Happy Birthday, Anthony Michael Hall: A look back at the holy trinity of geekdom

Categories: Film

anthony michael hall.jpg
Ever since he ended up as conspicuously the only member of the Breakfast Club not to get coupled up -- and was pretty much okay with it -- we knew Anthony Michael Hall was a guy we could identify with. Lanky, bug-eyed and just a little too weirdly enthusiastic, he was the quintessential geek, but not in the mean, anti-social way nerds are often portrayed -- unlike, say, the bizarre, facially contorted nerds of Revenge of the Nerds, Hall's geeks were more than just archetypes; they were people, who, despite their tender awkwardness, were also smart, sweet, funny and sometimes surprisingly confident. And over the course of three magical films in the mid-'80s, Hall's three most endearing geeks set a standard for geekdom that's still beloved today.

Those films, of course, were Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Weird Science, all by John Hughes, the director of the only zany high school movies in a decade of zany high school movies to retain any lasting value; others are camp classics, sure, but Hughes's were just classics. During the course of the decade, there was a whole group of teen actors associated with Hughes that included Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe and Demi Moore -- you might remember them as the Brat Pack -- but Hughes' relationship with Hall was special (not gross special): Essentially, Hall was playing Hughes. He was the director's younger version of himself.

So it's not surprising that the director infused the characters he gave to Hall with a humanity that other portrayals of dweebs as a subculture had never bothered before to do -- but it took Hall to capture it. "Every single kid who came in to read for the part of the freshman in 'Sixteen Candles' did the whole stereotyped high school nerd thing," Hughes once told the Chicago Tribune. "You know -- thick glasses, ball point pens in the pocket, white socks. But when Michael came in he played it straight, like a real human being. I knew right at that moment that I'd found my geek."

Here he is alongside Molly Ringwald in the first of the trilogy, Sixteen Candles, where he's a secondary character but absolutely steals the show:

In Sixteen Candles, he's a less a conventional geek and more just eccentric, a quirky, hyperactive kid who provides comic relief for the more melodramatic proceedings of Ringwald (he is, however, credited only as "the Geek"). It's a year later in The Breakfast Club that he really nails it: bookish and frail and decidedly not a threat to anyone, yet in his own way kind of outgoing and even a little cool. He has his moments, anyway, to break his self-imposed mold, like this one, where he gets stoned and does his best pimp:

And he has a certain courage about him, too: Despite his standing on arguably the lowest present rung of the social ladder, he's also the only one with the balls to reach out and try to find some common ground, in a way becoming the group's tenuous anchor.

Coming out later that same year, Weird Science is probably the worst of the three, a flat portrayal that hewed closer to the persecuted, humiliated nerd archetype than the other two previously had -- still, though Hall makes his character's constant discomfort palpable, he still manages to make him likeable and even a little admirable, though his moment of glory feels pretty contrived, and also involves mutants, which, seriously... mutants.

The good times were drawing to a close.

Besides Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Hughes's magnum opus (which came out a year after Weird Science), neither of the two would ever recapture what they made with those fantastic three -- Hughes would go on to dabble in such awful turds as Dennis the Menace and Home Alone 3, while Hall had a weird breakdown and, after years of alcohol problems and falling out of favor, now pretty much makes cameos in movies that reference the '80s as himself.

But it's still saying something that the sad intervening years have done nothing to tarnish the shine of three great movies that almost single-handedly (tri-handedly?) paved the way for geeks and nerds to move from the objects of social ostracization they were in the '80s to the revered pillars of awesome (at least to us) we are today. Or at least made us feel better about ourselves.

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2 comments
cdthomas
cdthomas

So, okay. His comeback era, with his bulked-up capacities as a leading man, mean nothing?

The radical way he became a bully during EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, trivial?

His six years as lead on THE DEAD ZONE, just a bump on the highway of your overdetermined nerd-god narrative? Way to limit a career to prove your point.

He can kick back now (as on COMMUNITY) and mock not just his nerd but now jock images; he's earned it.

John Hughes
John Hughes

I was thinking the same thing. How could a writer who is supposed to cover entertainment not know about Dead Zone (cable's most successful show at the time), Pirates of Silicone Valley (which was spectacular) or Six Degrees of Separation, all roles in which Hall received critical acclaim.

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