John Hughes was born in 1950 but connected deeply with the next generation’s cultural brooding. With Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink—his ubiquitous “Brat Pack” trilogy—he single-handedly defined teenagers’ high-pitched emotional neediness for the country’s silver screens: Kids broke from convention—collectively taking the day off, like their hero Ferris Bueller—in order to announce to the world their frustration with being young, bored, and unpopular. Today’s young directors reared in the ‘80s repackage their own iconic John Hughes moments as arrogant insults to their audience’s intelligence—for proof, just look at any melodramatic scene in a Kevin Smith movie. In this nostalgia, some critics have recast Hughes’s work as mushy nonsense. But while the man’s trademarks have become clichés, to re-watch his best work is to realize how much it carried an authentic sense of heartache about high school life. Whereas Mean Girls used a visual metaphor turning students into ravaging lions as a dull-headed joke, Hughes created a lion’s den that felt perilously real.
Andie (Molly Ringwald) and Duckie (Jon Cryer), Pretty in Pink‘s working-class outsiders (“zooids” within the school’s hallways, underlining their alien detachment), suffer intimidation from the preppy blonds (typified by James Spader) who encircle them in the school’s oppressive white-washed interiors; the laughing is only to soothe the pain. Never is this sentiment truer than in Duckie, played with God-sent sensitivity by Cryer. He nervously fumbles to entertain Andie with queer cocktail puns (“This is a really volcanic ensemble you’re wearing”) and ecstatic song-and-dances, swooning when she turns her back, “I love this woman. I love this woman, and I have to tell her.” It’s a diva complex only befitting a gay man, but the rapture and subsequent dejection of his unreciprocated first crush is universal. He bounces off the walls and yanks at the screen like a ball of pent-up hormones, a character any post-pubescent viewer can instantly recognize.
If emotionally invested audiences sense a cop-out in Hughes’s re-shot happy-ever-after ending between Andie and her wealthy Prince Charming, it’s because Ringwald’s persona was always a bit of a cop-out—an outsider cool enough for mainstream audiences (it’s no wonder today’s Ringwald is Lindsay Lohan). Duckie dealt with sacrifice, letting go of Andie to retain his integrity, where Hughes’s Ferris Bueller-lite fans could only register self-satisfaction. In life, as in Pretty in Pink, the real prom king dances alone. And by those standards, the ending is hardly a cop-out but a relieving mark of truth. Hey, there’s a reason they call the new DVD the Everything’s Duckie Edition. Within the span of Hughes’s heyday, he was.