Every morning during homeroom, we were forced to listen to the class president announce the latest National Merit scholars over the PA system. I’d then proclaim to my classmates that, “I’m thinking of trying out for a scholarship,” with special emphasis on the word “ship”. Our beatnik photography teacher would yell at me to “shush”, but not before I got a good laugh from my peers. Yes, I was that asshole. Maybe I just felt jealous that my SAT scores actually went down from my PSAT marks. Thanks a lot Princeton Review. But, I was paying homage to a classic scene from The Breakfast Club.
Another film both directed and written by the 1980’s premier voice of teen angst, John Hughes, The Breakfast Club is an iconic movie that breaks down high school stereotypes. It centers around five students who have been assigned Saturday detention and are forced to spend nine hours with one another in their high school library. Each student serves as a representation of a typical high school clique. The film is bookended by a narration from Anthony Michael Hall’s character, Brian, where he reads an essay he wrote to the principal on behalf of the five students. He states, “You see us how you want to see us. A brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.” This is how the five students also saw one another, when they walked into detention at seven in the morning on a cold Chicago suburban day. But during detention, they open up to one another and realize they all have something in common. Deep down they are all insecure and naive. Each one of them has issues with their parents and they all feel a tremendous amount of pressure from their families and friends to be the very best. They leave detention as empathetic individuals and as friends, who actually may say hello to one another in the halls on Monday morning.
The Breakfast Club is nicely sandwiched in between 16 Candles and Pretty in Pink in John Hughes’ filmography. Hughes had a distinct voice, and he gave this voice to teenagers in his films by creating layered characters. Many screenwriters have come after him, but none have been able to do what Hughes accomplished, with the possible exceptions of Amy Heckerling, who wrote Clueless, and Judd Apatow, who wrote for the TV series, Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared.
The casting for The Breakfast Club is spot on. It is an ensemble film, and therefore each actor needs to play off the other in order for the film to work like a well-oiled machine. With the comedic chemistry already tested between Anthony Michael Hall and Molly Ringwald in 16 Candles, Hughes added three more Brat Pack actors to the mix. Casting Emilio Estevez as the high school state wrestling champion, Andrew Clark, Ally Sheedy as the loner dark misfit, Allison Reynolds, and Judd Nelson as the doping criminal bad boy, John Bender, was a stroke of genius. I couldn’t imagine anyone else in these roles. Each of the actors embodied their character one-hundred percent by using facial expressions, mannerisms, and dialogue in a unique way.
Molly Ringwald, as the prom princess Claire Standish, lights up the screen in every scene where she has a close-up. Anthony Michael Hall, as nerdy Brian Johnson, reminds me of every Mathlete I’d ever run into in high school. Judd Nelson had his work cut out for him with his character, John Bender. Bender could be aggravating, comical, angry, and soulful all in one scene. This type of constant yin-yang is not for the weak actor. Nelson is successful in getting the viewer to both despise him and feel sorry for him, depending on the scene. There is also something about his penetrating stare, which makes male audience members want to hang out with him and female audience members want to make-out with him. Everyone loves a bad boy, who below the surface has an army of demons just waiting to be excavated.
I wouldn’t rate The Breakfast Club as a straight comedy. It has a lot more heart than other comedies from the same era, and I couldn’t even try to compare it to a film like Caddyshack. By today’s standards, it would most likely be classified as a dramedy. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t laugh out loud funny scenes, in which I start laughing and can barely catch my breath. Whether it was the first time I saw this film, on a fuzzy VHS from the local mom and pop video store at my best friend’s 8th birthday sleepover party, or the last time, when I downloaded it from VUDU (Not available on Netflix. Get with the program!) in SD (HD is only a dollar more, but I am that cheap) on my 42” flat screen, there are eight standout scenes where I laugh and laugh hard. Yes, eight!
- Principal Richard Vernon, acted by Paul Gleason, comes into the library and tells the five students about their 1,000 word essay assignment. He asks them if they have any questions and Bender replies, “Yeah. Does Barry Manilow know you raid his wardrobe?”
