For evidence of the enduring popularity of ‘80s screen stories one need look no further than the recent plethora of remakes like Fame and Footloose, and West End musical adaptations such as Back to the Future (upcoming), Hairspray and Dirty Dancing.
Contemporary films bear the influence of ‘80s cinematic greats in two main ways; through direct emulation or sign-posted referencing, and secondly through revival of their spirit and storytelling methods. In this instalment of Welcome to the ‘80s the first type will be our main focus.
Will Gluck’s Easy A (2010) makes a number of prominent nods to ‘80s cult favourites, as well as reviving some of their techniques. This likable movie follows Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone in her starmaking first leading role), a high schooler whose face-saving fib soon spirals out of control once swallowed by the school rumour mill. Easy A is a masterpiece of modern adaptation, devised not just from recognisable teen movie tropes and memorable moments from ‘80s films, but also from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter. (Though “to say it was freely adapted is a bit of an understatement, guv’nor”).
Most obviously, Bert V. Royal’s script plays tribute to beloved ‘80s classics with a sequence in which Olive mockingly bemoans being deprived of an ‘80s-esque love interest. Say Anything, Can’t Buy Me Love, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off are directly referenced via a montage of clips set to Olive’s voice over, which features the wry line “Just once, I want my life to be like an eighties movie. But no, John Hughes did not direct my life”. As the most avid of ‘80s cinema fans will notice, Hughes only directed the latter three movies listed here, but surely many will still agree with Olive’s sentiment.
Without giving too much away, as the film draws to its narrative conclusion it makes a simultaneous reference to The Breakfast Club (1985), Can’t Buy Me Love (1987) and Say Anything (1989), and this also provides the pay off to the earlier ‘80s movie mash-up.
Most of all though, ‘80s movie fans will be thrilled by the subtler allusions which pepper Easy A. In the vein of its 1980s teen movie predecessors such as Pretty in Pink (1986), Dead Poets Society (1989) and – yes – The Breakfast Club, Gluck’s film is largely set in a high school, and is dialogue-heavy. Gluck and Royal use both setting and style to slip in several visual and aural references to the work of their ‘80s heroes.
John Hughes had a penchant for opening his films with monologues (see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club), and Easy A follows suit with Olive’s introductory voice over. As the film progresses, the conceit whereby Olive narrates her experiences to a webcam is arguably a modernisation of the diary device in Michael Lehmann’s Heathers. It also breaks the fourth wall, a technique famously showcased by Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller.
In Ferris Bueller the primary effect of this stylistic quirk is to draw the movie’s viewers into conspiracy with the school-bunking, principal-evading Ferris. Olive’s confessional video at first seems to be conjuring a comparable conspiratorial feeling in its audience, until it is later revealed that Olive is broadcasting to several of her peers. Rather than simply being favoured as a trusted confidant, like Ferris’ viewers, the spectator of Easy A is at times paralleled with those students who voyeuristically revel in the gossip surrounding Olive’s apparent loss of virginity and resulting fictional persona. Easy A, however, has its own method of bringing the audience closer to the protagonist, and it is distinct in effect from Ferris’ admiration-provoking exposé of his feigning techniques. Family scenes in which Olive banters with her parents (the hilarious combo of Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) over everyday occurrences give the viewer a privileged insight into her character in a more natural setting, with none of the showing off characteristic of Broderick’s Ferris.
While homage moments such as Olive singing in the shower with a Ferris Bueller quiff, or reprising his line “never had one lesson” after displaying poor instrument playing are fun, it’s the references that really connect with Easy A’s own narrative context that are most intelligent. For instance, Olive’s English teacher (Thomas Haden Church) quotes Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 adaptation The Outsiders, fitting considering S.E. Hinton’s source novel is often taught in American high schools.
Following the death of John Hughes in 2009 One Tree Hill creator Mark Schwahn produced a tribute episode (7.15), stuffed with many less subtle 1980s references, and soundtracked with original ‘80s music as well as contemporary covers. This episode of the preposterously long-running teen drama was entitled “Don’t You Forget About Me”, and opened with Simple Minds’ song of the same name. Referencing everything from Sixteen Candles (1984) and Weird Science (1985) to Home Alone (1990) and Star Wars, the episode favoured elaborate jokes, character parallels, and recreations of iconic shots over any meaningful action or plot development. So thick and fast are the references that Brooke and Haley are compared, through costuming and incident, to Molly Ringwald’s characters in both Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles. This is symptomatic of the way in which Ringwald herself is sometimes perceived as an amalgamation of her most famous film roles.
In Schwahn’s Hughes tribute the narrative strand in which Jamie wreaks Macaulay Culkin-style havoc on his parent’s house comes off as obnoxious and bratty rather than hilarious and adorable, as it was perhaps intended. Julian’s attending an ‘80s throwback dance at Tree Hill High dressed as Pretty in Pink’s Duckie, however, is an apt reflection of his self-perception on the show.
References such as those noted above, and the many more left unexplained, are of course dependent on the audience recognising them; they are essentially allusions crafted by fans and for fans. At approximately 45 minutes in length, the One Tree Hill episode is saturated with intertextual links to ‘80s cinema, with not much left for those who haven’t been exposed to Hughes and co. Easy A, by contrast, offers moments which are enhanced when recognised as allusions to ‘80s movies, but primarily function as embedded narrative instances, or develop Olive’s character.
The next edition of Welcome to the ‘80s will take a closer look at those films that embody the attitudes and characteristics of classic ‘80s fare including E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Stand by Me (1986). Stay gold.