Saturday, August 22, 2009

Something Young This Way Came

If it is true that James Dean created the teenager in the 1950's with his performance in Rebel Without A Cause, then it is equally true that the 1980's defined the teenager.

And if the Eighties was the decade of the Teen Movie, then 1985, in particular, should certainly have to be considered the quintessential year.
In 1985 the teen movie would reach its apogee, and thereafter be referred to as a film genre in its own right.
For 1985 would see the Brat Pack in their full flower, and director John Hughes at the height of his teen movie making power.

But we race ahead of ourselves.
After all, the Teen Movie did not invent itself in 1985. No, the phenomenon had been gaining momentum for a while, since the late 70's in fact.
At least two movies can blamed/credited for this youth movement: Star Wars and Halloween.
Bear with me.
Star Wars, released in 1977, changed, in a multitude of ways, movie going forever. And one of its achievements was to single handedly establish the teen market. The American teenager had been unleashed, with all his disposable income. Soon Hollywood would begin taking the baby steps that would lead them to produce more and more movies aimed at the burgeoning teen market.
Halloween, released in 1978, and despite its R rating, was intended to attract a younger audience. It would birth Friday The 13th, and, subsequently, the entire slasher/horror genre that appealed so greatly to the teen audience.

1979-1982: In The Beginning There Was Matt Dillon

The Teen Movie, as such, didn't really exist prior to 1983. The early 80's would find the genre in its nascent period, struggling to find its form.

If a teenager wanted to go to the movies in the early 80's, he normally saw the latest slasher flick, thanks to the influence of director John Carpenter's Halloween, but especially to Friday The 13th and its star, lake-dwelling-teenager-murdering Jason Vorhees, which would spawn an endless series of sequels, and imitations to no end. The formula was a simple one: clueless teenagers get killed at alarming rate by some vengeful, superhuman freak with an ax to grind, or plunge into someone's skull. Whatever, it worked. And a genre was born, the Slasher Flick. These movies were aimed directly at the teen audience, and the teen audience obligingly supported them in force. You couldn't swing a dead teenager without hitting a homicidal maniac. And so it went.

But bubbling just beneath the fetid lake was the movement toward the Teen Movie.

In 1979 a little known film entitled Over The Edge was released. Little viewed, undervalued and seldom noted, the movie didn't perform well at the box office, but it did over time become a cult favorite.
It told the story of bored, directionless teens in the planned community of New Granada. Ignored by busy parents, left to their own devices, and in protest of their beloved community center being shut down by the local overbearing authorities, the teens did what all teens did at that time: took drugs, started carrying guns, and instigating mayhem against their adult oppressors.
Though ham-fisted in its portrayal of teen boredom, and guilty of making caricatures of the adults who view the kids only as impediments to appreciating house values, Over The Edge did speak directly to its teen audience, in a voice they could understand. It had a spirit of truth to it. It spoke to every kid who had ever been subject to the ubiquitous "No Skateboarding" sanction of the times.
And although it wouldn't change the world, or even the lives of teens, it did serve as actor Matt Dillon's rookie card. Here was the heir to James Dean. The new rebel without a cause.
And, in fact, by starring in Tex, the first adaption of an S.E. Hinton novel, and Liar's Moon, poor farm boy elopes with rich banker's daughter, Dillon would rule the teen movie world for the next four years.
His only competition for the throne came in 1981 with the release of Taps, starring Timothy Hutton, fresh off his Oscar win for the suicidal teen in Ordinary People, and co-starring Tom Cruise and Sean Penn.
Though, strictly speaking, not a teen movie-a military academy would substitute for high school-it would come close enough for inclusion. The story of pesky, impetuous teens who militarize themselves as they answer the call to arms in defense of George C. Scott's beloved academy being razed by real estate developers, Taps would introduce us to 1982's breakout star, Sean Penn.

1982: Let There Be Light

One need look no further than box office receipts for the state of the Teen Movie in 1982: Porky's, a low budget horny teenploitation offering and Friday The 13th Part III would both outperform Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Perhaps it is more appropriate as a changing of the guard, because Fast Times would be the year's teen movie legacy.
Benefiting greatly from its ring of authenticity, having been penned by writer Cameron Crowe based on his secret surveillance of an American high school, Fast Times would, despite its raucous nature, outclass both Porky's and that year's other teen offering, Last American Virgin. And would serve notice that the teenploitation flick wouldn't be enough in the future to satisfy the teen movie-goer.
It hit all the right notes, addressing what would become all the requisite issues: drugs, sex, abortion, love, and masturbation("Doesn't anyone knock any more!"). From the lovelorn, and awkward Rat, to the faux-cool, ticket scalping Damone, and perpetual stoner Jeff Spicoli, Fast Times would be the first ensemble piece of the 80's to attempt to reflect what was going on in the minds of typical teenagers.

