It is with the heaviest of heart that I write this article tonight. It isn’t often that the death of someone in the entertainment industry affects me but the passing today of director John Hughes has done just that. Hughes, 59, died of a heart attack this morning in Manhattan. According to published reports all over the Internet, Hughes was taking his morning walk when he collapsed and died.
John Hughes was the spokesman for a generation of teenagers and young adults (of which I was one) in the 1980’s and was certainly one of the decade’s most popular filmmakers. Many of his films touched on the angst of being a teenager and no one hit the nail on the head like his movies did. Hughes’ movies were unlike most of the teen comedies of the 80’s. Most of those films were silly, goofy comedies about teenagers trying to lose their virginity. These films were filled with sex, nudity and plenty of partying and beer swilling. Hughes’ films were filled with characters so real we all knew someone just like them and, perhaps, was even one of those characters. His characters had the real problems of teenagers – being in love, trying to love up to the expectations that parents and adults placed on them, wanting to fit in or be cool. Real teenagers.
Hughes’ films were so real and so popular that it was an unexpected shock when he created his one film for, and about adults, the R-rated Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Hughes proved with this film that he could also write intelligent adult characters (even if they weren’t so intelligent) living in a real world with real problems. Hughes injected plenty of his characteristic madcap comedic sequences (while getting great performances from his stars, Steve Martin and John Candy) but also brings a lump to your throat at the end and created, at least in my mind, his masterpiece. If it already isn’t, Planes, Trains and Automobiles should be a Thanksgiving viewing tradition much like A Christmas Story and It’s A Wonderful Life are for Christmas.
Ah, but the teenage movies is where Hughes will likely be best remembered. Before making his first film he wrote two of the most popular comedies of 1983, National Lampoon’s Vacation with Chevy Chase (starring in one of his few really good movies) and Mr. Mom, Michael Keaton’s debut as the star of a movie. But it was 1984 when Hughes wrote and directed his first movie, Sixteen Candles, starring Molly Ringwald as a young lady turning 16 during a tumultuous time when her sister is preparing to get married. Because of this her birthday is forgotten. Worse yet is Ringwald’s crush on the high school hunk whom she fears would never notice a plain Jane like her. Anthony Michael Hall gave a near star making performance as the school geek desperately trying to get Ringwald’s attention.
Next up for Hughes was what has become one of his most popular films, The Breakfast Club, which reunited Ringwald and Hall and co-starred Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson. The simple story of 5 vastly different kids spending a day in detention grabbed the attention of kids all over the country. These 5 spend the day comparing lives and discover that despite the different circles they all run in, they really weren’t all that different from one another. Its dialog was sharp and funny and Hughes at his very best.
For me, Hughes’ next film, Weird Science, was a serious mis-calculation. Hughes took his very real teenagers and placed them in a silly science-fictiony plot involving the creation of the perfect woman. The film gets bogged down in one long party and special effects that totally belong in another movie. It was a good director’s worst film. Thankfully Hughes bounced back with his next (and likely best remembered) film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off starring Matthew Broderick as a high school misfit who ditches school with his girlfriend and best friend for a long day in Chicago. While the film is very contrived at times (even Hughes admits to such in his DVD commentary) it is still filled with enough fun that it no doubt inspired thousands to do the same thing. At the same time he injected enough humor and drama to keep things balanced and created a most entertaining movie.
It was about this time that Hughes started churning out so many scripts he couldn’t possibly direct them all. So while he was shooting his next movie, She’s Having A Baby, several other films went into production with other directors taking the helm. It is telling fact that none of these movies approached the greatness of Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller. The first of those films, Pretty In Pink, came the closest to what Hughes strived for and was the very popular. Hughes would also script two of the Vacation sequels, European and Christmas.
She’s Having A Baby was also a bit of a departure for Hughes as his story centered around adults in their 20’s getting married, trying to secure life jobs and starting a family. Unfortunately the film’s mature themes were sometimes undermined by odd fantasy sequences including a musical number featuring men and their lawnmowers. The film is not totally successful but it has some strong moments and should be seen.
Meanwhile more Hughes scripted films seemed to be popping up every few months and, sadly, most of them were weak, but this is not a roast so I will leave it at that.
After She’s Having A Baby in 1988 Hughes would only direct two more movies, the pleasant Uncle Buck with John Candyand his only other poor directorial effort, Curly Sue. But his greatest success by far was as writer and producer of one of the biggest comedy hits of all time, Home Alone (and, unfortunately, the next two sequels).
It seemed that after 1991 Hughes lost interest in film making. After only 8 movies he never directed another and concentrated on producing and writing but even then his credits in the last decade of his life were few and far between. His reclusiveness became legendary. It is not even known what he did for most of the last 15 years of his life though he did have two sons and some grandchildren so perhaps he dedicated himself to his family. He refused all interview requests and no new photos of him were published in 9 years. Hughes never explained why he left directing though he did say in an interview in 1999 that he hoped to direct “one more good one.”
Sadly that is not to be but we do have some terrific movies that will live on and keep the memory of John Hughes alive. In the meantime remember the man every Thanksgiving and Christmas when his popular movies are shown with regularity.
It is my fantasy that tonight John Hughes is in a better place having a beer with John Candy discussing a future project that only those invited to can witness. You can bet it will be hilarious. In the meantime I think I will cheer myself up with a viewing of one of his movies. Thankfully for me, and all movie fans out there, I have plenty of choices.