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Op-Ed: A tale of two ‘classic’ movies about teenage angst

It may shock today’s middle-aged Generation-Xers to realize that The Breakfast Club is now older than Rebel without a Cause was when the former movie was first released. But the bigger shock may come upon watching these movies again and discovering that the 1985 Brat Pack hit – about five very different high-school students learning they’re not so different after all, while serving a long Saturday detention – now seems like even more of a museum piece than Rebel does, even though the Dean movie is nearly twice its age.

Why compare the two at all? Well, both movies were praised as the quintessential depictions of teen angst for their respective generations. Both are about pampered white kids from “respectable” suburban American families, kids who find that being a pampered, suburban American teen ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Both bring together a small group of lonely teens who have issues with their parents.

Both movies are also somewhat dated now, although today’s high-schoolers would probably relate more to the talky group therapy of Breakfast than to the pseudo-Freudian melodrama of a ’50s punk kid who goes all psycho when somebody calls him a “chicken”. In fact, Entertainment Weekly picked Breakfast as the greatest high-school movie of all time on its 2006 list, while Rebel lagged behind in fourth place. (Not to overestimate the importance of EW as a barometer of great cinema, but it’s a sign of Breakfast‘s enduring following.)

I’m not saying that Breakfast doesn’t have its good points, or that Rebel is without its flaws (no pun intended). But when I was a teenager, it was Rebel, not Breakfast, with which I identified strongly. I remember seeing Breakfast on TV sometime in the late ’80s; I found it poignant and relevant at the time… and then I more or less forgot about it for two decades. Watching it again as a thirty-something (and now as a forty-something), I just didn’t get its appeal anymore. Meanwhile, director Nicholas Ray’s depiction of lost 1955 teenagers Jim Stark (Dean), Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo) spoke to me on a deeper level – and continues to do so.

To be fair, there were highly subjective reasons why I was more drawn to Rebel. Yes, I personally related to the themes of bullying, peer pressure and conformity, even if the vocabulary and clothes had changed over the decades. But more significantly, I totally got Jim’s frustration with his clueless parents, played by Jim Backus and Ann Doran. Jim’s parents resembled my own in an eerie, uncanny way: the overbearing, high-strung, self-pitying mother who always has to have her own way, and the weak, well-meaning but ineffective father who’s trying so hard to please everybody that he pleases nobody. (One early scene, in which Backus’ character keeps offering a cigar to a policeman who says he doesn’t want one, still makes me cringe. That was so my dad.)

“She eats him alive, and he takes it!” Jim grumbles to a sympathetic officer while watching his parents fight. A little later, he says: “If he had the guts to knock Mom cold once, then maybe she’d be happy and then she’d stop picking on him. Because they make mush out of him.” Jim desperately needs a strong, confident male role model he can trust, not a wimpy “chicken” like his father. Judy and Plato also have serious parental problems: Judy’s grumpy dad neglects her, even slaps her at one awkward moment, because he’s ashamed of his physical attraction to her, while Plato’s self-absorbed parents have abandoned him, leaving him in the care of a maternal housemaid, causing him to yearn for Jim as a replacement father. (I’ve never really bought the modern notion that Plato is gay; to me, it’s always been clear that he’s a needy, mixed-up, emotionally starved boy who desperately needs parental guidance.)

Breakfast has inept parents too, but we don’t see much of them. We see quick snippets of them as they drop off their kids at the beginning of the movie, but otherwise only hear them described secondhand – and we don’t know how accurate or biased these descriptions are. Claire’s (Molly Ringwald) well-to-do family supposedly spoils her with material goods in lieu of real love; Brian’s (Anthony Michael Hall) parents push him too far to exceed academically, while Andy’s (Emilio Estevez) father does the same to him in the athletic field; and Bender (Judd Nelson) claims his dad is a verbally and physically abusive nut job. But who knows how much these characters are fishing for sympathy?

The only adult in Breakfast who’s a major character is the gruff principal supervising the detention, Vernon (Paul Gleason), and he’s such a one-dimensional straw man that there’s little worth saying about him. Throwing childish tantrums, threatening Bender, spying on students’ confidential files – of course the kids hate him, because it’s too easy. And that’s one area in which Rebel trumps Breakfast by miles. In Rebel, the adults are well-meaning fools who badly want to understand their kids, but fail hopelessly. Anybody can empathize with that. In Breakfast, the adults are cartoons.

As a screenwriter, Hughes received a lot of praise for having a good ear for the way teenagers talk – or, at least, for how they talked in the ’80s – and he deserved it. And it’s understandable that viewers of Rebel today might laugh at stilted, hokey Stewart Stern dialogue like, “Why did you shoot those puppies, John?” or “Oh, Jim, they’re killing him!” Yet both movies have a considerable mix of compelling and embarrassing dramatic moments, regardless of the gap in dialogue realism.

