In memory of my greatest inspiration and icon.
Highland Park, Illinois: to the outsider, it’s a spec on a map, suburbia, a wealthy community of people striving to get their kids into the best colleges; to the John Hughes fanatic, it’s a land of nostalgia, a place of intrigue, and the home of Ferris Bueller.
In the 1980’s, mastermind director, John Hughes, had a vision to create films that stemmed from his experiences with growing up in the suburbs of Chicago: ivy covered homes dripping with money, infested by yuppies. Hughes’ goal was to paint the picture of what life was really like there, life beyond the glossy American image. He wanted to capture the invisible lines in the school cafeteria that divided the masses of pom-poms and football jerseys from the calculators and pocket protectors. For Hughes, the stories he envisioned were born from the sprouting social hierarchy in any locker filled hallway.
My brother, Michael Hoffman, a director in L.A., attended Highland Park High School in the mid-‘80s: “The main pressure by peers was to be popular. Main pressure from parents was to get good grades. Having your “group,” was vital, even if you were a part of the geek-clique, you were still a part of a clique. You just didn’t want to get caught alone in the jock-hallway too often, if one of the jocks was in a bad mood.” Hughes’ films addressed all sides – you empathized in the jocks, you felt for the nerds standing against the wall at the school dance. You could see it in their eyes – no one felt like they deserved what they had, but it was easier to let the stereotypes do the talking.
Underneath the upbeat new wave music faintly playing in the background, were real conversations. People were communicating something bigger than Aqua Net hair. After the football games had been won and a prom queen had been crowned, real issues had to be dealt with when the sun came up again. I asked my brother, Michael, about the real problems. “You were striving to be the best from the start. Best actor, best in your class, best athlete, quickest to finish your biology experiment so you could get extra credit…” This sentiment reminded me of one Hughes’ film in particular.
Hughes’ movies were detailed visions of post-adolescent life: school dances, crushes, rebellion, wild parties, and petty fights. In one of his films, he put all of these pieces together in one room, for Saturday detention. “Saturday, March 24, 1984. Shermer High School, Shermer, Illinois, 60062.” The Breakfast Club stirred up significant ideas in young America when it was released. The characters opened up to each other about suicide, peer pressure, abusive parents, cliques in school, and the yearning to just be understood. There is something to be said about this film, different from the others. Perhaps it is the fact that each character was on their own in this library, with no sidekicks of their kind to aid them, a single representation of their kind, suddenly face to face with their skeletons for the first time.
Aside from The Breakfast Club, Hughes made other cult classics such as my favorite movie of all time — Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Some Kind of Wonderful, and Pretty in Pink. In each way, all of his movies were centered around those private moments with characters: Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) in Sixteen Candles crying in the hallway against the brick wall with her pastel pink purse tumbling to the floor at her side, surveying her changing body in the mirror of her bedroom, thinking about Jake Ryan while she lay awake at night.
Several generations later, teens still watch these movies, some oblivious to the fact that they are picking up on something fundamental. Highland Park is still the same picturesque place it once was, but as we know, looks can be deceiving. Years later, everyone still yearns for acceptance, struggles with peer pressure and faces problems at home. The more things change, the more they stay the same. And that is why Hughes’ movies are considered classics. In the end, Hughes’ desire to uncover the emotional problems under the seemingly perfect bubble of the teenage life was a success. Roger Ebert once said, in reference to John Hughes, “[He’s the] philosopher of adolescence.” If high school culture had a religion, it’d be Hughesology.
I’ll think of you every time I watch Jake Ryan’s Porsche 944 drive into the sunset.