John Hughes was the unofficial voice of Generation X: He captured how it felt to grow up in the 1980s. The director-writer-producer is best known for teen comedies like 1984's Sixteen Candles, 1985's The Breakfast Club and 1986's Ferris Bueller's Day Off — a hot streak endlessly hailed as his "Holy Trinity" since his death from a heart attack August 6. But lost in the eulogizing is the fact that Hughes' creative career began and ended with stories about adults. The teen movies were just one corner of his world.
Even if your prom took place 25 years ago, Hughes' less renowned movies depict situations that could have happened to you this year. Whether they told tales of isolated preteens or aging parents, his work was a dense cavalcade of quotable lines, memorable scenes, prescient musical choices and you-saw-them-here-first casting. Look closely, and John Hughes' 1980s movies take place in present tense.
Before the Movies
"He was the Wordsworth of the suburban America postwar generation," declared Ben Stein — the former Nixon speechwriter turned actor who famously asked "Bueller? Buuueller?" — at Hughes' invitation-only funeral. "He was a great, great genius, and as much of a friend and great family man as he was a poet."
In many ways, the movies are all we have of John Hughes. Interviews were rare, profiles incomplete. In the recently completed documentary Don't You Forget About Me, Canadian filmmakers scour Hughes' world for the director, but don't find him.
Pre-fame friends recall him as shy. Hollywood associates say he was magnetic. In 1988, Premiere magazine's Terry Minsky described him as reclusive, and painted him as an eccentric pain in the ass. He smoked, but didn't drink or use drugs. Nobody has written a full biography; those close to him don't breach his confidence. And — money and success notwithstanding — it's not a sensational story.
Born in 1950, Hughes grew up in middle-class Chicago suburbs, not far from where the spoiled rich kids lived. He married his high-school sweetheart — they'd been married 39 years when he died. Hughes dropped out of the University of Arizona and found work writing copy for Chicago's Leo Burnett agency. "Tireless and prolific," recalled his former boss, Robert Nolan, on the Huffington Post website. "A committed workaholic ... He was a whirlwind, banging away on his typewriter from morning 'til night."
At night, he wrote jokes for comedians like Rodney Dangerfield and Joan Rivers. Later he discovered the Clash and listened to them while writing short stories like the freelance pieces he placed in National Lampoon. Eventually he left the ad agency for an editor job at the Lampoon. At the magazine, Hughes – a lifelong Republican -- palled around with P.J. O'Rourke, a Toledo native and future new-journalism giant whose views had made him an office pariah. They later collaborated on the unproduced screenplay The History of Ohio From the Beginning of Time to the End of the Universe, a dramatic adaptation of Lampoon's Sunday Newspaper Parody, an Onion-like sendup of a small-town paper.
National Lampoon got Hughes' foot in Hollywood's door. His first screenwriting credit was Delta House, the 1979 TV series based on National Lampoon's Animal House. The show was a dud, but Lampoon kept him on for 1982's ribald and convoluted Class Reunion movie.After the following year's big breakthroughs, he'd never have to worry about moonlighting again.
Hughes' first major work as a screenwriter, Mr. Mom, is his most relevant piece at the time of his death. The movie stars Michael Keaton as Jack Butler, an auto executive who's laid off when the American car industry collapses. Unemployed Jack can't find a job, but his wife Caroline (Terri Garr) can. So he stays home and learns to take care of three young kids and a house. The hairstyles and clothes are dated, but the film is packed with timeless humor about family life. The movie also documents recession economics, satirizes workplace politics and explores issues like marital strain, all within the parameters of a PG rating.
Random Memorable Lines:
"220, 221 — whatever it takes."
Casting tidbit: Keaton's duplicitous boss is played by Arrested Development dad Jeffrey Tambor, who finally reached the A list as The Larry Sanders Show's Hank "Hey now!" Kingsley.
The original was based on Hughes' Lampoon short story "Vacation '58." The flick was released in 1983, just as HBO and VCRs were changing the way America consumed movies and how thoroughly we could absorb them. Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day, Caddyshack) directed the first, Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Clueless) directed 1985's European Vacation, which initially disappointed, but has aged well. Released in '89, Christmas Vacation is an under-heralded Yuletide nugget.
