Watching the new Criterion Collection edition of John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club,” I was struck by something I had never noticed before. The opening credits list all the main actors in the film in alphabetical order, starting with Emilio Estevez as jock Andrew and ending with Ally Sheedy as “weird” kid Allison.
But there are seven names listed, not five. In between are Paul Gleason, who plays vice principal Richard Vernon, and John Kapelos, who played Carl the janitor. That seemed weird to me – “The Breakfast Club” is those five young actors, made iconic as the avatars of ‘80s teens. You don’t see Vernon or Carl peeking in on the movie posters – why would they be billed at the same level as Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson or Anthony Michael Hall?
Rewatching the film as a middle-aged man, it’s perhaps natural that I saw those two adult characters differently – or, indeed, I saw them at all. When I saw the film in 1985, the two adults just seemed to hover in the background, indistinct. Now I see their importance to “The Breakfast Club.”
Let’s take Richard “Dick” Vernon, played Gleason, who had a career out of playing jerky authority figures (he was, of course, Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson in “Die Hard”). He’s in fine form here, strutting through the school halls in his leisure suit and open-necked black shirt, snapping his fingers, laying some tired threats on the students that they can recite by heart (“You mess with the bull, you get the horns”) .
He relishes the unchecked power he has over his students, and beneath the bluster there’s a real anger there, especially when he’s warring with juvenile delinquent Bender, played by Nelson. “You think anybody’s gonna take your word over mine? I’m a man of respect around here. They love me around here, I’m a swell guy; you’re a lying sack of shit! And everybody knows it.” The story goes that Hughes wanted to fire Nelson after the first day of shooting because he would stay in character and harass Ringwald between takes. It was Gleason of all people who convinced Hughes to keep Nelson – maybe because of kindness, or maybe because Gleason knew a good sparring partner when he saw one.
The truth is that they don’t love Dick Vernon around here. He may tell Carl that his anger and cynicism comes from how disrespectful kids have gotten these days, but Carl sees right through him. It was Vernon who disrespected the kids by going into teaching because he thought it would be a cushy job. Now he’s spending his Saturdays in the office, bored out of his mind, openly mocked by his students. He’s just as trapped in The Breakfast Club as the kids in detention.
After that scene where Vernon and Bender almost come to blows and Bender leaves, we see Vernon’s bluster drop just for a second, his face crumpling. As a teenager, I thought that look was fear, and maybe part of it is. But as an adult, I also see deep disappointment there – disappointment in himself, that he’s somehow become the sort of teacher who threatens a student.
The yang to Vernon’s yin is Carl. He’s nobody’s idea of an authority figure, pushing his cart around the school. When he says hi to Brian, the embarrassed student tries to ignore him. But where Vernon is clueless about the students, Carl is a truthteller, “the eyes and ears of this school.” He puts Vernon in his place, and when the kids tease him as an “untouchable peon” (interesting that on Chicago’s North Shore, even delinquents like Bender have a snobby streak), brilliantly gets under their skin with the “eyes and ears” speech in a way even Bender visibly admires . In a deleted scene on the Criterion disc, Carl predicts the ways that all five Breakfast Clubbers will grow up into unhappy adults.
During the opening montage of the school, there’s a shot of a wall featuring graduation portraits of past students. And there’s a photo of Carl, the cocky high school version, smirking at the camera like he’s going to conquer the world. I wonder if Carl notices that photo every time he mops the floor in that hallway.
In a sense, both Vernon and Carl are Ghosts of Christmas Future for the Breakfast Club, showing them the adults they will likely become. They may become successful and soulless like Vernon, or keep their soul in a crummy blue-collar job like Carl. Neither is a particularly promising future, but it certainly looks like more fun to be Carl than Vernon.
“The Breakfast Club” is rightly proclaimed as one of the truest films about adolescence ever made, but Carl and Dick Vernon remind us that it was written from the perspective of an adult. I always thought the film’s theme song, Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me,” was a plea for the Clubbers not to forget each other and the bond they forged when they went back to school (and their separate cliques) on Monday. Now I think it’s a plea from the teenage self to the future adult self.