Thursday, June 9, 2011

Ferris Bueller’s Way Off: 25th Anniversary of a Twisted Classic

This Saturday marks the 25th Anniversary of an American classic. On June 11, 1986, the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off premiered.

John Hughes directed Matthew Broderick as high school senior Ferris, Jennifer Grey as his sister Jeanie, Lyman Ward and Cindy Pickett as his parents, Alan Ruck as Ferris’ best friend Cameron Frye, Mia Sara as his luscious girlfriend Sloane Peterson (Ferris? Cameron? Sloane? Who gives kids last names as first names?), Jeffrey Jones as vice principal Edward R. Rooney, Edie McClurg as Rooney’s secretary Grace, Ben Stein as an economics professor (presaging his similar role in the TV series The Wonder Years), and Charlie Sheen as a ginker who Jeanie meets at the police station.

The action takes place in Chicago and in Shermer, Illinois, 15 miles northwest of the city, based on Hughes’ real-life hometown of Northbrook. (Until he was 12 he lived in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit.) Northbrook’s original name was Shermerville, and his alma mater, Glenbrook North High School, is on Shermer Road. We know it’s 15 miles because of the differences in the mileage on the odometer on the Ferrari between North Lake Shore Drive and Cameron’s house. Hughes set a lot of his films in this fictional town, including Weird Science, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink. The “home” scenes of National Lampoon’s Vacation, Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Home Alone were also set there (though not all were filmed in Northbrook, some of these were filmed in Winnetka, Illinois. The Bueller house and the streets around it were in Long Beach, California; the rest was in Chicago and the suburbs (including the Frank Lloyd Wright-ish Frye house, in Highland Park, Illinois).

In the film, Ferris decides this spring weekday (I usually think it's April but this is not specified in the script) in his senior year at Shermer High School is too nice a day to spend in school. So he fakes out his parents, pretends to be sick, convinces Cameron (who appears to actually be sick) that neither one of them is sick, and gets his girlfriend out of school on a phony death in the family. Then they head for the big city, have some fun, run a couple of cons, and head home, and have to face the consequences of their actions... sort of.

All the while, Mr. Rooney is trying to catch Ferris cutting school. (That Sloane is also cutting appears to be incidental to him. That Cameron is also cutting appears not to be something he’s even aware of.) He heads for the mall, thinking Ferris might be there, and gets embarrassed. He goes to the Bueller home, and gets nearly shredded by their Rottweiler and attacked by Jeanie (who’s also trying to catch Ferris in the act, and fails, hence the police station).

How many times have I seen this movie? Maybe 15. After 25 years it remains the only movie I have ever literally laughed all the way home from. And it helped make Jennifer Grey a star, which is a good thing.

Yeah, Ferris was a legend. A great guy. Right?

As ESPN’s Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friend!”

Top 10 Reasons Why Ferris Bueller Wasn’t Such a Great Guy

These are in chronological order, as we saw them (or saw or heard evidence of them) in the film.

1. He Lied to His Parents. He licked the palms of his hands: “The key to faking out the parents is the clammy hands. It’s a good non-specific symptom. I’m a big believer in it.”

Now, I was finishing up my junior year at East Brunswick High School in the wilds of Central Jersey when this movie came out. Did I ever try this with my parents? No. Do you know why? Because my parents are not blithering idiots, and no movie script could make them pretend that they were.

Believe me, I understand the reasoning behind lying to one’s parents. After all, everybody’s done things they don’t want Mom and Dad to find out about. But, as Watergate taught us, and as my parents confirmed on a number of occasions, it’s just not just the crime that gets you, it’s the cover-up.

