John Hughes, writer-director of some of the most successful and influential films of the 1980’s and 90’s, died yesterday at age 59. Fellow Chicagoan Roger Ebert has a thoughtful tribute, calling Hughes “the creator of the modern American teenager film.” Ebert said:
He took teenagers seriously, and his films are distinctive for showing them as individuals with real hopes, ambitions, problems and behavior.
“Kids are smart enough to know that most teenage movies are just exploiting them,” he told me on the set of “The Breakfast Club.” “They’ll respond to a film about teenagers as people. [My] movies are about the beauty of just growing up. I think teenage girls are especially ready for this kind of movie, after being grossed out by all the sex and violence in most teenage movies. People forget that when you’re 16, you’re probably more serious than you’ll ever be again. You think seriously about the big questions.”
I would add that he showed teenagers with real abilities and understanding as well, and that was what made his characters so believably multi-dimensional. Whether an exaggerated farce like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or a more realistic love story like Pretty in Pink, his teenage characters were self-aware and capable, often more capable than the adults around them. Even the child in Home Alone managed to take care of himself and outsmart the bad guys. So did the star of the underrated Baby’s Day Out, even though he could not walk or talk.
Apart from some Depression-era fare, movies for and about young people tended to depict them as cheerful, all-American entertainers (Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in the 1940s) or moody, troubled and mumbling (James Dean in the 1950s).
Mr. Hughes struck an entirely new direction when he arrived in Hollywood in the early 1980s after a career that included stints as an advertising writer and a joke writer for National Lampoon. He created films that were distinguished by the very ordinariness in which he captured teenage life: the mini-dramas over class distinctions, peer pressure, serious (and often unrequited) crushes and classroom detention. He set most of his films in suburban Chicago, where he grew up and which he considered “a place of realities” in contrast with the glamour of Los Angeles.
In his films, Mr. Hughes reversed the long-standing view of caring parents and their clueless offspring to create an entirely new caricature of savvy teens and self-involved and hopelessly uncool authority figures, whether parents, principals or receptionists. Mr. Hughes’s young protagonists spoke in perceptive ways peppered with the latest slang, and despite all their differences, they were unified by their need to survive without any help from their elders.
Dana Stevens of Slate has a fine tribute to Hughes but the most touching memories come from Alison Byrne Fields, who wrote to him as a teenage fan of “The Breakfast Club,” and then wrote to him again to object to the form letter response to the first one. They corresponded for two years. He encouraged her and made it clear how important it was to him to hear from exactly the audience he wanted to reach. They spoke by phone once some years later.
John told me about why he left Hollywood just a few years earlier. He was terrified of the impact it was having on his sons; he was scared it was going to cause them to lose perspective on what was important and what happiness meant. And he told me a sad story about how, a big reason behind his decision to give it all up was that “they” (Hollywood) had “killed” his friend, John Candy, by greedily working him too hard.
He also told me he was glad I had gotten in touch and that he was proud of me for what I was doing with my life. He told me, again, how important my letters had been to him all those years ago, how he often used the argument “I’m doing this for Alison” to justify decisions in meetings.
Hughes was gifted as a creator of believable and accessible characters and as a writer of endlessly quotable dialog. And he was a righteous dude.
I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and always enjoyed the familiar locations and references in the Hughes movies. “The Breakfast Club” was inspired by detention at my high school (which met not on Saturday but before school, which is how it got its name). I enjoy “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and am fond of “Pretty in Pink” (though I still think Andie should end up with Duckie and Iona is my favorite character) and think that Dutch is one of Hughes’ most neglected films. I’d love to hear about your favorite Hughes movies, quotes, and moments.