Thursday, February 11, 2010

Of Schulberg and Hughes

Budd Schulberg
Within 24 hours last summer, two very different Hollywood legends passed away. Novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg (What Makes Sammy Run, The Disenchanted, On the Waterfront), who died peacefully at the age of 95, was one. The other was John Hughes, writer and director of The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, who had created a veritable industry of teen comedies during the ‘80s. Both men became part of very different Hollywood zeitgeists.

Schulberg invoked an age and political climate still left fully unresolved. The era of the Hollywood Blacklist and McCarthyism, where both he and Elia Kazan (who would direct Schulberg’s script of On the Waterfront) would testify before the House of Un-American Activities. The notion of ratting on your friends, the theme of Waterfront, was key to understanding a time where McCarthy’s virulent paranoia was destroying lives and turning the Red Menace into a careerist’s game of watching some backs while knifing others. Yet there were those, like Kazan and Schulberg (as well as many others), who had earlier been part of the Communist movement with its hopes of fighting injustice at home and fascism abroad. But they came to see its true face in the ideology of Stalinism. In that moment, some of these same idealists quickly became realists. But the question arose, to paraphrase Victor Navasky (Naming Names), of what is the greater sin: Stalinism or McCarthyism? Some chose Stalinism as the bigger evil because they watched writers, composers and artists whose work they loved testifying at show trials and often later being executed. The American version of show trials, they felt, was certainly destructive, but ultimately not as lethal. In any event, choices were made and the era was challenged by men like Budd Schulberg.

Back in 1941, Schulberg had already given his employers in Hollywood massive headaches when he wrote his scathing novel, What Makes Sammy Run. He created a main character, a hustler, who tore the benign mask off of studio moguls and exposed their charade. The story of Sammy Glick, a Jewish kid from New York’s Lower East Side, who becomes determined to escape the dead-end of his own life and find fame and fortune at any price, echoed their own story of escaping Europe and rising anti-Semitism to establish a safer kingdom in Hollywood. Not surprisingly, his book (and its character) was accused of promoting anti-Semitic stereotypes. (Years later, these same accusations would also be addressed to Mordecai Richler after writing The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, a novel that featured its own Sammy Glick.)

In the ‘50s, when conformity was the norm, Schulberg was the fly in the ointment, an uncompromising presence. He made you consider the choices before you. His voice could sometimes be shrill, as in Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957), where television was identified as a tool for populist fascism. But Schulberg always refused to capitulate to the fashions of the time. Author Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) might have put it best when he once wrote of Schulberg that “[t]he final test of a novelist’s achievement is how far he is able to modify the sensibility of his readers.”

John Hughes
As for John Hughes, a former ad man, he entered Hollywood at the right time for what he set out to accomplish. Unlike Schulberg, Hughes was not a contentious figure; rather he had devised perfectly adaptable concept-driven comedies. After a decade where great diversity and individual temperament was dominant, concepts were now starting to dominate American movies. The studios quickly reasoned that greater sums of money could be made drawing middle-class teenagers into the theatre, so Hughes complied. His first film, Sixteen Candles (1984), was an offhandedly charming and funny romantic comedy which actually made social class its subject. The picture also brought the talented Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael-Hall (as Hollywood’s first techno-geek) to prominence. But just as soon as Hughes had his first genuine hit, he began to think more like the studio marketing division. The Breakfast Club (1985) was superficially a critique of how students get trapped in high-school cliques, but the movie did more to enshrine their adolescent misery, rather than examine it. The true culprit turned out to be adult authority. (In castigating another picture with similar goals, critic Pauline Kael once wrote that someone should tell these directors where adults come from.)

When The Breakfast Club became a huge hit, John Hughes started to make films that combined the sly subversion of skit comedy with homespun American sentimentality. It was a treacly mixture that would lead to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (where the only cause this rebel had was truancy) and Home Alone (where child abandonment and home invasion became window-dressing for crude, slapstick pratfalls). Yet, by the end of the ‘90s, with many hits to his name, John Hughes disappeared into seclusion. Wes Anderson (Rushmore) and Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) would, to some degree, carry on his legacy. It was a puzzling departure because, unlike Schulberg, there appeared to be no adversaries to determine his fate.

When both Schulberg and Hughes died they had both become faint figures on the cultural landscape - but for entirely different reasons. Schulberg was maybe too much of a reminder of the cost of compromise where you could, as Terry Malloy attested, end up with a “one-way ticket to Palookaville.” Who today would wish to consider the banishment to Palookaville? Schulberg wrestled with what had become fashionable because he knew that being in fashion was a transient enterprise. John Hughes, on the other hand, knew how to be fashionable. He lived in a moment when you could actually become that moment. He also seemed to recognize that when that moment was over, you could quietly abandon the spotlight. As a result, both men became specters in the culture of Hollywood. But where Budd Schulberg fought against the political and cultural imperatives of the times, John Hughes marked his time -- until his time had finally run out.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.