1983: The Big Bang

No fewer than eight films aimed at teen audiences would crack the top fifty at the box office in 1983. Indeed, the Teen Movie would launch in earnest. Thanks in no small part to Tom Cruise, who would appear in four of those. The least of which is Losin' It, a minor, and mild teenploitation offering co-starring former Bad News Bear Jackie Earle Haley, and Shelley Long. The other three, however, would be big hitters in the teen genre.
All The Right Moves would star Cruise as a local high school football standout who wants desperately to leverage his talent for a college scholarship in what he sees as his only chance for escaping his small Pennsylvania steel town hometown. The movie turns out to be a rather sober character study, despite the gratuitous nude scene of Lea Thompson.
But it would be Risky Business that would catapult the young Cruise into the stratosphere of movie superstardom, and right out of the teen movie genre. It would give us the iconic scene of Cruise dancing in his underwear as he lip-syncs Bob Seger's Old Time Rock n Roll. But it wouldn't have a lot to say to the teen audience. Perhaps it is too much boy's fantasy and too much star vehcile.
However, the other movie in which Cruise would appear, The Outsiders, the second and most celebrated adaptation of an S.E. Hinton novel, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, would have a lot to say to say to its teen audience.
Though Cruise would play only a small part, Matt Dillon would play co-lead, finally establish himself as a movie star and promptly abandon the teen genre.
Co-starring with them would, in retrospect, be an all-star cast: C.Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze and future Brat Packers Rob Lowe and Emilio Estevez.
The story of Greasers versus Soshes held sway with the imagination of young audiences. And unlike Fast Times At Ridgemont High, this ensemble piece was meant to be taken seriously.
These kids who struggled to survive amidst their disadvantaged circumstances would strike a responsive chord with the bulk of 1983's teen movie-goers. It was not only cheering for the underdog, but cheering for one of their own. The Outsiders would resonate with audiences for a long time, and would serve as the launching pad for more than a few 1980's teen stars.
Continuing the sneak peak at the Brat Pack, Lowe would co-star with Andrew McCarthy in Class, and Ally Sheedy would play girlfriend/sidekick to Matthew Broderick in the years highest grossing teen flick, War Games, a cautionary tale about the powers of computers and splitting the atom.

1984: A Star Is Born

After the successes of 1983's Valley Girl, Losin' It, Risky Business, The Outsiders, Class, War Games and All The Right Moves, 1984 would provide no let up in the onslaught of teen offerings.
Matt Dillon would release his swan song to the genre in the upscale, light and breezy, but ultimately satisfying comedy The Flamingo Kid.
Tom Cruies appears not even on the periphery of the Teen Movie radar after the runaway success of Risky Business.
No, surprisingly, 1984's most prolific teen star would be former Outsider, Ponyboy "Stay Gold" Curtis, C. Thomas Howell, who would appear alongside James Garner in Tank, a tale of southern corrupt authority persecuting the wrong guy...because his father owns a tank!; Grandview USA, co-starring Patrick Swayze and Jamie Lee Curtis, about small town hopes, dreams and aspirations; but most notably in the ensemble action drama Red Dawn, again alongside Patrick Swayze, and Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey, and Charlie Sheen.
But Howell, despite these efforts, would not ascend the throne so recently occuppied by Dillon and Cruise.
The king is dead; long live the queen!
Introducing Molly Ringwald, star of Sixteen Candles, John Hughes' freshman effort in the teen genre.
Her performance as the forlorn girl whose sixteenth is forgotten by one and all established her immediately as the queen of teen movies.
And she would bring along with her, courtesy of Hughes, King of the Geeks, and future Brat Packer, Anthony Michael Hall.

1985: Burning Bright

This is the year that would see the creation of thae Brat Pack, and cement the Teen Movie as a genre unto itself. Thanks to three films: The Breakfast Club, St. Elmo's Fire, and Back To The Future.
Matt Dillon and Tom Cruise are completely absent from the teen scene.
There is room at the top. If Molly Ringwald ruled alone in 1984, in 1985 she would have to share the throne, with fellow castmates and other members of the Brat Pack.
1985 would mark the year a Teen Movie would rule the box office. Back To The Future would be the highest grossing film of the year. And it starred none of the usual suspects. Instead, it was former sitcom standout Michael J Fox who would deliver the goods in the instant classic time travel fantasy adventure. Arguably the best popcorn movie ever made.
But despite its massive success, Back To The Future would have to, in the context of the genre, play second fiddle to writer/director John Hughes' The Breakfast Club.
C Thomas Howell would bid adieu to the genre with the more adult oriented Secret Admirer.
John Cusack would star in two teen flicks, Better Off Dead and the Rob Reiner helmed The Sure Thing. The latter, set during the freshman year of college follows Cusack and Daphne Zuniga on a cross country road trip-at the end of which awaits his "sure thing"-as they slowly discover they are meant for each other. Though not original in its conception, it is nonetheless, witty and charming and well acted enough to outclass most of its competitors and rise above the cliches of the genre.

