John Hughes saved my (teenage) life

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The king of 'brat-pack' comedies died last week. His films were considered lightweight by the critics. Yet for a remarkable number of people they were an unforgettable rite of passage . . .

He helped me make peace with myself

By Jo Ellison

Some people battle their adolescence on the sports field. Others resist their hormonal urges by embracing academia. Still others embrace other adolescents – and become little adolescent parents at 16. I hit mine with John Hughes.

How else was a 13-year-old incarcerated in Dubai in the mid-1980s supposed to cope? Well, not exactly incarcerated, maybe, but moved there against my will from the suburban Eden that was South Croydon by parents who thought a spell in the Middle East would build our characters and give us "new perspectives" on life. Given that the only perspective I was interested in was the radial diameter of my navel, I doubt I needed to sit in a desert to admire it. But still we went and, naturally, I hated it. Dubai was golden, affluent, sunny and full of happy people. I hated sunny. And I hated happy.

To my mind Dubai was a cultureless hole, which offered only two legitimate sources of entertainment. The first was a can of fly spray, known locally as Piff Paff, whose main ingredient was DDT and which, when left on an open fire far, far away from any inhabited dwellings, could be detonated to insanely dangerous effect. The other was pirate video. And so it was that while my school friends (I use this word liberally because, actually, I only had one friend, which was more of a concern for my teachers, my parents and my peers than for me – although I hardly relished being voted "most likely to be a lesbian" in the end of year schoolbook) went windsurfing and discussed the global relevance of Europe's "The Final Countdown", I sat in a dark room and watched films. And most of the films I watched were John Hughes films.

John Hughes taught me it was OK to feel hateful. He understood all my neurotic angst and gave me the licence to inflict it on everyone around me – my parents, my brother, my cat. He made me laugh – at myself and at some really funny lines. He picked up on my pathetic, tortuous, silent, interminable crush on my best friend's brother (BFB) and gave me hope that one day, one day, BFB would realise what a shit-hot prospect I was. More than that, Hughes recognised that peering out from under a curtain of bathroom-sink-dyed hair while wearing a shapeless ankle-grazing black sack in midsummer was a valid form of self-expression. And, most importantly, he understood the sheer tragicomedy of being a teenager.

More than anyone else, it seemed, John Hughes peered deep into my soul and gave voice to the drama of my adolescence. Not literally, of course; I should have been so lucky as to sit a detention with Judd Nelson, or to be in a position to scowl at Eric Stoltz over a soft-top convertible, or – God knows – to fashion a pink prom dress out of toilet-roll holder and then look even vaguely as presentable in it as Molly Ringwald. But no one else captured so clearly what I was feeling. Hughes understood my teenage mind. He appreciated my hang-ups and my oddities. He took on my heartache. He got me.

Even better, he made outsiders the stars of the show. He gave them sex appeal. Just look at any Hughes film and it's always the angsty, wildly solitary kids that get the best lines – and looks. Ally "black clad kleptomaniac" Sheedy in The Breakfast Club? Hot. Emilio "popular all-rounder in gonad-burstingly tight denims" Estevez in the same? Not. Matthew Broderick as Ferris "bouffant-haired smart-arse with arrogance issues" Bueller? Not. Jennifer Grey as embittered, bitchy sister Jeanie? Hot. And though I'm not suggesting I was, in any way, anything so glamorous as an outsider at school, I could at least take comfort in the fact that my differences might not be the worst thing. After all, if Hughes thought that freaky weirdos could be cool, and kind of hot, then what better to be than a freaky weirdo?

It's possible, of course, that Hughes actually thought teenagers were imbecilic cretins, wallowing in shamefully self-indulgent ways. But if he did, he didn't let it show. Rather than dismiss our teenage twaddle, he listened to what we cared about – ourselves, mainly – and gave us the happy endings we so desperately needed. The boy would get the girl, the girl would get the make-over, the loser would become the funny guy, and everyone would learn to appreciate each other's idiosyncrasies and sartorial quirks in a profound and meaningful way.

All would be delivered in a script dripping with a self-awareness so excruciating that you could barely watch at times, but his honesty and articulacy were a revelation. How I wished I could have plucked one of Hughes's pithy aphorisms from my mouth the day BFB noticed I had had the orthodontic scaffolding blighting my face for 18 months removed and said: "Tombstone mouth." I just whimpered down the corridor, cowed by my canines. Hughes's characters would have fought back with some devastating verbal blow. They were sharp. They were uncowed. They were inspirational.

Everyone has his or her favourite Hughes movie. For some it's Ferris Bueller and his infamous Day Off. Others hold a candle for his Sixteen Candles – an early Hughes/Ringwald masterwork notable for a small cameo by John Cusack. Many adore poor-girl-gets-rich-guy Pretty in Pink – though a great many of those simply adore James Spader, whose presence in it must qualify as being life-changing if only in that, having seen it, no one, but no one, will ever measure up to that degree of cruel perfection. And then there are the millions of people who love his comedies: the brilliant Planes, Trains & Automobiles, maybe, or the idiotic genius of the National Lampoon Vacation series.

