she had had designs on Sheedy's part but was glad things hadn't worked out in her favour. As for Ringwald, she maintains she insisted on playing Claire (or "Cathy" as she was called in the script).