The combined casts of The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo's Fire would form the nucleus of, ironically, the rather nebulous Brat Pack.
But the description is largely a misnomer. Coined by New York Magazine writer David Blum in 1985, it was a play on that earlier band of merry makers, the Rat Pack, Frank, Dean, Sammy and sundry other madcaps. But whereas the Rats were a cohesive unit, performing and partying together often and by design, the Brats were lumped together simply because they were the hot stars of the moment and consequently in high casting demand. That they appeared in films together was more the result of circumstance, not plan. And anyway, after those two core films, it becomes an exercise in six degrees of separation.
In fact, even the Brats themselves would reject the idea. So, what should have become a calling card became a label to be repudiated.
No matter. The year belonged to them.
If all those that had come before it had been about teens, John Hughes The Breakfast Club would be for teens.
As any good parent would, Hughes wasn't content to follow them from class to party to home. No, he sat them down and allowed them to hash it out on their own, if only through sheer force of boredom.
Thrown together in the school library for an early Saturday morning detention, the Princess, the Criminal, the Brain, the Athlete, and the Basket Case are forced to confront their cliqueish ideas and attitudes towards one another. Their initial hostility and sometimes cruelly punitive put downs of each other gradually, over the course of the day, fall away as they come to understand that they are all in it together, struggling to navigate their way to adulthood by way of the hellish halls of high school.
The standard teen archetypes are present, on display and up for bashing. And if any one them silently entertained the thought of escaping unscathed, well, Judd Nelson's maladjusted John Bender would crush that hopeful notion. He holds Ringwald's prim and priggish princess up for singular ridicule, sticking his head between her legs, mocking her sushi lunch, predicting that one day she'll "be pushing maximum density." He goes no easier on Estevez's jock, nor Anthony Michael Hall's nerdish privilege. And perhaps the only reason Ally Sheedy's weirdo Allison escapes his wrathful attacks is because he realizes she can't be provoked into reacting. Lucky her.
Make no mistake, Bender is the catalyst for all the action-or, more correctly, dialogue-in all three acts. It will be Judd Nelson's crowning achievement as an actor. He may be menacing in his aggression and confrontational style, but he's just erudite enough in his prodings and pokeings of the others to dispel any notion that he might really be dangerous.
It was a wise decision on Hughes' part to put so much on the shoulders of the criminal.
Ringwald, by appearing in her third consecutive Hughes film, cements her claim to the tile of Teen Movie Queen.
Hall, too, would be making his second appearance for Hughes, and again as the geek. He nails the part, and, like Ringwald, cements his claim to King of the Geeks, a title he would not relinquish for the duration of the decade.
Sheedy, joining Ringwald and Hall, turns in an admirable performance playing one of Hughes' darkest creations. There is that feeling throughout that Allison could at any moment drop a bomb that would turn the exercise on its head.
Only Estevez, among the five, turns in what feels like a lightweight performance. But that's quibbling.
It remains an unmitigated joy to watch and listen as these characters give voice to the teen audience.

St. Elmo's Fire would, by virtue of its ensemble cast, and overlapping cast members, form the companion piece to The Breakfast Club.
Fire finds the gang all grown up...well, almost. Where it really finds them is freshly graduated from college and trying to figure out in which direction their futures lie. They are now in the adult world of relationships and careers and responsibilities. Nelson would relinquish the role of the rebel-that part would be taken over by Rob Lowe, his garish outfit and his saxophone-for that of aspiring politician...what a Neo Maxi Zoom Dweebie! Sheedy is cast as his doubting wife. Estevez, in perhaps the best role in the movie, plays "Kirbo" Keger, provides the perfect comic relief as he stalks Andie McDowell throughout the proceedings. And, rounding out the group that would form the core of the Brat Pack, are Andrew McCarthy as the already-world-weary and lovelorn philosopher type, and Demi Moore as wild child Jules.
If St Elmo's has anything to say to the graduating class of Shermer High, it is: hang on to your angst, you're gonna need it.
Writer/director Joel Schumacher is no John Hughes, and it shows.
But while the film is not of the same caliber as Breakfast Club, it remains a lot of fun to watch all those young actors pretending to be all grown up.