Me? I love The Breakfast Club. I could try and be avant-garde and pretend I love Some Kind of Wonderful (which of course I do – and what with my alleged lesbian tendencies, I should really dig Mary Stuart Masterson in those tomboy leathers). But I don't. I love The Breakfast Club. I love Judd Nelson telling the principal to "Eat ... my ... shorts". I love Molly Ringwald in that brown sheath of a pencil skirt with those knee-high boots that I've vaguely coveted ever since, and a mouth that pouts with promiscuous promise. I love Anthony Michael Hall and his paper-bagged lunch with "all the food groups represented". And I love the sound of Jim Kerr vowel-mangling his way through "Don't You Forget About Me" as Richard Vernon reads the detention essay describing The Breakfast Club "in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions ... " The film was as much a part of my teenage self as pimples and puppy fat. And without it I don't know what I would have done. Maybe I would have got out and done some windsurfing. Or made loads of friends and been nominated "most fanciable girl" in my class.

Instead, with John Hughes's help, I made peace with myself. Yes. Life was kind of frustrating, and crap, and unfulfilling, and I wished I could be more attractive and that, please God, one day, BFB would throw me the merest hint that he thought even fractionally about me. At all. Ever. But, so what? John Hughes taught me that that's what being a teenager was all about. Feeling crap. And unrequited. And charged with emotion. And desperate. And lonely. And that one day it would all be over and I'd miss it like hell.

Jo Ellison is features editor of British 'Vogue'

Life-changing...

By Katy Guest

As I have never been a 15-year-old boy, there are not many movies I can recite by heart. I recall not a word of Life of Brian. The only bits of Blackadder I remember are about Suffragettes. But, happily, I saw the 1985 movie The Breakfast Club at a formative time, and half a lifetime on I can still regurgitate it from the start.

"Screws fall out all the time," you see: "the world's an imperfect place." "I wanna be just like you. I figure all I need is a lobotomy and some tights." "Well, Brian, this is a very nutritious lunch. All the food groups are represented." As well as being a challenging insight into life's outsiders, The Breakfast Club still cracks me up. It also makes me cry, but then so do commercials for washing powder.

For a grown-up, "we're all pretty bizarre; some of us are just better at hiding it" is old news. In your early teens, it's a revelation. "When you grow up, your heart dies", it's true. But if this movie doesn't reawaken a sense of teenage injustice, fighting spirit and an unshakeable certainty you will never sell out, you are officially dead.

Pretty in Pink was a poor follow-up to this life-changing film. Weird Science was just embarrassing. But for The Breakfast Club, we must raise a soda to John Hughes, and his genius.

Ultimate fantasy

By Carola Long

Every day of secondary school I would imagine a parallel universe in which I would bunk lessons and do something cool instead. Unfortunately, the reality was more like aimlessly hanging out in the park, beset by anxious visions of the maths teacher emerging angrily from the bushes to bestow detentions (not dissimilar to Ferris Bueller's apoplectic teacher, Mr Rooney).

However, once I'd seen Ferris Bueller's Day Off (on VHS, this being the early Nineties) the ultimate school-skipping fantasy took shape. I would be picked up from school by an effortlessly cool, authority-mocking, high-top-trainer-wearing, strangely cute Matthew Broderick pretending to be my dad, followed by lip synching to "Twist and Shout" on a parade float: all punctuated by an arch to-camera commentary. And nothing less would do.

My brother rented it for me

By Rob Sharp

It always looked enticing: the plastic laminate peeling away from the box-front; that lightning-style typography; the twin role-models of a pre-bulking-up Anthony Michael Hall and the lisping, better-looking Ilan Mitchell-Smith. The other thing that lured my 10-year-old self to Weird Science was the fact that it was a "15". I was intellectually capable of grasping how Chet, Wyatt's older brother, played wonderfully by Bill Paxton (who has never grasped a role as well since), was a bit of a bully, but the fact that Kelly LeBrok used the phrase "candlewax on the nipples" was inappropriately mild for my Schwarzenegger-hardened pre-pubescent bloodlust. So I had to get my brother to rent it for me. In many ways it was the first time we really bonded. He and his mates had been raving about it for months; the reason was startling: it was an imaginatively witty, genre-spanning adventure which demolished the problems surrounding that famous source of vexation for spotty lads – getting your first lady friend. Maybe for him, at 17, the adult themes would have been more relevant; I was just into the monsters, biker gangs and the fail-safe squeaky voice Hall sometimes relied upon to be funny. My bro joked about how he'd once watched it with a friend while they both wore bras on their heads; to this day I don't know if he was being serious.

Big and brave

By David Randall

One huge thing about John Hughes's films made them a significant part of my family's life when my boys were young: John Candy. At the centre of two of them in particular – Uncle Buck and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles – was his great beaming face and awkward body. We wore out two videos of each movie. Candy, you could say, was the comfort food of our winter evenings. So repeatedly did we lap them up that even today, a decade or more after the last of these videos was worn threadbare from constant use, we can go into Planes, Trains, and Automobiles mode, and engage in fencing matches with chunks of its dialogue. The one playing Candy always gets the punch-line.