- Bender decides they can’t have any fun with the library door open, so he pulls the screw out of the door and it slams shut. Vernon catches on and asks Andrew to help him prop open the door. He puts a folding metal chair against the door, but the door slams shut, sending it sliding across the floor. Then he has Andrew place a magazine display rack in front of the door, which does hold the door open. But Andrew decides to try and go back into the room and trips over the rack, sending magazines flying everywhere.
- Early in the morning, Hughes creates a montage of what each student is doing to pass the time. Bender lights his shoe on fire, Allison ties a piece of string around her finger cutting off her circulation, Andrew makes a field goal with a paper triangle football, and Brian tries to keep from pissing on himself. Then the camera shows the library clock and it’s only 7:45 A.M.
- During a fight between Andrew and Bender, Bender pulls a knife and tells Andrew to back-off. He then stabs it into a library chair and continues to make a speech. In the very top right of the frame, one can see Allison pull the knife out of the chair and steal it for herself. She also does this with Bender’s Master Lock on his locker, later in the film.
- Hughes uses the lunch scene to further show the differences between each of the student stereotypes. Andrew pulls three sandwiches, a bag of chips, a bag of cookies, a quart of milk, and an apple and banana out of his brown grocery store-sized bag. Claire whips out a tray of sushi, chopsticks and soy sauce included. Allison pulls her bologna off her sandwich, throwing it onto a sculpture, and pours sugar from Pixie Stix onto two slices of buttered white bread. She then puts Cap’n Crunch cereal on her bread and begins to crunch away. I still have never tried this combination, but it could be good at three in the morning after a night of drinking Tequila shots. Brian has a thermos of soup, an apple juice box, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the crusts cut off. Bender asks him, “Did your mom marry Mr. Rogers?”
- After roaming the halls, looking for Bender’s locker, the kids are trapped and about to be caught by Vernon. But Bender steps up and creates inteference by running through the halls screaming, “I wanna be an Airborne Ranger.” He creates the necessary distraction for the remaining four to get back to the library, before Vernon figures out they’ve left. Bender eventually leads Vernon into the gym, where he is playing basketball. When Vernon asks him what the hell he is doing, he then famously responds, “I’m thinking of trying out for a scholarship.”
- Vernon has had enough of Bender’s disobedience and he decides to lock him in a janitor’s closet. Teacher abuse! The next scene shows Bender crawling above the dropped ceiling, on his way back to the library. He starts telling a joke to himself that starts, “A naked blond walks into a bar, with a poodle under one arm and a two foot salami under the other. She lays the poodle on the table and…” He doesn’t get to finish his joke, because the dropped ceiling gives out, sending him crashing down onto the library stairs. Instead he screams, “Oh, shit.” After he brushes himself off, he walks back into the library to a stunned detention audience and says, “Forgot my pencil.” I’ve still always wondered how the rest of that joke goes, but urban legend claims there never was a punchline.
- Vernon hears the loud noise and races into the library, forcing Bender to hide underneath Claire and
Andrew’s table. Vernon asks what the noise was. Everyone plays dumb and asks Vernon what noise? He then says he heard a ruckus. To which they ask, “What ruckus?” and “Can you describe the ruckus, sir?” The scene culminates with a lot of banging on the table and coughing to cover up the fact that Bender is underneath the table and eyeing Claire’s crotch. It’s all rather silly, but will result in hysterical laughter.
I’ll forgive Hughes for making the last scene of the film a freeze-frame on Bender as he throws his right arm into the air, because he just kissed Ringwald’s character, Claire, and she gave him one of her diamond earrings. Everything else in the film is flawless. Under Hughes’ direction, the movement from funny to serious throughout this film is so fluid, it is like Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center. When you hear Simple Minds’ song, “Don’t You” play on your car radio, you automatically sing back “forget about me” and envision The Breakfast Club, because it’s forever cemented in popular culture.
Take a Drink: every time one of the five detention servers says, “Vernon.”
Take a Drink: every time Principal Vernon says, “Bender.”
Take a Drink: every time Judd Nelson’s nostrils flare.
Take a Drink: every time Molly Ringwald’s character, Claire, rolls her eyes.
Do a Shot: every time someone gives someone else the finger or says, “F—k you.”