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Sixteen Candles
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,Sixteen Candles

Sixteen Candles

John Hughes's 1984 directorial debut lifted the teen comedy out of the cinematic gutter, made Molly Ringwald an icon of teenage longing, helped launch the careers of a generation of young actors, including Anthony Michael Hall and John Cusack, and established the young filmmaker as the bard of adolescent angst. In addition, Sixteen Candles influenced a subsequent generation of filmmakers, including Kevin Smith and Wes Anderson, who, like Hughes, specialized in capturing the preoccupations and issues of youth.

Hughes, a former gag writer for old-style stand-up comics and a contributor to National Lampoon, was a novice Hollywood screenwriter when he landed the opportunity to direct Sixteen Candles. He had penned the scripts for National Lampoon's Class Reunion [1982], Mr. Mom [1983], and National Lampoon's Vacation [1983], but the latter two comedies had not yet been released. Hughes's script for Sixteen Candles ended up on the desk of producer Ned Tanen, the former president of Universal Pictures, who had just left the big studio to form his own production company, Channel Productions. Tanen specialized in youth-oriented movies and had produced a handful of notable hits in the genre, including Animal House [1978] and Fast Times at Ridgemont High [1982]. When he read Sixteen Candles, Tanen recognized the script's potential and quickly picked it up for production. He not only allowed Hughes to direct but also agreed to produce the young filmmaker's completed script for another teen film called "Detention," later retitled The Breakfast Club [1985]. Tanen opted to produce Sixteen Candles first, because he thought it more commercial than The Breakfast Club, which was a dialogue-driven chamber piece that took place more or less in one room.

Hughes had written The Breakfast Club first but while looking through a stack of head shots of young actors, he discovered a photo of 15-year-old Molly Ringwald. As Ringwald tells it, Hughes tacked her head shot onto a bulletin board and proceeded to bang out the script for Sixteen Candles over a weekend. When Tanen gave him the green light to direct his script, Hughes asked for Ringwald specifically to play Samantha Baker, the pretty but gangly, insecure teen protagonist.

Sixteen Candles opens with a cheery Samantha waking up to her sixteenth birthday filled with the expectations that this special age brings. However, her parents and siblings have forgotten her birthday in the chaos surrounding her older sister's marriage the next day. At school, Samantha frets over her extended crush on senior football player Jake Ryan, who is going steady with a narcissistic cheerleader. Unbeknownst to Sam, Jake, who dislikes his girlfriend's superficial and snobby personality, wonders who the sweet-looking redheaded sophomore might be. Complicating her social life is a persistent freshman, known as the Geek, who wants to gain status by dating her, or at least proving he has scored with her.

After school, Sam discovers that the upcoming marriage has brought both sets of grandparents to town, though no one from the older generation remembers her birthday either. One pair of grandparents did bring along a foreign exchange student from Asia with the unlikely name of Long Duk Dong, and they insist Samantha show the Donger around. To Samantha's surprise, everything works out for the best at a huge party at Jake's house: the Donger lands a girl; Jake realizes he prefers Sam to the cheerleader; and the Geek gets to take the cheerleader home in a Rolls Royce.

Much of the success and enduring popularity of Sixteen Candles lay in Hughes's sensitive and accurate depiction of teenagers, particularly adolescent girls. At the time, Ringwald referred to Hughes as "one of us," because he seemed to instinctively understand teenagers in a way that other directors of teen fare did not. Sixteen Candles, and his later films, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink [1986], and Some Kind of Wonderful [1987], capture issues and problems of typical suburban teens without condescension or exploitation. Though a comedy with many scenes of farce and exaggeration, Sixteen Candles accurately depicts the hierarchy of cliques in the typical high school, the constant pressure caused by the unwritten social codes of adolescence, the natural gulf that exists between adults and teenagers that can never be bridged, and the abject longing that comes with first love.

The character of Samantha is a realistic combination of teen fashion sense and insecurities. Though wearing fashionable ensembles of the period that viewers would envy and emulate, she is also dissatisfied about her looks. Getting dressed in the opening sequence, Sam poses in front of her mirror and frowns at her unformed figure, noting to herself, "You need four inches of bod and a great birthday." Most young women can relate to Sam's assessment of herself, having made the same observation at one time or another. Though Hughes's male characters think about sex just as much as teens in other comedies do, they can also be sensitive and thoughtful. The Geek, played by Anthony Michael Hall, persuades Sam to loan him her underwear so he can charge freshmen and sophomores to look at them, maintaining his precarious social status as a notch or two above most geeks. But, he also listens to her and offers advice during a heartfelt conversation in which she reveals her feelings for Jake.