Is there ever a time when lying to your parents is a good thing? Let’s just say it’s really, really rare. There may -- may -- be ONE time in your teenage years when something happens that it’s better for your parents to not find out about and you need to cover it up or deny it. Otherwise, it’s a big, big no-no. In fact, it’s one of the Top 10. No, scratch that, it involves TWO of the Top 10: “Honor thy father and thy mother” and “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”

Also, Ferris calling the clammy hands “a good non-specific symptom”? Broderick later played a World War II soldier in Biloxi Blues, but if he’d been on NCIS, Leroy Jethro Gibbs would have slapped him on the back of the head for violating Rule Number 7: “Always be specific when you lie.” Why? Because the more specific the lie is, the more believable it will sound, and the more likely you are to have the person(s) you’re lying to buy it. Otherwise, you’re just insulting the lie-ee’s intelligence. Which is fine, if your parents are idiots like the Buellers. Not all of Gibbs’ Rules have yet been revealed onscreen, but one of them should be, “Never presume your opponent is an idiot.” Or, “Be the underestimated, never the underestimator.”

2. He Rubbed It In His Sister’s Face. When his parents are looking at him, “sick” in bed, he acts sick. When they turn away, and Jeanie is looking at him, already suspecting that he’s faking, he gives her the “Sh!” Gesture to confirm her suspicion. Is he still mad that she (the presumably younger sister) got a car, while he got a computer?

(In the brief, transplanted-to-L.A., awful 1990 TV version, where Ferris is played by Charlie Schlatter and Jeanie by a pre-Friends Jennifer Aniston, Ferris says, “Who’s kidding who? She got a car AND a nosejob.” Grey, post-nosejob, would later appear on Friends with Aniston, as Rachel’s ex-best friend Mindy, who married Rachel’s would-be husband Barry the dentist.)

I have a sister. Have I ever rubbed anything in her face? Yeah, I have. Has she done the same to me? Not as often, but yes. But this was mean. Ferris may have been the big brother, but he was being a very little man here. (No, that’s not a reference to Ferris/Broderick being short.)

3. He Cut School. A Lot. How many times that semester alone? Say it with me: “Nine times!” “If I go for 10,” he admitted in one of his periodic breaks of the fourth wall, as he set up his synthesizer to produce fake sounds of snoring, sneezing and coughing, “I’m probably gonna have to barf up a lung, so I’d better make this one count.” Gee, not real big on remorse, are ya, F.B.?

4. He Took Advantage of His Sick Best Friend. Cameron WAS sick. Probably with the flu. Does Ferris consider this? Does Ferris consider that spending the day with a clearly sick Cameron would make him sick? Does Ferris consider that it might make Sloane, the girl he allegedly loves, sick? Not by a long shot.

So Ferris pesters Cameron. "He'll keep calling me, he'll keep calling me... " Cameron whines in his car, which, as Ferris points out, is a piece of shit. (Or, in the cleaned-up-for-TV version, "a piece of tin." Which is more physically accurate.) And he makes Cameron impersonate Sloane's father in order to get her excused from school.

(Speaking of things that are cleaned up for TV, if you're going to clean it up for TV, why leave in the words, "Pardon my French"? Both Ferris and Cameron use it. Ferris says, "Pardon my French, but Cameron is so uptight, if you stuck a lump of coal up his ass, in 2 weeks, you'd have a diamond." On TV, it becomes "If you stuck a lump of coal in his fist..." Which makes a lot less sense and isn't nearly as funny. And, when yelling at Rooney, Cameron-as-Mr.-Peterson yells, "Pardon my French, but you're an asshole!" Which, on TV, becomes, "Pardon my French, but you're an idiot!" He was right both times: Rooney is an asshole and an idiot, but, come on, "idiot" is not a "Pardon my French" word! So the TV censors were idiots!)

And then there’s the car, a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California, belonging to Cameron’s father, Morris Frye (whom we never see -- in fact, we never see either of his parents, or Sloane's, even as first Cameron and then Ferris impersonate Mr. Peterson). Cameron says that less than 100 of this particular model were ever built. (Which is why Hughes' production company only used one real one, and made 3 replicas, including for the scene where Cameron stomps on it and then inadvertently wrecks it.) Cameron also says, "Ferris, my father loves this car more than life itself." And, later, "He loves the car, he hates his wife." (Cameron uses his parents’ hatred of each other as a reason why the 18-year-old Ferris and the 17-year-old Sloane, who still has another year of high school to go, shouldn’t get married.)