Different creators stepped in for 1997's Vegas Vacation, which was a big step down. Unlike Rusty, the Griswold son who's played by a different actor in every movie, there was no replacing Hughes.
Like Hughes' teen characters, Chevy Chase's Clark Griswold is often cartoonish. But over the course of the series, Hughes develops him as a loving dad obsessed with giving his family memories that match his idealized recollections of his youth.
Though his bosses don't appreciate him, Clark is great at what he does — "a genius with food additives," declares wife Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo) in the first movie. A deadbeat branch of his clan leans on him and takes him for granted. Still, his family and their happiness are his top priorities, and he'll literally crawl through the desert for them — even if it brings him to the brink of madness. And it does: As Ellen is describing him as "a saint with children," he's wandering lost in the western wilderness, deliriously singing show tunes.
Random Memorable Vacation Lines:
"Look kids — Big Ben, Parliament ... I can't get left."
"We're gonna be having so much fuckin' fun, we're gonna be whistling 'Zippity Doo Da' out of our assholes."
Musical Moment: Vacation's use of the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop" probably introduced more people to punk than anything else before the Warped Tour.
Casting tidbit: 30 Rock Star Jane Krakowski made her big-screen debut in Vacation as white-trash Cousin Vicki, who declares, "I'm going steady, and I French kiss." If you know the rest, fill it in. If not, add to your Netflix cue immediately.
The Breakfast Club,
"Few directors have left a more distinctive or influential body of work than John Hughes," wrote Roger Ebert after Hughes' death. "[He was] the creator of the modern American teenager film."
You've memorized them, maybe lived them, maybe both — these three films are the Hughes canon, and they've received a metric ton of analysis in recent days. Here's one great point from throwingthings.blogspot.com, where people who grew up in suburban Chicago reflect on Hughes' fictitious interpretations of North Shore life: "With the possible exception of Sloane in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, women weren't sex objects in his films or empty slates, but fully formed central characters."
In the Porky's era, actresses who were clearly 28 played teenagers and showed us full-frontal nudity. But director Hughes gave us flat-chested Molly Ringwald and a dandruff-afflicted, pre-goth Ally Sheedy — and made us love them.
Young adults immediately embraced the landmark movies, but they weren't universally hailed. New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael wrote The Breakfast Club off as "a movie about a bunch of stereotypes who complain that other people see them as stereotypes." Maybe they were stereotypes, but they weren't fabrications.
Random Memorable Lines:
"Fred, she's gotten her boobies. And they're so perky ..."
"Mess with the bull, you get the horns."
"Life goes by pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around, you can miss it."
Musical Moment: Sixteen Candles: The synthesizer bliss of the Thompson Twins' "If You Were Here" as Samantha and heartthrob Jake kiss at the movie's end.
Casting Tidbit: Chicago-spawned actor John Cusack plays a supporting geek in Sixteen Candles and might have become a fixture in Hughes' company of players. But when Hughes passed him over for Judd Nelson's Breakfast Club role, Cusack took it personally.
Ferris Bueller's Day Off
In high school, Hughes was an outsider, but not a geek. Ferris Bueller was his smoothest character — quick-witted, good-looking and popular with everybody. Ferris reenacted episodes from Hughes' teen years. Childhood friend Edward McNally — whose best friend was named "Buehler" — recalled their youth for the Washington Post, describing hijinks that took place around the Glenbrook North High School where Hughes returned to film Breakfast Club and Bueller. They borrowed his dad's car, skipped school and avoided a dean. Apparently, they never got caught.
Like most movies, the script has disconnects. But generally speaking, everything about Ferris Bueller's Day Off is awesome. A week after Hughes' death, it was at the top of a Huffington Post readers' poll (followed by, in order, Breakfast Club, Vacation, Pretty in Pink, and Sixteen Candles).
This is a personal point, but for decades, thousands of kids of Irish and Lebanese descent with the name "Faris," "Farris" or "Ferris" had to enjoy endless taunts of "Ferris wheel! Huh, huh!" Hughes put an end to that shit. Because nothing was cooler than Ferris Bueller.
Granted, Hughes probably did the opposite for Asian teens with Sixteen Candles' Long Duk Dong — an awkward, but not entirely stereotypical character who can still make me snicker all afternoon.