Arguably a better screenwriter than director, Hughes nailed the teen slang of the 1980s in Sixteen Candles - from "dude" to "wease" to "jacked." And, while his main characters are well-rounded, sympathetic, and relatable, they speak with a candor and an R-rated profanity that most parents don't want to admit are accurate reflections of teenspeak. A music aficionado, Hughes also understood the meaning of popular music to teenagers, who link the dramas of their everyday lives with favorite songs. When Jake and Sam sit on a table in the closing sequence and share a kiss, the romanticism of the moment was underscored by the strains of "If You Were Here" by the 1980s pop duo The Thompson Twins.

Hughes respected teenagers and empathized with the traumas and issues of American adolescence. Many have speculated that his preternatural understanding was the result of his own high-school experiences, which were reflected in the actions and encounters of his characters - both male and female. But, such speculation is likely the result of romanticizing Hughes and his films after his death. His savvy knack for teen culture was probably due to his keen sense of observation and his long-standing custom of interviewing teenagers about their everyday lives, opinions, fears, and tastes. He also had enough confidence in the talents of his teen actors to allow them to improvise some of their lines and make suggestions for their characters. Hughes and Ringwald were particularly in sync regarding her character onscreen, and their close friendship spawned two more films together, The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink. The so-called "Molly Trilogy" made Ringwald the teenage queen of the 1980s. The result of Hughes's collaborative impulses was a mixed blessing: The characters seem more authentic, but Hughes shot more takes per scene, increasing the amount of time for editing during postproduction.

Despite the emphasis on "teen," Sixteen Candles is still a comedy, and the young actors' talents for timing, exaggeration, and physical humor cannot be underestimated, especially that of Anthony Michael Hall as the Geek and Gedde Watanabe as Long Duk Dong. Hall, who turned 16 during the production of Sixteen Candles, had a knack for doing double takes directly into the camera and a veteran's sense of comic timing. Hughes remembered Hall as Chevy Chase's young son in National Lampoon's Vacation and tapped him for this breakout role that required him to be simultaneously obnoxious and sympathetic. Watanabe had considerable input into the antics of his character, inventing bits of business with props and costuming. Of all the characters, Long Duk Dong takes the biggest beating by critics and historians, who feel obligated to point out that the Donger is an offensive stereotype. Yet, he is the only teen to get his heart's desire - complete acceptance by a member of the opposite sex - without angst or painful self-examination.

Sixteen Candle's success among female teenagers has to be considered within the context of the film industry. Teen-oriented films proliferated during the late 1970s and 1980s, beginning with such dramas as Breaking Away [1979] and Diner [1982]. With their working class milieu, naturalistic dialogue, and older actors, the films were aimed at mainstream audiences, but their success reflected a change in the movie-going demographic. Regular movie-goers were becoming younger and younger, and the industry began to prize that audience above others. In the early 1980s, raunchy, male-driven teen sex comedies, such as thePorky's movies and the Revenge of the Nerds series, dominated the screens alongside such curiosities as Francis Ford Coppola's poetic teen dramas The Outsiders [1983] and Rumble Fish [1983]. Both types of teen films share in common an adult's interpretation of teen culture and a male point of view. Within this context, Hughes's approach to the teen comedy is accurate, gender sensitive, and definitely from an insider's perspective.

Producers: Ned Tanen, Michelle Manning, Hilton A. Green
Director: John Hughes
Screenplay: John Hughes
Cinematography: Bobby Byrne
Editor: Edward Warschilka
Art Director: John W. Corso
Original Music: Ira Newborn
Costume Designers: Mark Peterson (males) and Marla Denise Schlom (females)
Cast: Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald), The Geek, aka Farmer Ted (Anthony Michael Hall), Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling), Mike Baker (Justin Henry), Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe), Ginny Baker (Blanche Baker), Jim Baker (Paul Dooley), Brenda Baker (Carlin Glynn), Grandpa Howard Baker (Edward Andrews), Grandma Dorothy Baker (Billie Bird), Grandpa Fred (Max Showalter), Grandma Helen (Carole Cook), Caroline (Haviland Morris), Rudy (John Kapelos), Bryce (John Cusack), Robin (Jami Gertz), Geek Girl (Joan Cusack).
C-93m.

by Susan Doll

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