Hurrah, Ferris Bueller! The palette cleanser after last week’s Risky Business horror. While both films are about a boy in his senior year of high school, who lives in the Illinois suburbs, who’s left alone for a certain period of time by his parents and who thinks it’s an act of monstrous injustice that his parents have as yet failed to give him a car, where Risky Business left me with the bitter taste of self-entitled Reaganism in my mouth, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is as refreshingly sweet as sorbet, as familiar to me as home.
I can say with some certainty that there is no movie I have seen more times than Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. In fact, I might have seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off more times than any other person on this planet, including the late John Hughes. When I was nine years old, my mother bought me the thrillingly grown up looking video cassette of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and, as soon as I put it in the family Beta Max (yes, I am actually Beta Max old) I fell in love for the first time. I don’t think I had a crush on Matthew Broderick, exactly (I was a very slow developer in that sense and, c’mon, I was only nine), and it’s not that I even wanted to be Ferris Bueller: it was more that Ferris was my ideal older brother and his Day Off was exactly what my nine year old brain fancied having an older brother would be like.
And so, between my 9th and 10th birthday, and some ways a little beyond that, I adhered to a daily ritual: every day after school I would come home, go into the TV room, firmly shut the door (especially against my non-Ferris younger sister) and devotedly watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Every. Single. Day. Meaning I have watched that film at the very least 365 times but probably double that by now. I decided at one point during my Ferris obsessive stage that, in order to prove my true devotion to the film (which would win me, what? My own real life Ferris? An ability to jump into the movie for real, Mary Poppins-style?), I would write out the whole script, transcribing the movie as I watched out. I still have the notebook with my script, dutifully written out in my 4th grade cursive.
When I watch the film now, I can see why I loved it then: this film, more than any of the other many films John Hughes made about idealised teenage life, is a perfect fantasy of what being a teenager must be like, and it’s one best appreciated by those who are not actually teenagers, which is probably why I stopped watching the film in my teenage years and returned to it only in my late 20s. Ferris Bueller’s actual day off is almost bizarrely wholesome -both alcohol and cigarette-free -making these three kids reassuringly unthreatening for shy children and sentimental adults in the audience. And what do these kids do with their free day? They act like a bunch of middle aged tourists, going to a fancy restaurant, a museum and a parade, and yet simultaneously clever enough to rig up fake doorbell messages and score themselves cool cars. This is how children imagine teenagers live and it’s how adults pretend they were as teenagers. Moreover, Ferris is, by some way, the archetypal 80s school dork: he wears leopard print; he drinks pina coladas; he doesn’t have a car; he likes moody English singers like The Smiths and Bryan Ferry; he’s too cocky for his own good; he dances to Wayne Newton. He is, in short, a wealthier version of Duckie from Pretty in Pink, yet he’s also the most popular guy in town. I don’t think this is entirely about money (although money is a big part of John Hughes’ films, as I wrote about in my blog on Pretty in Pink.) Rather, it’s a former (in Hughes’ case) or future (in 9 year old me’s case) high school dork’s dream of how teenage life could and should be.
In one of my favourite things ever on the internet, Hughes talks about one of my favourite things ever in cinema, the museum scene in Ferris Bueller. Hughes admits the scene is “self-indulgent” but he wanted to “go back into the building” where he had spent so much time as a teenager when it became “a place of refuge.” Where once that museum had been somewhere he’d had to go alone, to escape, in the film it’s somewhere that the protagonist shares with his girlfriend and best friend and they all experience individual epiphanies there. In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which Hughes both wrote and directed, he created friends who shared his quiet, quirky teenage tastes. In Molly Ringwald’s beautiful article about Hughes written after he died, she writes how the teenagers in Hughes’ teen films “were sort of avatars for him, acting out the different parts of his life – improving upon it, perhaps. In those movies, he always got the last word. He always got the girl.”
But there are plenty of films out there – especially from the 80s, especially by Hughes – that idealise teenage life. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is much, much more than that, which is why I loved it so much as a kid (even though I didn’t understand that at the time, of course) and why it has endured in a way, say, Sixteen Candles hasn’t. It is not a typical Hughes film – it is the climax to all of Hughes’ teenage films. Like all of his films from this era, it’s set in the Chicago suburbs (where they all are set and where Hughes, not coincidentally, grew up), and they feature teenagers who are both parent-free yet wholesome and who have only the best of intentions to one another. Yet Ferris, which Hughes wrote and directed, is a far richer, sometimes surreal and certainly more original film than, say, The Breakfast Club. For a start, there are dozens and dozens of characters in this film who are allowed to be at least as memorable and funny as the main protagonist, and with endlessly quotable lines. Never mind Mr Rooney and Jeanie – who we’ll get back to anon – there’s Grace, the school secretary (“They think he’s a righteous dude”); the maitre’d at Chez Louis (“I weep for the future”); Charlie Sheen as the drug addict in what is perhaps his finest performance (“People think she looks like a whore”); the sweetly clueless students (“You heartless wench!”); the teachers (“Bueller? Bueller?”); the garage attendants (“Uhhh, what country do you think this is?”): I know and quote them all. I squeal with excitement when I spot them in other films, such as Kirsty Swanson, who plays Simone (“My best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend…”) who went on to be Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the eponymous film, as if they were childhood friends done good. (Similarly but somewhat oppositely, Brad Pitt allegedly always checks into hotels as “Abe Froman.” The thought of Pitt paying homage the sausage king of Chicago makes me kinda love Pitt.)