Did Cameron blunder by saying he, posing as Sloane’s father on the phone, wanted Sloane released from school alone? No. He’d already gotten Rooney flustered enough that he would have done almost anything. (Apparently, in Shermer, most of the adults are room-temperature IQs.) Did he then compound the blunder by saying Rooney should walk out with Sloane? Yes, but then, Cameron offered Ferris two perfectly reasonable alternatives to using Dad’s Ferrari – which just so happened to have the key still in the ignition, a dumb thing to do if you love the car that much. Cameron offered to rent a Cadillac: “My treat!” And he suggested, “We could call a limo! Nice stretch job with a TV and a bar!” Either suggestion would fit with the Petersons’ apparent wealth; the latter would be especially appropriate during a funerary time. But Ferris wanted to drive the Ferrari.

To his credit, after Cameron “killed the car” near the end of the movie (you know, the more I think about it, the more this Eighties classic is starting to sound like a Hangover-type flick, without the gross-out stuff), Ferris offered to take the bullet for Cameron: “I’ll take the blame. I’ll tell your Dad that I did it. He hates me, anyway.” But there would have been no bullet to take if Ferris had just done the right thing and rented the Caddy or the limo.

(I also just found out, in the process of writing this piece, why a kid in the suburbs of Chicago, home of the NHL’s Blackhawks, would wear a jersey of the Hawks' arch-rivals, the Detroit Red Wings: Hughes’ childhood in the Detroit suburbs. The Wings’ greatest star, Number 9, Gordie Howe, was his biggest sports hero, even after his family moved to Northbrook.)

5. He Took Advantage of His Girlfriend. No, I don’t mean in a sexual way – at least, not onscreen. First, Ferris has Sloane thinking that her grandmother has died. Remember her reaction? This was not the face of a girl who knew that her boyfriend was behind this. It wasn’t until she saw Ferris – standing in front of the Ferrari, wearing the trenchcoat, the shades and the hat, impersonating her father – that she realized, “My Grandma’s alive! And my boyfriend is awesome!” No, he’s not: He had you thinking your Grandma was DEAD! All so he could cut school.

True, he did want Cameron and Sloane to also have a great day. But was it worth it for them to be used like that? Cameron, by the end of the movie, seemed to think it was. (Say, what DID happen to his flu?) Sloane apparently agreed.

6. He Scammed the Entire Chicago Metropolitan Area. “SAVE FERRIS” signs went up everywhere, from the Shermer water tower to the electronic portion of the familiar Wrigley Field marquee!

Seriously, how do you do that? It couldn’t have simply been something that snowballed. Sesame Street did a sketch like that, back in the late Seventies: Grover sang, “I just a got a postcard, here is what it said: ‘How are you? I am fine. It is cold. Love, Amy.’” Soon, the whole Street, from Big Bird to Gordon to Bob to Mr. Looper – I mean, Hooper – is thinking Amy is deathly sick and needs surgery, before Grover sets them straight.

Okay, I can see getting an entire school to think you’re sick as a dog. But conning the Cubs? Well, maybe. We’re not talking about an organization that’s been known for smart decisions. Besides, pay a sports team enough money, and they’ll put anything (short of profanity or defamation) on one of their signs or boards.

But the water tower? This was not some kid spray-painting it on: This was a professionally-painted “SAVE FERRIS,” which would not have been approved by the municipal government unless they were convinced that the kid in question needed contributions to pay for his health care. And, since we’ve seen the Bueller house, and we know that Mrs. Bueller is a real estate agent and Mr. Bueller works in a high-rise office downtown, we know they’re not exactly hurting for cash. They can afford health insurance for their kids. So why would the town allow this message on their water tower? Maybe it was a bribe. Nah, can't be. After all, it’s not like the Chicago area is known for political corruption...

7. He Impersonated a Business Mogul. Ferris looked on the reservation list at Chez Quis, a very ritzy French restaurant in downtown Chicago (it didn’t really exist then, and doesn’t now), and saw only one party of 3 for anywhere near the time they were there, and used the name that was on it, “Abe Frohman.” The maitre d’ doesn’t buy it, knowing full well that Abe Frohman is “the Sausage King of Chicago.” (If the maitre d’ recognized the name, why didn’t Ferris?) Using Sloane’s help (pretending to be someone wanting to talk to Frohman) and Cameron’s (pretending to be the cop that Ferris threatened to call as a preemptive strike against the maitre d’ calling the police), he gets away with it.

