Sympathy for Richard Vernon

Two months, Bender.  Don't mess with the bull, young man, you'll get the horns.

Two months, Bender. Don’t mess with the bull, young man, you’ll get the horns.

A quick editorial note:  This is an update of an old post from an old blog.  But I was watching The Breakfast Club the other day and thought about it so I dusted it off and posted it here.

Saturday, March 24, 1984. Shermer High School, Shermer, Illinois. 60062.

Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was that we did wrong. What we did WAS wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make us write this essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us…in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Correct? That’s the way we saw each other at seven o’clock this morning. We were brainwashed.

So begins what is arguably the best teen-oriented movie of all time, John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club. I have, in past lives, written what seems like volumes on this movie and just about anyone under the age of 40 who watches movies is familiar with its story, so I won’t bore you to death with the details of the plot. Instead, I’m going to focus on the one teacher character in the school, Mr. Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason).

Vernon, of course, is the overseer of the five students central to the plot, a veteran vice principal who’s been putting kids in detention probably for longer than he can remember and makes sure that they’re behaving and on task, at least for the first part of the movie before the kids sneak out of the library to get a bag of pot from Bender’s (Judd Nelson) locker. Bender’s the main source of grief for Vernon; he’s a detention regular and the group’s resident “rebel.” Vernon fills the authority figure role well when he comes down hard on Bender for talking back, assigning him two months’ worth of detentions and expels him from the library when he catches him in the gym.

Then, he crosses a line. After throwing Bender in a storage closet, Vernon threatens him …

Vernon: That’s the last time, Bender. That the last time you ever make me look bad in front of those kids, you hear me? I make $31,000 a year and I have a home and I’m not about to throw it all away on some punk like you. But someday when you’re outta here and you’ve forgotten all about this place and they’ve forgotten all about you, and you’re wrapped up in your own pathetic life, I’m gonna be there. That’s right. And I’m gonna kick the living shit out of you. I’m gonna knock your dick in the dirt.

Bender: You threatening me?

Vernon: What are you gonna do about it? You think anyone’s gonna believe you? You think anyone is 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. Oh, you’re a tough guy. Hey c’mon. Get on your feet pal. Let’s find out how tough you are. I wanna know right now how tough you are.

[offers Bender his chin]

Just take the first shot. I’m begging you, take a shot. Just one hit. Come on, that’s all I need, just one swing…

[Bender pauses, staring]

That’s what I thought. You’re a gutless turd.

On some level, you can take this as the scene where we all see Vernon as a symbol for all of the overbearing horrible authority figures that keep teenagers from doing anything they want; after all, the most memorable line from The Breakfast Club  is “When you get old, your heart dies.” But if you follow Vernon after the incident, you get a sense that he’s not proud of what he just did and his subsequent conversation with Carl, the janitor, reveals that he’s more than just a caricature of an ineffective authority figure (which is what Mr. Rooney from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off  is). Carl and Vernon have a pretty standard conversation about “kids these days” and how they don’t respect anything. Carl calls bullshit on that sentiment, saying that Vernon has changed just as much as he thinks the kids have.

The_Breakfast_ClubThere’s not much more than that, but for Vernon it’s the climax to his part of the story.  Watch Paul Gleason’s performance carefully enough and you’ll see that Vernon is not reveling in his role as disciplinarian.  Earlier in the film, when he and Bender have a heated back and forth that puts Bender in detention for two months, Vernon leaves the library and gives a nervous sigh of relief.  It’s a split second that could have been cut by any other director, especially when Vernon is set up to be the “villain” of the piece, but Hughes leaves it in because it’s clearly a moment of possible regret that gives Vernon more humanity.

Even Vernon’s obvious boredom at times (he builds some random object with pencils and a Styrofoam cup) suggests that he’s more of a frustrated idealist than a hard ass, and I think you really sympathize with him during his conversation with Carly because Carl is actually a former student of his; not only that, but there’s a picture of him in the beginning of the movie as one of Shermer High School’s Men of the Year. Not that a janitor is a terrible job, but it all symbolizes the fact that Vernon, on some level feels he’s failed the students he’s supposed to watch over.

And isn’t that the conundrum of teaching high school? I mean, you’re in with these students for 180 days a year and sometimes you wonder how important their time spent in high school actually is. Especially considering that some valedictorians become total screw-ups and some screw-ups become high-powered attorneys. It’s good to see kids like that getting their act together, yes, but as an educator you start to wonder if you even matter. That’s when you get to be Richard Vernon, threatening a criminal in a storage closet.

I give credit not only to John Hughes, but the late Paul Gleason for making this character more than a one-dimensional prick like, say, James Tolkan’s Mr. Strickland in Back to the Future (which is a great character that doesn’t need to be more rounded … but I was thinking of a contemporary example).  It’s one of those characters that could be a lot worse in the hands of lesser actors.  And it’s one of the many things that makes a nearly three-decades-old movie relevant.

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