More than 20 years later, Hughes' films draw fire for not being racially diverse and for rehashing negative stereotypes. It's a key theme to a pig-pile of deprecation by writers from the Onion's A.V. Club. It's tough to defend the stereotypes, but the lily-white casting reflected Hughes' own experiences as a white guy who grew up around white people. That's what he knew; that's what he wrote about. Like Spike Lee.
Random memorable lines:
"Save Ferris. Save Ferris."
Musical Moment: The Dream Academy's instrumental cover of the Smith's "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want" as Cameron stares at the Impressionist painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
Casting tidbit: Ferris Bueller introduced Dirty Dancing star Jennifer "Nobody puts Baby in a corner" Grey.
If you were a geek guy, 1985's Weird Science is every bit as good as those other three movies. (It arrived after Breakfast Club but before Ferris Bueller.) Ilan Mitchell-Smith and Anthony Michael Hall (whose first leading role was credited as simply "the Geek" in Sixteen Candles) are Gary and Wyatt, two nerds who dream of dating hot girls and throwing killer parties. The hapless duo use a computer to create Kelly LeBrock's Lisa, a superhuman woman with the body of Venus and the powers of Zeus. Filled with techno-magic, Weird Science is Hughes' deepest foray into fantasy, but it has two of his greatest moments as a writer-director.
Lisa mentors the young lads and tries to teach them confidence. In one classic comedy scene, she drags them to a blues bar populated with some of the only black faces seen in Hughes' flicks. By night's end, the three white people have won the crowd's acceptance. At closing time, as guitar notes float in the background and smoke wafts through the air, Anthony Michael Hall regales a table of regulars with a tale about his great lost love.
"Fats," says Hall. "Lemme tell you my story, man. Last year, I was insane for this crazy little eighth-grade bitch..."
"Crazy-insane?" says one, genuinely hooked.
"Insane-crazy?" spits another, rapt.
And they hang on his every word. It's ridiculous, which is the entire point. Groan if you want to. My black lit teacher loved the scene too (not that he used it in class).
The movie isn't pure comedy.
Over the years, Hughes created a whole array of scenes that'll make you sniffle. But Weird Science has a scene that's a different kind of sad. It's not a tearjerker; it's a punch in the nuts.
Gary and Wyatt publicly debut Lisa, their sophisticated European escort, at the mall, the community's social epicenter. But Lisa isn't the geeks' ultimate romantic goal. They're angling for two girls who already have suave, sadistic boyfriends. Lisa buys the geeks designer clothes and poses with them. For once, people are talking about the nerds, and it's not to mock them. Lisa, Gary and Wyatt rest on a bench on the mall's lower level, unaware that the hot girls' boyfriends are watching from the floor above, sipping Slurpees.
Below, after years of humiliation, Anthony Michael Hall finally exhales. He is in the zone. He is the man.
"You know, Wyatt?" he says. "For once in my life, I don't feel like a complete dick."
Just then, the boyfriends dump gallons of red slush on the geeks. The entire population of the mall turn, look at the soaked losers and laugh riotously. It's not as horrific as the crimson dousing in Carrie's prom scene. But if you were a social misfit, it's close.
Random Memorable Lines:
"Ma, I never tossed off, to anything!"
"You're stewed, buttwad!"
Musical moment: The title song by Oingo Bongo, the Southern California institution led by Danny Elfman, who became a noted film composer and wrote the Simpsons theme.
Casting tidbit: Bill Paxton (Big Love, Frailty) plays Wyatt's bully older brother Chet. Even if we acknowledge his excellent dramatic work as an adult, Chet may still be his signature role.
Pretty in Pink
Ferris Bueller's Day Off was Hughes' teen-comedy swan song. By the time it arrived, he had one foot out the door. In 1986, he also released Pretty in Pink. Ringwald played Andie Walsh, a poor girl attracted to Blane (Andrew McCarthy), a rich kid with commitment issues and no spine. They play footsy while her long-suffering, equally unpopular friend Duckie (Two and a Half Men's John Cryer) pines away for Andie, unrequited.
Hughes wrote this flick, but it was directed by Howard Deutch, a first-timer who had shot videos for Billy Joel and Billy Idol, and went on to helm The Replacements and The Whole Ten Yards.