1986: Afterglow

1986 carries the momentum of the previous year, but only at the pace at which John Hughes is able to turn out movies.
But first, the veterans would have one more go at it.
C Thomas Howell would offer up his one his best and, unfortunately, one of his worst.
Soul Man finds Howell gaining admission to collge based on his race, that of a young black man. And yes, it's as stupid as it sounds, utterly forgettable. Luckily for him, this would not be his legacy as he also starred in the very suspenseful thriller, The Hitcher. But neither of these fit the genre. Ponyboy has grown up.
More successful would be his fellow Outsider, Raplph Macchio, reprising his Karate Kid role, and starring in Crossroads, about an aspiring young guitarist who follows the trail of blues legend Robert Johnson.
But the year would belong to Hughes.
He would complete his Molly Ringwald Trilogy with the winning Pretty In Pink, which would have Andrew McCarthy as male lead, playing the wealthy Blaine, against whom the lowly Duckie, Jon Cryer, must compete for the affections of Ringwald's character. Not unlike Sixteen Candles, the movie belongs to the emotions of Ms Ringwald. She will in the end choose well heeled Blaine-not as Hughes had planned-and give girls something to debate for decades to come.
But if the year again belonged to Hughes-and it did-the credit would go, not to Pink, but to Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Matthew Broderick turns in the performance of a lifetime as the title character who wants only to escape the rigors and oppression of high school for a day, and to take along his girlfriend and reluctant best friend, Cameron. There's nothing much of import here, it's all slapstick and hijinks, but it's wonderful in its madcap desire to please, and an enduring joy to watch. After all, sometimes kids just want to have fun.

1987: Dancing In The Twilight

If the birth process of the Teen Movie had been a lengthy, laborious process, then its demise was in comparison quite quick.
John Hughes, the very heart of the genre, would give it one last go before abandoning the genre completely and forever. But Some Kind Of Wonderful was no Pretty In Pink, and Mary Stuart Masterson was no Molly Ringwald. The film would fizzle at the box office. None of Hughes' stable of actors appeared in the movie.
In fact, only Andrew McCarthy would come close to making a dent at the box office, with the very unteen Less Than Zero, based on the novel of literary brat packer Bret Easton Ellis.
The numbers tell the story: Michael J Fox would come biggest with The Secret Of My Success, about an ambitious corporate climber; Emilio Estevez would follow closely with undercover cop comedy Stakeout; Patrick Swayze would gain immortality uttering "Nobody puts baby in a corner!" in Dirty Dancing; and Andrew McCarthy, having a banner year, would appear in the mindless Mannequin.
So, where's the big high school move of 1987? 32nd at the box office: Summer School. That's right Summer School. Remember it? No, not many others do either. Which is kind of a shame, because it's not a bad movie. But it had the misfortune of not starring a Brat Packer. Its cast is largely forgotten.
The Teen Movie is, for all intents and purposes, dead. But it refuses to go gently into that good night.

1988: Last Gasp Of The Brat Pack

If 1987 had been bad for the Teen Movie, then 1988 would be abysmal, primarily because so many Brat Pack members would release efforts that did ot live up to the promise they had not so long ago demonstrated.
Emilio Estevez would score biggest with Young Guns, an unserious, but fun, take on the legend of Billy The Kid.
Anthony Michael Hall, with Johnny Be Good, his tale of a high school football star pursuing college riches wouldn't even register at the box office.
Most disappointing of all, however, was probably the stale effort of Fresh Horses, reuniting Molly Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy in another rich boy-poor girl tale of love and woe. Mostly woe.
It is telling, indeed, that the most successful Teen Movie of 1988 was License To Drive, starring the two Coreys, Feldman and Haim, as two doofuses who just want to...well, who really cares. It was and remains inconsequential.
Perhaps more telling, though, is that Freddy of Nightmare On Elm Street 4 outperformed all teen comers.
The decade was coming full circle. Teens were once again the forgettable, disposable victims of some superhuman homicidal maniac.

1989: Would The Last One To Leave Please Turn Out The Lights

Give the resurgent popularity of the teen slasher flick, it may have been an existential stroke of kindness for Heathers to have been released in 1989.
It the simple story of teens killing off their fellow teens. No Breakfast Club, that. Apparently they could no longer be bothered to sit down and discuss their differences. But it is perhaps the most fitting metaphorical end to the decade of the Teen Movie.

"When You Grow Up, Your Heart Dies"

Writer/Director John Hughes put those words in the mouth of Allison, Ally Sheedy's character from The Breakfast Club.
Hughes, more than anyone else, was responsible for elevating the teen movie to respectability.
In large part, this was because he respected the subjects of his scripts and directorial efforts: the teenager.
And by imbuing the characters he created with simple dignity and integrity, the characters not only talked to us, but also spoke for us.
The teenager had finally, through the words of John Hughes, found their voice, their proper expression.
"When you grow up, your heart dies," said Allison.
"So what. Who cares," Bender flippantly replied.
"I care," said Allison.
And so, one suspects, did John Hughes.

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