As a 40-something film writer, my formative years of movie going were the early 1980s. There is no reason other than the misguided sentimentality of my blossoming romance with movies that my DVD collection contains such classics of the period as Police Academy, Red Sonja and Bo Derek's Tarzan the Ape Man.
The voices that spoke to me from the movie screen most clearly as a teenager belonged to The Geek, John Bender, Andrew Clark, Duckie, Cameron Frye, Keith Nelson and Ferris Bueller ; the girls my raging hormones pined for were Samantha Baker, Claire Standish, Alison Reynolds, Andie Walsh, Sloane Peterson and Amanda Jones. These people were movie people, sure, but they were real to teenagers like me, who had not seen our daily schoolyard angst played out onscreen so precisely, with such incision and downright coolness.
These were John Hughes' people.
The writer director passed away yesterday aged 59, having suffered a heart attack whilst walking in Manhattan. These were the characters that spoke the writer-director's voice in Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), Pretty In Pink (1986), Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) and Some Kind Of Wonderful (1987). With these characters, Hughes took our words, gave them clarity, depth and resonance, then gave them back to us.
Born February 18, 1950, Hughes was 13 when his family moved to the suburbs of Chicago. The outsider mentality he fought, coupled with his own introspection, became fertile ground for his film career – many of his films were shot in or around the streets he grew up in. Writing short stories, magazine pieces and comedy routines for aspiring stand-ups led to the editorial desk of the iconic satirical journal National Lampoon, and this association came to serve his scriptwriting career well. Riding high after the success of National Lampoon's Animal House, the magazine commissioned several projects and Hughes got his big break as a screenwriter, penning the lowbrow hits Class Reunion (1982) and Vacation (1983, based on his own misadventures on family roadtrips), as well as the non-Lampoon comedy, Mr. Mom (1983).
It was in 1984, with the release of Sixteen Candles, that Hughes began to emerge, as critic Roger Ebert called him, as the “philosopher of adolescence”. The film introduced his muse, Molly Ringwald, as Sam, an adorable but fringe-dwelling individualist stifled by family life, tormented by school and pursued by The Geek (a hilarious Anthony Michael Hall).
Primarily a broad comedy, it nevertheless spoke some heartfelt truths and became a minor hit as the must-see date-movie of the year. Its success paved the way for the film that would define a generation of moviegoers.
The princess. The brain. The athlete. The criminal. The basket case. These five teenage stereotypes –and the authority figures that challenge them – were fleshed out with empathy and honesty in John Hughes 1985 hit, The Breakfast Club. Set one Saturday morning of weekend detention, it features career-best performances from the young cast and assuredness and fluidity in Hughes direction (it was only his second stint behind the camera). The Breakfast Club exposes the fragility of teen emotions and the cruelty of high-school cliques. It stands alone as a teen drama – tart and coarse enough to appeal to the universal teen intellect, but not smart-mouth or too cynical to deregister the real emotions of the characters. Hughes did bow to some studio pressure to up the comedy (a dope-smoking song-and-dance routine seems particularly fanciful), but Hughes nailed the drama when his script demanded it. 25 years later, it seems particularly prescient with regard to the manifestations of teenage anxiety (particularly Anthony Michael Hall's character, detained for bringing a gun to school; a radical concept in '85, but all too commonplace today).
Hughes went broad with his next film, the gross-out romp Weird Science (1986), but returned to teen dramedy with the hit Pretty In Pink (1986), starring Molly Ringwald in one of the most beloved movie romances of its day.
Hughes and his contemporaries such as Paul Brickman (Risky Business, 1983), Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, 1982), Martha Coolidge (Valley Girl, 1983) and Rob Reiner (The Sure Thing, 1985) had made teen movies legitimate again. The cover of the May 26, 1986 Time magazine featured Molly Ringwald as the face of the new wave of teen actors; the 'Brat Pack' was born.
Many critics believe John Hughes peaked in 1986 with the comedy Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Starring Matthew Broderick at the height of his teenage popularity and in a bravura comedic performance that commanded the screen, Hughes elicited big laughs from the misadventures of Ferris, his best-friend Cameron (Alan Ruck in one of the great unrecognised supporting actor roles) and his girlfriend, Sloane (Mia Sara). But the film also had higher ambitions: exploration of parental disconnect and loneliness, most notable in the scene where Cameron stares into Georges Seurat's 'Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte', while the trio visits the Chicago Art Gallery. The camera jumpcuts and zooms back and forth between a wailing child and Cameron's stare, until they are indistinguishable. John Hughes was, undoubtedly, a fine film director.
He wrote the romantic melodrama Some Kind Of Wonderful (1987), though passed the directing duties to Howard Deutch – a collaborator he worked with on Pretty In Pink and would again on The Great Outdoors (1988).
Hughes was in his most accomplished period as a film director. He paired John Candy and Steve Martin in the hilarious Planes Trains And Automobiles (1987); brought his real-life problems about starting a family to the screen in the tender and very funny She's Having A Baby (1988) with Kevin Bacon (try not crying when the Kate Bush song kicks in during the finale); and directed Candy again in the big man's most famous role, Uncle Buck (1989). All three surrendered to an undeniably sentimental streak, but they were all honest and idiosyncratic visions from a director who counted as his inspirations Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges and The Three Stooges.
He would only direct one more film – the forgettable Curly Sue (1991) – and largely went into a self-imposed reclusive period for much of the rest of the decade. Having scored big with his screenplay for Home Alone (1990), he became a prolific script-doctor, credited on many of Hollywood's high-profile hits (National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, 1989; Beethoven, 1992; Home Alone 2: Lost In New York, 1992; 101 Dalmatians, 1996; Maid In Manhattan, 2002) and misses (Career Opportunities, 1991; Dutch, 1991; Dennis The Menace, 1993; Miracle on 34th Street, 1994; Flubber, 1997; Drillbit Taylor, 2008).
His one diversion from the world of cute comedy in the last 20 years was the little-seen independent film Reach the Rock in 1998. A small-town story of grief and loss, its destructive lead character seeks revenge on all those who blame him for the death of his friend in a drowning accident. The film unfolds with an air of menace and unrelenting sadness – a long way from Hughes' most famous output. Its disciplined lack of sentimentality and dour trajectory shows Hughes was continuing to develop as a writer.
In the foreword to the 2007 book 'Don't You Forget About Me', a collection of essays from contemporary writers on the influence of John Hughes films on their lives, actress Ally Sheedy recalls her favourite memories of working with Hughes on The Breakfast Club. “One of my favourite memories of John is having him sit right next to the camera while we filmed, watching and intensely enjoying everything going on,” recalls Sheedy, who played 'basket case' Allison. “I don't remember him absent and watching by the monitor. I felt like we were all in it together. He really was the sixth member of the Breakfast Club”.
Author Steve Almond, in his essay 'The Unexpected Heaviosity of Ferris Bueller's Day Off', summed up the longevity of John Hughes' appeal while directly referencing the comedy hit. “John Hughes performed an astounding ontological feat. He lured viewers into embracing his film as an escapist farce, then hit them with a pitch-perfect exploration of teen angst. He sneaked genuine art past the multiplex sensors.”
It hurts a little bit to know he's dead. It is a little bit of a big part of what defined my teen years that's now gone forever. I never met him and always wished I could have.