But why did he get away with it? Since there aren’t a whole lot of Abrahams in the generation that produced Ferris and me, and Broderick doesn’t exactly look Jewish (although he is, on his mother’s side, Irish on his father’s), and the real Frohman was really unlikely to be wearing a leather jacket over a leopard-print vest over a T-shirt, I’m surprised the maitre d’ went along with it, especially since he was ready to call the cops on them. (Which could have worked, after all, it’s not like the Chicago Police Department has a reputation for corruption... )

Look at the maitre d’s face after they’re seated: He knows the real Frohman by face, you can bet your ass on that, and he knows that this punk kid (or, rather, considering the band posters in his room, this New Wave kid) is not Frohman. But there’s nothing he can do about it, right? Hello, ask to see his I.D.! After all, this is a French restaurant. I’m guessing wine is served. You have to be 21 or over. (Well, maybe it was still 18 in Illinois in 1986.) See the driver’s license, know that this is Ferris Bueller and not Abraham Frohman, and toss him out!

What do you suppose happened when the real Abe Frohman found out that Ferris took his table at Chez Quis? I’m guessing he was displeased. But then, if Frohman could afford to eat at Chez Quis, chances are he could afford to get into any restaurant in the city. Or, as Tommy Lee Jones might’ve said, in the film version of The Fugitive, also set in the Chicago area, he could get a reservation at every steakhouse, chophouse, ribhouse, Waffle House and Hunan House in the area. So maybe Abe wasn’t that upset. Still, if someone took MY table at a restaurant, as happened to the singer Pink in her song “So What,” I might also want to start a fight.

8. He Hijacked a Parade. Bueller is a German name, and German-Americans – by 1986, they no longer had to worry about discrimination or suspicion like they did in the era of the World Wars – celebrate their heritage on Von Steuben Day, on or around September 17, the anniversary of the birth of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (von-SHTOY-ben, 1730-1794), who left the Prussian army under dubious circumstances and then helped George Washington whip the Continental Army into shape during the War of the American Revolution. Parades in his memory are held in New York, Philadelphia and, as seen in the movie, Chicago. Hughes filmed during Chicago’s real Von Steuben Day parade on September 28, 1985, so while the film has it in the spring, for some reason, at least it really was Von Steuben Day when they filmed.

So how did a high school student playing hooky get to jump on a float in a municipal parade (i.e. sponsored by the City government) and sing Wayne Newton’s semi-German song “Danke Schoen” and the Beatles’ cover version of the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout”? In real life, someone who tried that would have been pulled off the float by the cops before finishing the first verse! (Well, maybe Ferris could have bribed the cops to look the other way. Another bribe? Nah... )

9. He Got Away With It All, Thus Inspiring Others to Do So. Remember what Rooney told Grace, his secretary, near the beginning of the film? “What bothers me about Ferris Bueller is that he gives good kids bad ideas.”

Here I come to what is the source of this critique – above and beyond my desire to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of this movie: An article that Cracked magazine put in its online edition, about movies whose bad guys weren’t so bad after all:

Mr. Rooney was the mean old Dean of Students who spent the entire movie trying to prove that Ferris was skipping school while pretending to be sick. What a mistrustful tight-ass. Why the hell does he care so much if one student takes a day off?

Let's get the obvious out of the way: this is his goddamned job... People are always all up the public schools system's digestive tract for not taking a more active interest in their students and that's exactly what Mr. Rooney was doing. It doesn't matter if, on a personal level, he's a dick or not -- he is literally paid with your tax money to make sure kids aren't doing exactly what Ferris did. The kid can go to a museum and drive a sports car on the weekend. During the week, he and the other kids are Rooney's responsibility so they can, you know, get an education.

