John Hughes (February 18, 1950-August 6, 2009)
“We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.”
For millions of Americans the first strains of Simple Minds’ “(Don’t You) Forget About Me” send shivers down their spines. It’s not because it’s such a great song. It’s good, don’t get me wrong. But if it hadn’t been for John Hughes, the song probably would have gotten lost in the shuffle of all of the other synth pop of the mid-80s. But because he chose to use it as the theme song to The Breakfast Club, it has become an anthem of teen angst and discovery for over two decades.
But John Hughes wasn’t always the spokesman for 80s teens. He got his start as a writer for National Lampoon. It was there that he wrote the story that inspired what is probably actually the best movie he was involved with, National Lampoon’s Vacation. It was an account of his family trips as a kid and how his dad tried so hard to take them on the perfect vacation, but everything got in the way. Vacation is a great movie that never lets up on the laughs in order to stick to realism. It’s how everyone remembers their family vacations and that’s what makes it pretty much perfect.
(Vacation wasn’t the first thing he wrote. Before that he wrote episodes of the Animal House tv series (Delta House) the classic Mr. Mom and the not so classic National Lampoon movie, Class Reunion.)
It wasn’t until the next year, 1984, that he started on his trek through the halls of Shermer High. Sixteen Candles (his directorial debut), as over the top and border-line racist as it is, is a classic of the teen genre and started a movement of teen movies that still hasn’t stopped. It’s success made people in Hollywood finally realize (once again) that teenagers were a viable audience for something besides horror and sci-fi. Molly Ringwald’s decent into teen hell when her parents forget her birthday is crazy, unrealistic and hilarious.
A year later he hit his peak with The Breakfast Club. This time out Hughes threw some actual drama into the mix. The brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess and the criminal were stereotypes, but they were real. And everyone knew it. Seeing that movie as a teenager really let an entire generation know that they weren’t alone. There were others out there like them. And sometimes they were in a completely different social class. Everyone had problems that they couldn’t handle on their own.
The craziest thing about the movie is that it was written in two days. All the insight and empathy for teenagers came out in two days. Sure, some of it was ad-libbed by the actors (including the scene where they’re sitting in a circle talking about why they were there), but Hughes managed something that a lot of Hollywood types never could: he got kids right.
Weird Science was next. It’s actually a pretty bad movie, but screw it. It’s pretty hilarious in its stupidity. And it has a shit monster. ‘Cause why not?
1986 was the year that Hughes started to groom his successor, Howard Deutsch. He wrote Pretty In Pink, which is a classic tale of a girl who was in love with the popular boy. But her best friend, Duckie, stole the show. Everyone knows that he should have ended up with her. Some Kind Of Wonderful was basically the same movie, but the genders were switched. (Hughes would also write The Great Outdoors for Deutsch before the two would part ways.)
Hughes would take one more dip into the teen pool with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Maybe not as insightful as The Breakfast Club, but it is probably a better movie. The characters are less stereotyped and less traumatized by their teen angst. (Ok, Cameron is pretty traumatized, but he’s funnier than any of the characters in Breakfast Club.)
After writing Some Kind Of Wonderful, Hughes did something truly crazy…he gave up on writing teenagers. His next few films were more adult in theme. His directorial efforts (Planes, Trains And Automobiles, She’s Having A Baby and Uncle Buck) were all about people having to grow up and be adults, even if they didn’t want to. (Yes, even PTA had some of that going on. Look at John Candy’s character.) Career Opportunities sort of managed to combine both, but the main things it had going for it were Jennifer Connelly’s breasts.
Eventually, Hughes gave up on adults altogether and started writing movies about kids getting the better of adults. Home Alone, Dutch, Dennis The Menace, Baby’s Day Out, Curly Sue (the last film he directing in 1991) and many others were parts of his downhill slide into sort of being a joke. Sure, Home Alone made billions of dollars…but was it really a good movie? Meh.
In 1998 he went back to his roots when he wrote Reach The Rock, the story of a teenager who watched a friend die after betting him that he couldn’t make it to a rock in the middle of the lake. The boy runs away only to come back to terrorize the town during one night of breaking windows and trying to hang out with his old girlfriend. The movie, directed by Hughes’ one-time assistant, William Ryan, failed to catch anyone’s attention. It opened on three screens and then went straight to video. It has yet to be released on DVD.
The year that really changed Hughes’ life, though, was 1994. Already realizing that he didn’t know teenagers anymore, he suddenly found out that Hollywood was not the place for him or his family. His good friend and frequent star, John Candy, died. According to Hughes, Hollywood killed him. Hughes packed up his family and moved them to a small town in Wisconsin where he lived until the day he died.
Hughes continued writing, but his screenplays never added up to much. He thought about coming out of retirement to direct his screenplay for Maid In Manhattan, but (thankfully) decided against it. In fact, he took his name off the screenplay, using his pseudonym, Edmond Dantes. (This is also the name he used when he wrote Beethoven. Good plan.) Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen picked up an unfinished script of his from the 80s called Drillbit Taylor. They finished it and made the movie, but no one cared.
John Hughes may have ended his career with a whimper, but that hardly matters. The highs of his early career far outweigh all five of the Beethoven movies. Hell, if he had only made The Breakfast Club he would be remembered as one of the most insightful directors of teen films. He helped a lot of kids through those dark times that we call the teen years. And his films will continue to help kids realize that they aren’t alone. Everyone went through the same bullshit. And, yes, it’s very important at the time. But we all make it through. We all find out where we should be and who we are. And we all get over the crap that is high school.
Maybe not one of the greatest directors of all time, he is one of the most important as far as pop culture goes. Without him a lot of people would not have careers today. They would not have been inspired to make their own films about their own angst.
We were all teenagers once. Some of us still are. For all of us, there will always be John Hughes.
For proof of what a genuinely nice guy John Hughes was, check this out. It’s pretty amazing.