Summer of '86: 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off' Let John Hughes Graduate from Teen Movies With Honors

Matthew Broderick in ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

All this week, we’re celebrating the great movies that hit screens 30 years ago in 1986. Go here to read more.

To find the epicenter of the ’80s teen movie quake, look at the years 1983 to 1986. Porky’s (1981) and Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) were tremors, followed by a seismic wave of titles that shook loose the dollars from young moviegoers: Risky Business, Valley Girl, The Outsiders, Footloose, The Karate Kid, Better Off Dead, Lucas, and more. Not coincidentally, it was in these years that writer-director John Hughes rumbled to the head of the class, defining the ’80s coming-of-age experience on screen in a series of enduring hits for and about high-schoolers.

In 1984, the filmmaker lit up screens with Sixteen Candles. The Breakfast Club and Weird Science followed in 1985. Then, 1986 brought Pretty in Pink, which Hughes wrote, and summer’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The latter was the final teen movie he would both write and direct, as well as his biggest box-office success in the genre. Who’d have guessed the cinematic advocate for the alienated and the outcasts would hit the peak of his teen movie success with a movie about a very popular kid?

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And yet it makes sense. The Breakfast Club may be Hughes’s most revered high-school movie, but Ferris is his fleetest and funniest, a movie about the joys that await outside the classroom. That it arrived right when most kids were leaving school for summer break probably helped boost ticket sales. While Ferris Bueller’s Day Off never topped the box-office chart, it was a consistent draw throughout June and July, ultimately earning $70.1 million and ending the year in 10th place overall. And while its “Life moves pretty fast” message was aimed squarely at young movie fans, it was engaging and smart enough to cross over to other age groups too. Many in the audience in 1986 felt about this movie the same way most people on screen felt about Ferris: They all adored him.

Hughes himself had become somewhat of an object of adoration in summer ’86. A Chicago Tribune profile of the filmmaker published prior to the release of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off characterizes him as a man at the height of his creative influence, with the kind of charisma that mirrored the sweater-vested protagonist played by Matthew Broderick. “Like a favorite English teacher who cannot resist grandstanding a little in front of the kids, Hughes grows expansive in proportion to the number of youngsters in his audience…immediate and otherwise,” wrote Tribune reporter Julia Cameron. “Surrounding himself by some of the best and brightest — and youngest — talent in Hollywood, he presides over his company less like a father figure than an idealized older brother. ‘John’s a great guy,’ is a phrase heard so often among the ranks that it sounds perilously close to a password.”

There’s even a “charmed life” aspect to what Hughes did behind the scenes on Ferris. He banged out the script in less than a week, eager to get another screenplay completed before a feared writer’s strike. According to You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried, Susannah Gora’s book about Hughes and the teen genre, at a point when the movie seemed doomed, Hughes managed a swift course correction.

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Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was said to have had a downright awful initial cut. “We all thought that we were horrible, and it sucked, and that our careers were over,” recalled Alan Ruck, who plays Cameron Frye, in Gora’s book. “I remember that we watched this and there was not one laugh out of any of us.”

So, Hughes went back to work. “Hughes said, ‘Leave me alone for two weeks,’ and he took the thing and edited it, and it was brilliant,” former Paramount executive Ned Tanen recalls in the book. “There was an editor, obviously, but Hughes did it — he was that good.”

In fact, one of the most striking things about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is how sharply edited it is, particularly during its first half, when it zings from one fourth-wall-breaking moment to the next with an infectious energy.

Some critics appreciated that energy; in the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote that the movie was “acted with assurance, directed with precision, and written with universal appeal. They just don’t make them like this anymore.”

But others who were fatigued of the teen movie scene felt just the opposite: that Hollywood made too many movies like this one.

In a brief Los Angeles Times essay, writer Patrick Goldstein complained about the prevalence of mainstream teen movies that felt like little more than commercials. He also said that Hughes’s “uncanny knack for capturing teen mayhem and self-absorption seems to have soured in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” which he called “a smug celebration of the New Conformity.”

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One of the most high-profile Ferris Bueller skeptics was Jack Nicholson, who expressed befuddlement over its success in a New York Times profile.

“Do you feel like a creative person trapped in an uncreative age in the industry?” a Times reporter asks him.

“Well, you know, last night I saw — what’s that movie — Ferris something?‘” Nicholson responds. “Well, that movie made me feel totally irrelevant to anything that any audience could want, and 119 years old … Believe me, everyone else watching it liked it. And you know, I literally walked out of there thinking my days are numbered. These people are trying to kill me.”

Actually, even though Ferris would register as a solid success, the days were numbered for Hughes’s work in the high-school genre. Though he would have major Hollywood hits post-Ferris, with directorial efforts like Planes, Trains and Automobiles and screenplays, including the one for Home Alone, Ferris was the peak and the tipping point for him and the teen experience. He would write just one more coming-of-age movie (the Pretty in Pink retread Some Kind of Wonderful), but never again point a lens at a locker or a lovestruck adolescent, despite his claims in 1986 to the contrary.

“People keep asking me when I am going to grow up and make adult movies,” Hughes says in that Chicago Tribune profile. “I say, ‘Grow up? Adult movies?’ What am I supposed to do? Pat the kids on the head and say, ‘Thanks, Kids. It’s been great, but now I am going to make grown up movies’?”

But that’s exactly what he did. As Ferris Bueller reminds us, high school doesn’t last forever and life moves pretty fast. John Hughes (who died in 2009 at the age of 59) essentially graduated from his high school movie years in that summer of 1986. Thanks to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, he did it by throwing one hell of a last party.

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