And you know what? He was right all along. Ferris was skipping school. Worse yet, he lied to his parents and friends about being sick and pretty much got the whole town involved in the farce. He lied, he stole, and he caused millions in property damage by destroying Cameron's dad's beautiful car. That's not adorable, that's just being an egocentric cock. It wouldn't have been a satisfying movie ending to see Rooney expose Bueller for his douchebaggery, but it would have been by far the more just outcome. What happens instead is that Rooney loses his wallet and almost has his nipples ripped off by a Rottweiler.


In the end, Ferris gets saved by Jeanie, his sister – posing as his mother! (This is one thing I’ve always hated about movies & TV shows set in high schools: The kids are, all too often, played by grownups. At the time of filming, September through November 1985, Broderick was 23 and had a serious 5:00 shadow, Grey was 25 and didn’t make Jones’ Rooney think, “Wait a minute, Mrs. Bueller looks damn good for 40” -- instead, she played Ferris' mother and Rooney bought it; and Ruck was a whopping 29. Only Sara, 18, was actually of high school age.) Considering the things Jeanie was saying and thinking about him all through the movie, this is really out of character.

True, her police-station conversation with Charlie Sheen (oh, yeah, there’s something you want to go through in real life) made her think differently, but, come on, this guy (in addition to being Charlie Sheen, but you didn’t yet know what he was going to become) was a damn ginker! (Metalhead, for those of you who didn’t grow up where I did.) He admitted he was arrested for drugs. (I'm presuming possession, if not also intent to sell.) Anything he says, I’m taking with a mine of salt.

And the author of the Cracked piece and I aren’t the only ones upset that Ferris keeps putting one over on the film’s adults. Social scientist Martin Morse Wooster said the film "portrayed teachers as humorless buffoons whose only function was to prevent teenagers from having a good time." Another, Art Silverblatt, asserts that the "adults in Ferris Bueller's Day Off are irrelevant and impotent. Ferris's nemesis, the school disciplinarian, Mr. Rooney, is obsessed with 'getting Bueller.' His obsession emerges from envy. Strangely, Ferris serves as Rooney's role model, as he clearly possesses the imagination and power that Rooney lacks. ... By capturing and disempowering Ferris, Rooney hopes to ... reduce Ferris's influence over other students, which would reestablish adults, that is, Rooney, as traditional authority figures."

Which brings me to a potentially very painful point, for those of you who, like me, love the movie...

10. The Dangling Epilogue. We don't see what happens the next day.

Remember what Rooney said to Grace, before ever leaving his office? Presuming that he would be successful in catching Ferris, Rooney said, “Fifteen years from now, when looks back on the ruin his life has become, he is going to remember Edward Rooney.” Well, there you have it: Built-in sequel. Except they never made one.

In 2001, 15 years after the movie came out, John Hughes was still alive (he died in 2009). Broderick was still alive, married to another 1980s teen icon, Sarah Jessica Parker (did all you Sex and the City fans forget about Square Pegs?), and starring on both stage and screen. Grey was a huge star, having followed up FBDO with Dirty Dancing. Ruck had played a Captain of a starship Enterprise in a Star Trek movie, and was now known as the slimy Stuart Bondek on Spin City. Jones had appeared in a number of character-actor roles, although he had also been busted on a porno charge and is now officially a sex offender. McClurg kept appearing in Hughes films and is still acting. Sara? Actually, despite being, you know, gorgeous, her career never really took off, her next-best-remembered role being as the love interest in Timecop.

But we didn’t need 15 years to see what happened, or the 25 we now have:

• Does anybody think that, when Rooney is riding that bus home at the end, he is thinking of surrendering? Thinking, “Let it go, Ed, it’s just not worth it”? No, he’s got to be more determined than ever. He’s thinking vengeance shall be his. True, he can’t punish Ferris without better evidence than he’s currently got (which, in terms of what’s admissible in court, is bupkis), but he can frame Ferris, or he can wait for one critical slip-up. Failing that, he can bribe Jeanie (once he realizes that the chick who went Bruce Lee on him was Ferris’ sister, not his mother) for evidence. Failing that, he can make Ferris’ life a living purgatory in some way that we haven’t yet considered. But if you think you’ve heard the last of Rooney, well, maybe YOU have – but Ferris sure hasn’t. He still has to get to Graduation Day without getting held back or expelled. As Yogi Berra taught us, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. When we last see them, the film is over, but the schoolyear is not.