One of my sons was overweight, and he looked upon Candy as a source not only of endless giggles but also of inspiration. "When I was young, I saw a lot of myself in him," he says now. "He was my hero. My ambition was to be as good-natured as him." Witnesses other than his father say that Guy succeeded – thanks, in part, to the movies of John Hughes and Candy, his wonderful leading man.

I dyed my hair in homage to Molly Ringwald

By Lorraine Candy

I fell in love with Molly Ringwald when I was 16 – she was cool in a classic way, not a Madonna-style rebel. Molly had an Audrey Hepburn feel about her from a fashion point of view, but she was kooky looking, so she was easier to identify with. I briefly dyed my short blonde hair red in homage. (It went a pale pink and really didn't suit me.) I went to a comprehensive in a small Cornish town, so the high school in The Breakfast Club seemed unbelievably glamorous. The film spawned a huge following among teenagers in the town, and a collective humming of that Simple Minds song on the soundtrack. That song helped define a new stage of my life as I came to London to train as a journalist just before I was 17.

Lorraine Candy is editor-in-chief of "Elle".

Watching felt comforting

By Ben Walsh

For many people of a certain age (mine), films like The Breakfast Club were a huge part of growing up in the garish, odd Eighties. Being a clumsy 15-year-old and watching these other-worldly, verbose American 15-year-olds emote in the detention room felt, at the time, unusually intense and, well, comforting. The brash brat-packers may not have looked or talked like your average suburban English teenager, but the archetypes held true even (especially?) in Surrey – the prissy princess (Molly Ringwald), the over-sensitive geek (Michael Anthony Hall), the lonely, dandruff-infested girl (Ally Sheedy), the good-looking malcontent (Judd Nelson) and the sports jock (Emilio Estevez). None of these actors would be so memorable again. Here, as in John Keats's Ode to a Grecian Urn, they are suspended in time – "for ever panting and for ever young". But there was courage, too, from Hughes in tackling teenage depression. These are not films you easily forget.

Ferris Bueller is a rite of passage

By Madeleine North

I recently discovered that a friend went through her teenage years oblivious to Ferris Bueller's Day Off. As a result, she has reached her mid-thirties having not witnessed any of the following: timid Cameron totalling his dad's beloved Ferrari; the economics teacher forlornly droning Bueller's name; Charlie Sheen chatting up Jennifer Grey in a police station; Cameron telling himself he's dying and Ferris calling him up to say: "You're not dying, you just can't think of anything good to do"; Ferris getting the whole of Chicago to twist and shout.

Put it this way: it would have been far less shocking had my friend announced she was secretly married to three men. Ferris Bueller is a rite of passage for our generation and to have lived through her impressionable years without watching it at least once seems a woeful omission. While I was loath to suggest some kind of personality defect, there was nevertheless urgent talk about sorting out a Ferris Bueller Night to rectify past cultural wrongs.

My guilty crush

By Lucy Porter

No teenage slumber party was complete without a John Hughes movie. Pretty in Pink was our favourite. All my mates fancied the guy that you're meant to fancy, Andrew McCarthy's character, Blane. But I liked Harry Dean Stanton. I still do – he's my guilty secret crush. John Hughes was brilliant for creating those slightly odd, unconventional characters. I was a weird indie kid at high school so I could relate to many of them, especially Ally Sheedy's character in The Breakfast Club. She was so kooky and I liked to think I was as eccentric as her.

Lucy Porter is a comedian and script-writer.

John Hughes: The Playlist

1. Pretty in Pink

The Psychedelic Furs (Pretty in Pink)

2. Bad

Big Audio Dynamite (Ferris Bueller's Day Off)

3. Don't You Forget About Me

Simple Minds (The Breakfast Club)

4. If You Were Here

The Thompson Twins (Sixteen Candles)

5. Shellshock

New Order (Pretty in Pink)

6. Eighties

Killing Joke (Weird Science)

7. If You Leave

Orchestral Manoeuvres in The Dark (Pretty in Pink)

8. Oh Yeah

Yello (Ferris Bueller's Day Off)

9. Haunted When the Minutes Drag

Love and Rockets (She's Having A Baby)

10. Bring on the Dancing Horses

Echo and the Bunnymen (Pretty in Pink)

11. Danke Schoen

Wayne Newton (Ferris Bueller's Day Off)

12. True

Spandau Ballet (Sixteen Candles)

To download the John Hughes playlist on Spotify, go to http://tinyurl.com/noh3xq

Competition: Win a John Hughes box set

To win one of five box sets of John Hughes's High School movies, answer the following question correctly at www.independent.co.uk/promo-competitions and input the code FILM

In 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off', what is the name of the 'sausage king of Chicago'?

Terms & Conditions: Entries must be received by 17 August 2009. Winners will be picked at random from all correct entries received and notified by telephone or email on 19 August 2009. The Editor's decision is final. Only one entry per household. See www.independent.co.uk/legal for standard Independent terms and conditions.

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