Most adults in Hughes' teen movies are bumblers, oblivious or assholes. Pretty in Pink offers Hughes' most downtrodden adult: Andie's doting, alcoholic widower father, played by Harry Dean Stanton (Big Love). Andie has become his caretaker, and his emotional hobbling contributes in no small part to her daily difficulties.
Musical moment: Hughes cuts a kinetic scene to the rapid tick-tock of New Order's "Shellshock."
Casting tidbit: A young James Spader and Kate Vernon (Battlestar Galactica's Ellen Tigh) play a sleezy couple of underage socialites.
Some Kind of Wonderful
Hughes was working at a manic clip and couldn't keep up with his own output. Between 1982 and 1994, he wrote and/or directed 25 movies. While Hughes was mired in 1987's Planes, Trains and Automobiles, he let Deutch direct his script for Some Kind of Wonderful (also '87). Deutch's movies looked slicker but conveyed the gritty feel of the young-adult world's social darwinism. Though Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful were immersive experiences, they lacked the comforting vibe found in the movies that Hughes both wrote and directed.
Wonderful inverts the premise of Pretty in Pink: Poor boy Keith Nelson (Eric Stoltz) pines after popular Amanda Jones (Leah Thompson). She's also poor, but smoking-hot enough to be tenuously accepted by the rich kids. It's an under-recognized high point in the teen-drama genre, with comedic moments served on the side.
Hughes always made great use of music in his movies, mining the nascent underground of college rock — arty and/or British bands that would give rise to the "alternative" movement. Most of his soundtracks, however, never achieved the classic status they deserved, for various legal reasons. Some Kind of Wonderful, hardly by default, is the best Hughes movie soundtrack album, filled with covers (Lick the Tins cover Elvis Presley), solo joints by elder statesmen (the Buzzcocks' Pete Shelley), stuff you tried to like but just couldn't get into (Furniture), and a hot single by a buzz band (Flesh for Lulu's "I Go Crazy").
Other directors used the Smiths and New Order, but Hughes didn't lean on them for visceral shorthand. His selections were perfectly suited to the dramatic and visual moments they accompanied. He used some A-squad bands, but mostly tapped sub-rosa godheads like Sigue Sigue Sputnik ("Love Missile f1-11," the pumping synth-rock early in Ferris Bueller) and the March Violets ("Turn to the Sky" is a motif in Wonderful).
Some Kind of Wonderful and Pretty in Pink are commonly slagged by fans who revel in Hughes' early whimsy. The dramas definitely aren't as fun. Before angst broke big, Hughes dealt it in volume.
"People forget that when you're 16, you're probably more serious than you'll ever be again," Hughes told Roger Ebert on the set of The Breakfast Club. "You think seriously about big questions."
Random Memorable Lines:
Amanda: "At least I have friends."
Keith: "Are you sure?"
Casting tidbit: Mary Stuart Masterson's tomboy Watts (just "Watts") spends the movie crushing on Keith, who bafflingly fails to take an interest in her until the end. Her character is a classic example of a role that's written as a plain girl, but cast with a knockout.
After 1987, the teen spirit left Hughes. His commercial peak was ahead of him: 1990's Home Alone launched his second franchise, brought him bargeloads of money and made him a top-tier commodity. He wrote and produced the flick, but didn't direct. When it left theaters, it was the no. 3 top-grossing movie of all time. It still ranks in the Top 10. Among pre-1991 films, only Star Wars, Return of the Jedi and E.T. have outearned it. It remains the top-earning live-action comedy of all time.
He closed the '80s with adult-themed comedies including The Great Outdoors (which he didn't direct) and Uncle Buck (which he did direct). In 1991, the treacly Curly Sue was his last film as a writer-director. He worked steadily through the '90s as a screenwriter, first turning in more adult-themed fare like Dutch, then churning out young-adult comedies like Dennis the Menace and Disney's live-action 101 Dalmations. He stuck to writing and producing, accumulating producer credits on sequels to Beethoven (which he wrote under the pseudonym Edmond Dantès) and Home Alone, often without creative involvement. The last real John Hughes Movie was 1998's Reach the Rock, which he wrote and produced. The uneven indie drama came and went, largely unnoticed.
Then he was gone.