The lengthy scene in which all five kids sit on the floor and get emotionally candid with each other is the closest that Breakfast comes to being the great, profound film it wants to be. Andy has an affecting, sad monologue about why he’s being punished, recalling the boy he tormented and the consequences of it. Brian and Claire also earn sympathy with their stories, and basketcase Allison (Ally Sheedy) opens up and becomes more affable. It’s too bad this wonderfully written, self-contained scene is followed by a lame montage of the five characters dancing to terrible new-wave pop. (It’s also preceded by a bizarre, idiotic and pointless sequence in which Andy runs around stoned, doing cartwheels and breaking a glass door by screaming.)

Compare this to the powerful scene in Rebel in which Jim confronts his parents at home about his involvement in gang leader Buzz’s (Corey Allen) death. In its honesty and intensity, it feels almost as if it could have come out of Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neill. “Mom, just once, I want to do something right,” Jim pleads, after his mother announces that the family is moving away to escape the trouble. You can feel his overwhelming rage and helplessness. “We are all involved! Mom, a boy, a kid was killed tonight. I don’t see how I can get out of that by pretending it didn’t happen!” This is the moment when Jim truly grows up – when he realizes that he has the power to take responsibility for his own actions, and that he’ll never be able to count on his cowardly parents to support him. Unfortunately, this great scene is also undermined at the end – in a ludicrous, melodramatic moment when Jim snaps and tries to strangle his dad. Before that point, though, it’s far better than anything in Hughes’ movie.

As Jim and his new friends can’t find love and understanding at home, they find it in each other instead. Judy’s growing affection for Jim is fuelled somewhat by guilt over the way she previously treated him while tagging along with the cool kids, but also by admiration for his unselfish loyalty to Plato, who has no other friends. It’s through her relationship with Jim and Plato that Judy begins to grow up, too – learning that love is something one gives, rather than expects to get as a right. “I love somebody,” she tells Jim in a tender moment. “All the time, I’ve been looking for someone to love me. And now I love somebody. And it’s so easy. Why is it easy now?”

Now, compare this with the approach to teen romance in Breakfast‘s closing scenes. Claire falls for Bender – but why? After the way he’s treated her throughout the film, how has this obnoxious, insulting, sexually harassing, bullying, bigoted, vandalizing, pyromaniac bag of douche earned her affections in any way? Why is she kissing him instead of filing for a restraining order?

Bender’s delinquent actions might be forgivable (to the viewer, at least) if he accompanied them with any social saving grace, like wit or charm, but he doesn’t. He’s just a trouble-making jerk. Vernon and Andy are absolutely right when they dismiss him as a nobody with no future. He’s not a real rebel, like Jim Stark; he’s out only for himself. Bender does exactly one (1) unselfish action in the entire movie – distracting Vernon from catching the others roaming outside of the library, and that’s only after Bender risked getting them in trouble in the first place because he wanted to get pot from his locker. There is absolutely nothing to like about Bender. Whatever Claire sees in him is lost on me.

The hookup between Andy and Allison doesn’t work much better. The problem is that Andy only sees the full beauty in her after Claire gives her a prom-queen makeover. Frankly, I find Allison far more interesting as the squeaking goth freak with a little-known artistic talent. (Okay, except for the dandruff. That’s a bit gross.) If Andy began to love and accept Allison just as she is, rather than as a Barbie doll, it would make a much stronger statement. Instead, the lesson is: People will love and accept you as long as you conform to their narrow idea of physical beauty. That’s a message that undoubtedly resonated with youth back in the shallow, image-obsessed 1980s.

There are other aspects of both movies I could compare, but let’s just say that on the whole, outside of their shared themes as teen-angst “classics”, Rebel is simply the far better work. It’s full of great set pieces, including the tense knife confrontation at the planetarium and the still-unforgettable “chicken run” sequence. The latter scene still packs a visceral wallop; it’s a miniature masterpiece of suspense, editing, pacing and tragedy. Leonard Rosenman’s tense and compassionate score is another great strength – it kicks “Don’t You (Forget about Me)” right into the dust. (Even Simple Minds themselves don’t care for the song.)

Most importantly, Rebel has a strong emotional core that still holds up, supported by the moving relationships between its three protagonists and the shattering ending, making up for the film’s imperfections. While Breakfast has considerable moments of depth, it seems trivial and dated in comparison. When I watch Breakfast today, I see five whiny kids who’ll grow out of their neuroses in a few years. When I watch Rebel, I see kids with real problems. The tragedy in Rebel without a Cause stands the test of time better than the questionable After-School Special lessons in The Breakfast Club.

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