Tribute: John Hughes

Posted on August 7, 2009 at 8:13 am

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. 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.

Adam Bernstein of the Washington Post has an astute assessment of Hughes’ contribution:

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.

Submit a question or comment for today’s Washington Post online discussion of Hughes and his films.

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9 Replies to “Tribute: John Hughes”

  1. My favorite John Hughes film by far is “Some Kind of Wonderful.” I just read that he wrote the ending to this film as an antidote to having to change the ending of “Pretty in Pink” (the original ending of “Pretty in Pink” did have Andie ending up with Duckie, apparently.) I just love Eric Stoltz in this film. I think I’ll always be in love with him because of it. Mary Stuart Masterson is just perfect in her role, too, as the tomboyish punky drummer hiding her feelings for Eric Stoltz’s character. Lea Thompson and Craig Sheffer and Elias Koteas and the supporting cast members were all well cast also. The “do you have a kiss that kills?” scene is one of my favorite kissing scenes of all time.
    I also love “Uncle Buck.” John Candy (I am so sorry that we lost him at such a young age!) gets one of his best roles here, I think. With all of the slapstick (Buck’s backfiring, falling-apart embarrassing excuse for a car, etc) there is a very warm and wonderful heart to this film. His niece Tia gradually begins to realize that there is a real human being behind her uncle’s bulk and bad habits, and that he is a good, caring person who steps up to the plate when he needs to, to protect her, even when she has treated him badly.
    RIP John Hughes.

  2. I like “Some Kind of Wonderful,” too, Marjorie, and had also heard that it was a response to “Pretty in Pink.” And I like it that Amanda is nice, too.

  3. Though many of the tributes I’ve read focus on the teen angst films, my favorite Hughes movie has always been the original Vacation. As a dad who has soldiered my family through many cross-country adventures, Clark Griswold is my hero. No movie has so captured the disasters, tedium, shady characters, stress as well as the ultimate triumph of an experience that is so quintessentially American. I have the VHS and DVD; also the soundtrack, script and the National Lampoon magazine with the original story that served as inspiration for the movie.

  4. Well, I guess I’m late to the discussion because it’s Vacation and Some Kind of Wonderful for me, too. Just after 7th grade, my parents and brother watched Vacation on VHS when I was at camp. They picked me up and we headed for our own cross country trip. They spent the whole vacation quoting lines from and telling me about the movie. It has always been a family favorite. Some Kind of Wonderful I just love Mary Stuart Masterson and the ending.
    There is no denying, though, that The Breakfast Club was a defining film for my generation.

  5. Whenever I see a teen movie, I always hold it up to the high standards that John Hughes set in the 1980s. Most of the time–practically all of the time–they don’t quite add up. I could watch “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” any day of the week. Although I have memorized it verbatim, it never ceases to make me laugh (rare for a comedy). “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (my go-to annual Thanksgiving movie)–all brilliant. For me, Hughes’ most overlooked picture is “Some Kind of Wonderful,” which was basically a reverse “Pretty in Pink,” only far better, righting the wrongs of that earlier movie’s ending and deepening all three of the central characters (played by Eric Stoltz, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Lea Thompson) beyond stereotypes. “Some Kind of Wonderful” is pure magic.

  6. Thanks so much, Dustin! I love Matthew Broderick in “FBDO” and of course it captures perfectly the dream day of playing hooky. And I agree with you about “Some Kind of Wonderful.” I love that even the Lea Thompson character gets to have a reality to her.

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