Alison Byrne Fields' revealing "Sincerely, John Hughes," which ran on her blog, We'll Know When We Get There, is widely being hailed as the most touching post-mortem tribute. As a teenager, Fields corresponded with Hughes, and they kept in touch. She reports that Hughes walked away from Hollywood so his teenage sons could grow up outside of L.A.'s warped, superficial reality. It's easy to imagine him loathing the idea that his boys could become rich brats like Hardy Jenns from Some Kind of Wonderful.
One report said he'd seen 1998's coming-of-age dramedy Rushmore and left the theater feeling dejected, wondering what he'd let happen to his portfolio. Another said he simply realized the next generation had arrived. Regardless, he didn't need Hollywood. Hughes and his family returned to the Midwest. He spent his last decade living on a farm in northern Illinois, writing unpublished short stories.
She's Having a Baby
After the '80s, maybe Hughes saved his best energy for his home life. Maybe he was tapped out. I like to think he wasn't. I like to think he had more memories to plumb, and more scripts write, and more good music in mind to help set the mood.
Over the years, my hope was that Hughes would return to his last great, personally resonant work: 1988's She's Having a Baby. If you can no longer relate to Sixteen Candles, or The Breakfast Club makes you squirm, rest assured that She's Having a Baby can hit you where you live for the rest of your life. As a husband and father, not a week goes by that I don't think of a line from it.
She's Having a Baby is Hughes' most starkly autobiographical work. Jefferson "Jake" Briggs meets his future wife in high school. They date through college. He drops out of grad school and winds up working on a Chicago loading dock, where his coworkers berate him. He lands an office job, and they buy a house in the 'burbs. His older neighbors grill him about his lawnmower and wife, whom he struggles to impregnate. The couple go to a trendy nightclub and realize the hot new places are no longer their places. His fidelity is tested, and he settles in as a husband and dad. End of story.
It's true, every bit of it. If you're at Home Depot, don't get the cheap vinyl hose, and you might as well splurge on the big Yard King 410 lawnmower. Sometimes your neighbors have knowledge to impart; sometimes they're full of shit. When you're outside the delivery room and the doctor suddenly says "caesarian," the adrenaline rush and unimaginable fear take your head to a place that's best conveyed by slow-motion. Eventually — if you're lucky — you learn you're not going to control your world, and sometimes it's most important to simply not fuck up.
Maybe it's not Hughes' most profound flick. Maybe, like much art, you have to be in a certain spot to appreciate it. The movie went over my head when I was a teenager. And maybe that's the reason I don't love Planes, Trains and Automobiles: Steve Martin and John Candy are a dream team, but I can't relate to Martin's 40-something professional who's always on the road. Not yet.
Hughes' last young-man's film had an intriguing flash, a scene just seconds long. Jake recalls the first time he met his wife. Shot in black and white, it takes place in a finished basement. It's maybe 1978, at least 1976. Boston's "More Than a Feeling" is playing — the sweeping guitar melody right before the bridge. The teenagers lock eyes, and it's all over for Jake.
Despite the couple's later conception troubles, that is a pregnant moment. I like to think Hughes had a great '70s movie in him, something serious or a comedy they could have sold as a two-pack with Dazed and Confused. It was all right there in that non-scene. All he needed was a plot, a few more characters and some dialogue. The nut of the idea and vibe — those are the hard parts.
Maybe he could have made a college movie. (Or maybe St. Elmo's Fire, starring most of The Breakfast Club, then dubbed "the Brat Pack," hogged that spot.) Hughes' sons are grown. He must have been bored from time to time. I hoped and hoped he'd pull it together for one last run. But, as Ferris Bueller said, "Life goes by pretty fast."
And maybe that's what Hughes was trying to tell us as he chronicled the détente that can take place on the fringes of the class wars: We are Samantha. Or John Bender. Or Andrew. And life takes weird bounces. Maybe we grow into Claire or Chet. Maybe you have a couple of Ferris days. All of sudden, you're Carl the janitor. Or Jake. Next we're Keith's dad and Mrs. Johnson, demanding our kids not repeat our mistakes. If we live long enough for a sequel, we'll be Samantha's grandparents. And thanks to Hughes, not only will we remember it all, but we'll remember it as being better — and worse — than it was.