This then leads to one of the film’s greatest strengths, and tricks. Ferris Bueller is not really about Ferris himself, and thank heavens. A spoilt, bossy, self-entitled and somewhat opaque character does not a good protagonist make. By spreading the attention among this brilliantly disparate and eccentric characters, Hughes broadens out the film from being so myopically teenage, which is a weakness or strength of his other films, depending on your point of view.
Moreover, none of his teenage characters are archetypes, which definitely separates it from his other teenage films. Ferris we already talked about, but what to make of Cameron, the neurotic, angry, sweet, sad, lonely rich kid? He is no Blake, for sure. Or Jeanie, the totally brilliant angry sister, disenfranchised from her parents (“I think we should kill her”), lumbered with the brother from hell? Or Mr Rooney, for the matter, the Ahab to Ferris’ Moby Dick, dementedly in pursuit of his student, only to be flummoxed at every turn? The only disappointing character in the movie is Sloane, the typically dull, typically bland girlfriend who dozily follows her boyfriend around and has no defining characteristics other than breathtaking prettiness and a fondness for white leather jackets. She’s such a disappointment precisely because Hughes is no slouch when it comes to writing good parts for women and girls, as proven by Jeanie, one of my favourite film characters ever and the patron saint of disgruntled siblings everywhere. This – not Dirty Dancing – is Jennifer Grey’s shining moment in film. Grey is so good here (whenever I drive with my mother I’m always tempted to scream at my mom, like Jeanie does at hers), going from fury to terror to awkward besottedment that she alters the whole tone of the film, grounding it in a slightly more realistic depiction of teenagers than the weird aura of fantasy as epitomised by Ferris. Moreover, she gives a nice shade of darkness (“I’m sorry?” “You should be”) to the movie’s other teenagers’ “general air of problem solving and putting on a cheerful face”, as the great David Thomson disparaged Hughes’ depiction of teenagers in his Biographical Dictionary of Film. The only small problem with Grey is that she slightly unbalances the film as I always wish she were on screen instead whenever Sloane appears, not least because Grey and Broderick have such palpable and hilarious chemistry, which is not surprising as, offscreen, they became longterm partners.
In fact, there’s a perfectly reasonable argument to make that this film is not about Ferris at all: it’s about Jeanie, the angry sibling who learns to relax and appreciate the family she has. Unlike her brother, she’s the one who goes through a trajectory. It’s even easier to argue that this is actually Cameron’s film and that the reason we see Ferris as so perfect, so unstoppable, a boy to whom everything comes so easy, is because that’s how Cameron sees him – we see him only through Cameron’s eyes. From the moment Cameron nearly loses himself in the child in Seurat’s painting, Hughes strongly shifts the focus to Cameron (for example, we don’t see how Ferris got up on the parade float, but only see what Cameron sees and gasp with him when we see what his friend has done), and it’s Cameron who changes the most at the end. Alan Ruck is wonderful in this actually pretty tricky part. He deserves the film.
Then there’s Jeffrey Jones, the once wonderful Jeffrey Jones, being brilliantly demented as Mr Rooney. I’ll admit, there’s a part of me that wishes Mr Rooney and Jeanie would team up on Ferris together instead of being brutal opponents as, together, they’d have been as unstoppable as the Terminator.
But this is not to underestimate Matthew Broderick. Ferris is a very tricky part to pull off, not just because he’s so spoilt but because he’s so weird, with all of this talks to camera and so on. Amazingly, he was not Hughes’ first choice for the role: according to Ringwald, he wanted Anthony Michael Hall to play him and, when the latter said no, Hughes never spoke to him again. That’s how close Ferris was to Hughes’ heart.
But thank heavens Hall did say no because he was far too weedy then to play Ferris: it would have been too obvious that Ferris should be a dork and that this whole film could only be some school nerd’s fantasy. Broderick is endearing, funny, cheesy but without being insufferable and it’s arguable that he could never get past how brilliant he was in his break out role.
Bad things have happened to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off since the days when it was my daily god: Broderick treacherously spoofed it in an advert; Jeffery Jones has had to register as a sex offender (which certainly brings a blacker tone to Mr Rooney); “Bueller? Bueller?” became one of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s more ridiculous defenders. But this film is such a perfect, strange, unique little bubble that it cannot be harmed but rather floats above the fray, like Gilda’s bubble in The Wizard of Oz. It’s a movie that is utterly of it’s time and will never date.
By the way, my devotion eventually paid off. Up until the middle of last year I was living in New York and every night I would walk my dog through the streets of my neighbourhood. One night, a man and his dog approached us – it turned out I wasn’t the only person who had nothing to do at nights in Manhattan – and, just by chance, our dog walking schedules seemed to sync as we often found ourselves walking silently alongside one another. Our dogs got on so well, nipping one another and romping together on the pavement, that it eventually became awkward for us not to introduce ourselves.
“I’m Hadley,” I said, already knowing what he would say.
“Matthew,” he replied, a little awkwardly.
It was Matthew Broderick. Just over 20 years later, all that video watching paid off: I got to meet Ferris.
NEXT WEEK: HEATHERS