John Hughes: “Don’t you… Forget about me.”
Hughes – who died from a heart-attack last week at the age of 59 – can’t really be compared to Jackson in terms of fame or artistry. Most people probably never saw a picture of him before this week. But don’t underestimate Hughes’ impact on those teenagers who would turn into slackers and Generation X – or maybe they were the X-ers older brothers and sisters?
For a ten-year spell, roughly between 1984 and 1994, Hughes produced hit after hit after hit. In an astonishing burst of creativity he wrote 20 produced screenplays in that period, and directed eight of them, starting with Sixteen Candles (1984) and including The Breakfast Club (1984), Weird Science (1985), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), and Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987).
He introduced several new stars in the process, Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Anthony Michael Hall, John Cusack – the core of the so-called Brat Pack – plus the once ubiquitous Macaulay Culkin. He gave director Chris Columbus his start; Alec Baldwin, Steve Carrel… Most importantly, he reinvented the teen movie in his own image.
Hughes was born in 1950, in Michigan – a privileged, comfortable time and place to come into the world. His father worked in sales, the family was firmly middle class, and if there was much wrong with this world it never showed up in his films (“I didn’t have a tortured childhood,” he told the New York Times in 1991. “I liked it.”).
When Hughes was 13 they moved to Chicago, the setting for many of his movies and, along with Matthew Broderick, the star attraction in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He found work as an advertising copywriter, then started getting published in National Lampoon magazine. His first produced screenplay was National Lampoon’s Class Reunion (1982), a sequel to the wildly popular Animal House.
Thirty six more scripts followed, and those are the ones that were made. He wrote ten screenplays in 1990 alone. Planes, Trains and Automobiles – his funniest film – took all of three days. The last 44 pages of Home Alone – in essence, the last half of the movie – he wrote in eight hours.
Hughes always wrote comedy, but when it came to making his own films he backed off from the zany. He emphasized the normal and the everyday; his films are only slightly exaggerated versions of suburban life. They take place in high schools, in shopping malls, and in automobiles. Family life, peer pressure, and teen romance were his subjects, and if the Griswolds in National Lampoon’s Vacation were disastrous in many respects, Hughes’ satire was almost always affectionate, even sentimental.
They’re also strikingly chaste, at least in contrast with today’s teen comedies – though Judd Apatow has acknowledged that Hughes was a big influence on him (“the only difference is the four-letter words”, he says). He didn’t condescend to his teenagers, but took them as seriously as they took themselves. In that sense, his influence has been largely benign, and can be felt in many, even most, of the teen movies that are still a Hollywood staple twenty years on.
Hughes was also a pragmatic populist – a man who had figured out the size of the teen audience, and saw that a film called Sixteen Candles would always find a new audience every year. He was proud to make films for the mainstream, and felt that if he had them laughing he must be doing something right. That limited his reach as an artist, and may be one reason why he quit the business while he was still ahead.
As a director, he wasn’t particularly subtle or imaginative, and his output is often average, or worse (Weird Science; Curly Sue). But he was a gifted editor, with excellent timing; he had an ear for music – Simple Minds owe their US success to The Breakfast Club – and he invariably got good performances out of his actors. Partly, one suspects, because he insisted that they come to make films with him in Chicago, where they had no choice but to concentrate on the job at hand.
For all the emphasis on teenagers and children in his work, in some ways Hughes’ most heartfelt character wasn’t a kid at all, but the kind and generous, lonely and rather pathetic figure played by John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Uncle Buck, among seven Hughes productions in all… Candy invariably played a guy in desperate need of the family that Hughes was good enough to bestow on him.
When Candy died in 1994, at age 44, few imagined at the time that Hughes own career was all but over. He didn’t direct another film after 1991, and retired from the business for reasons he felt no compulsion to share with the public. It seems safe to assume he had said his piece. Doubtless he would have taken considerable satisfaction from the glowing obituaries that stand in sharp contrast with the most negative reviews he received during his lifetime, but then he had nothing more to prove. For the last 15 years of his life he lived quietly with his family, and that was enough.
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