• Morris. Cameron’s father. You think the two of them are just, in Cameron’s words, “going to have a little chat”? Oh no. If Morris is everything Cameron has spent the last hour and a half (our time) telling us he is, then Cameron’s ass is grass. He’s not going to college, or anywhere else, on Daddy’s dime. He’s out of the will. He might even get kicked out of the house. Hmmmm, maybe that’s Rooney’s way of getting Ferris: “Come on, Cameron, what has that guy ever done for you? He’s been using you for years, and look what he caused to happen to you. Rat him out. He ain’t worth your friendship.” Would Cameron rat Ferris out? Not if Ferris conned his parents into taking Cameron in, which is certainly possible.

• Speaking of Ferris’ parents, what if they figure it out? It’s bad enough to find out your child has been lying to you and your spouse, but to find out he’s played you for saps? If the Buellers grow brains, they may also grow spines. Ferris’ free ride might soon be over.

• The Petersons. Mr. Peterson’s gotta be mad that Ferris and Cameron used his good name to get his daughter out of class. Mrs. Peterson’s gotta be mad that Ferris “killed her mother.” And if Mrs. Peterson’s mother IS still alive at the time of the movie, I’m guessing she’s not exactly saying, “He’s SUCH a nice boy” either. They could forbid Sloane to ever see Ferris again – and they’d kinda be justified. Or, they could tell Sloane, “It’s us or Ferris.” It would not simply be greed, wanting Mom and Dad’s money, that could lead her to dump Ferris: He put her in some rough situations. (Hell, he even put her in a position where Cameron saw her naked – when she was changing into her bathing suit at Ferris’ house.) True, nothing went REALLY wrong, but it sure as hell could have.

• Even if Ferris, Cameron and Sloane DO all get away with it as far as their parents and Rooney are concerned, there’s the matter of Jeanie. “You owe me, big brother,” she could say to him, “big time.” Yeah, he does owe her. What could she want? (Pay for the nosejob?) Jennifer Grey wasn’t yet “Baby,” but she absolutely could have put Ferris in a corner.

Am I exaggerating? No, I am not. Did you know there was a novelization of the movie? It was written by Todd Strasser, author of The Wave and other teen-angst books. The novelization is no comedy. Ferris, Cameron and Sloane have a conversation about rock stars dying from drugs, not just in the Sixties and Seventies but recently, including James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon of The Pretenders. And while the novelization doesn’t say what Morris does to Cameron upon seeing the corpse of the Ferrari, it does seem to suggest that Cameron is not only emotionally stunted, but emotionally abused. This is a dark book, and while the movie was rated PG, the book would be at least a PG-13, maybe an R.

*

Looking back, it’s easy to see that Ferris wasn’t such a great guy. And the movie has its flaws. In her book Screening Generation X: The Politics and Popular Memory of Youth in Contemporary Cinema, author Christina Lee said it was a "splendidly ridiculous exercise in unadulterated indulgence," and the film "encapsulated the Reagan era's near solipsist worldview and insatiable appetite for immediate gratification — of living in and for the moment."

On the other hand, Ben Stein, who played the economics teacher – and who had previously been a speechwriter for President Nixon, who probably would have called Ferris one of “these bums, you know, blowing up the campuses” – and was very much a Reagan guy and remains a political conservative, has given it his seal of approval, and not just because it launched his career as an actor and a game-show host:

It will never die, because it responds to and calls forth such human emotions. It isn't dirty. There's nothing mean-spirited about it. There's nothing sneering or sniggering about it. It's just wholesome. We want to be free. We want to have a good time. We know we're not going to be able to all our lives. We know we're going to have to buckle down and work. We know we're going to have to eventually become family men and women, and have responsibilities and pay our bills. But just give us a couple of good days that we can look back on.

And you know what? This is a good thing. For an hour and 43 minutes, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off lets you relax and laugh. Should we think about all this stuff while we’re watching it? No. Save that for afterward. While the movie is rolling, enjoy it.

I sure did. Many times. And I will again. After all, like the man said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

But then, it’s a movie. If you miss it, you can play it again.

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