Some Kind of Republican
Was John Hughes really in favor of teen rebellion?
As far as adult teen whisperers go, John Hughes has enjoyed a remarkable staying power. Anyone who grew up in the '80s—or just caught the decade on reruns on rainy Saturday-afternoon television—can probably remember high school as much for its unique misery as for the Breakfast Club references it evokes. Hughes was in his 30s when he became successful, and he managed to make teen cinema intentionally funny and less condescending toward its core audience, whose lingo he either spoke or helped invent.
Hughes was also the first Balzac of homeroom, arguing that what stratified public education as much as looks, popularity, or natural herd instincts was net worth. Even those dismayed by the cheap sentimentality and wafer-thin plotlines of his films could at least appreciate seeing class presented as not something you skipped but were defined by. Hughes, though, was never quite the antagonist of the status quo he made himself out to be. He was actually a political conservative, and his portrayals of down-and-out youth rebellion had more to do with celebrating the moral victory of the underdog than with championing the underprivileged. In Hughes' hormonal vale of tears, snobs and elitists were the ones who ruined wealth for everybody else.
This idea is no more pronounced than in Hughes' romantic comedies Pretty in Pink (1986)and Some Kind of Wonderful (1987), both of which have just been rereleased as special-edition DVDs. (Hughes wrote and produced these films, passing on the directorial duties to Howard Deutch.) If there's an "event" factor here, it's that the key difference between these star-crossed love stories has now been nullified. The "Everything's Duckie Edition" of Pretty in Pink provides the long-lost original ending.
In the theatrical release, you may remember, Andie (Molly Ringwald), the working-class heroine in antique boutique duds, reconciles with Blane (Andrew McCarthy), her "richie" boyfriend who had jilted her due to the peer pressure of Steff (James Spader, in white linen and full-tilt cretin mode). At the time, the final scene of Andie and Blane kissing in the prom parking lot was widely interpreted as a cop-out amounting to "yuppie scum have feelings, too." This was slightly unfair to Hughes since his first draft had Andie dump Blane for Duckie (Jon Cryer), her best friend with a limp Morrissey pompadour and like-minded fashion sense.
Fans who have been waiting since glasnost to see these two tragically hip hearts beat as one will still feel cheated, however. All we get on the new DVD are some rough dailies of Duckie asking Andie for a "moonlight dance," accompanied by a voiceover explaining how test audiences and an insistent Ringwald loathed any resolution that had the preppie failing to rescue his damsel in distressed jeans.
Some Kind of Wonderful isthe prolier-than-thou retelling of Pretty in Pink. It has the two hard-up best friends, their gender roles swapped, wind up together. Keith (Eric Stoltz) is the male Andie who, in the ridiculous space of a two-second flashback, realizes that Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson), the tomboy Duckie, is the one for him. This leaves the initial object of his affection, Amanda (Lea Thompson) nobly vowing to go it alone after freeing herself from middle-class conformity and the thuggish embrace of ex-boyfriend Hardy. See, Amanda's another twist: It turns out that she's also from the wrong side of the tracks, and her in-crowd status is thus heavily mortgaged. Perhaps not by coincidence, the "wrong side of the tracks" is not a metaphor for John Hughes: It's an opening scene. Both films begin with establishing shots of scruffy little burgs bisected by railroads. To add to that subtlety, Stoltz actually plays chicken with an oncoming train.
If false consciousness runs at equal pace with cant in these twin fairy tales, it may be because the man Roger Ebert once called the "philosopher of puberty" was mugging for a counterculture in which he never fully believed. Apart from the music—the Beatles, Dylan—Hughes' own coming-of-age was characterized not by the egalitarian zeitgeist of the '60s but by a funk of jealousy for what the Jonses had and the Hugheses did not. (The first Chevy Chase Vacation movie was based on a Hughes short story rooted in the boyhood trauma of never being taken to Disneyland.)
Hughes grew up in Grosse Pointe, Mich., and also in a small town just outside Chicago, the model for his fictive "Shermer, Ill.," where a lot of his teen flicks took place. As he tells Kevin Bacon on the Some Kind of Wonderful disc, it was the sense of entitlement of the neighborhood trust-funders that got him down: "I knew kids that in the third grade would say, 'When I'm 18, I'm getting $22 million dollars.' " We should be grateful that talk like this didn't turn him into the Michael Moore of the Stridex set. Rather, it was Ferris Bueller—a character Hughes claimed to strongly identify with—who mouths his creator's worldview early in the famous day off:
-Ism's, in my opinion, are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon, "I don't believe in Beatles, I just believe in me." Good point there. After all, he was the walrus. I could be the walrus but it still wouldn't change the fact that I don't own a car.
P.J. O'Rourke could have said it better himself, and did in fact when he co-edited the National Lampoon with Hughes in the mid-'70s. They were the two Midwestern conservatives, or "Pants-Down Republicans," on a masthead otherwise mostly comprised of vestigial Harvard hippies slouching their way out of the Me Decade. In O'Rourke's book, Republican Party Reptile, this GOP schismatic was eventually updated and defined for the '80s as a "disco Hobbes" into sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll as much as guns, SDI, and the flat tax: Ted Nugent fused with Tom Wolfe, in other words. Enemies on the right included the stuffed shirts and old-money bores—parents of the Steffs and Hardys of the world—while the new and improved Reaganite gentry was seen as something to aspire to. (Some people have to work for that $22 million.)
It's worth noting that both O'Rourke and Hughes at one point penned jokes or dialogue for Rodney Dangerfield, whose high-society-skewering, upwardly mobile alter egos—think Caddyshack, Back to School, and Easy Money, which O'Rourke co-scripted—were the perfect embodiments of the Republican Party Reptile ethos. It's true that Hughes remained mute on his partisanship just as he was being hailed as the reigning auteur of angst, but a 1988 Premiere profile brushed up against his convictions by calling him the "sort of guy Norman Rockwell might have been if he'd lived in Hollywood." This was an apt comparison, and not just because that same profile tells us that Molly Ringwald owes her career to Girl at Mirror. It should have come as no surprise, then, that a faint smirk of family-values-friendly subversion stamped itself on all of late Hughes, which is to say his even more establishment period as a filmmaker. From The Great Outdoors (in-laws sure are difficult) to Home Alone (towheaded McMansion latchkey kid foils robbery, saves Christmas) to Dennis the Menace (overall-wearing scamp of the manicured lawns sling-shoots his way straight into your heart)—these were comedies for the Dan Quayle in all of us.
Gen Xnostalgia is as interesting for what it remembers as for what it chooses to ignore. Every so often, you'll turn on TBS and be forced to take inventory of the popular culture of your youth. Trading Places delivered its comeuppance with a switcheroo act of commodities fraud; * the true nemesis of Ghost Busters wasn't Gozer but the EPA; Stripes is all about making a kind of screwball peace with the military-industrial complex … Sure enough, there's Harold Ramis—another Lampoon alum, who directed Hughes' screenplay for Vacation—reflecting on the Chicago Seven hearings in a recent interview with the Believer: "They ran up and down the street, smashing car windows and stuff. My first reaction was, 'Yeah, right on!' But then I thought, 'Wait, I'm parked out there.' " The polite term for this gentle rightward shift when it happens to artists and intellectuals is embourgeoisement. What a shame the philosopher of puberty never warned kids about that.