Friday, August 14, 2009

John Hughes: Don't you forget about him

Last Thursday, filmmaker John Hughes died in New York following a heart attack. Hughes was one of the more prolific filmmakers of the 1980s. From 1983 to 1994, Hughes, on average, wrote two films a year.

My first introduction to Hughes would come late in that cycle with 1989’s “Uncle Buck” and 1990’s “Home Alone.” For a 7-year-old kid, “Home Alone” was the be-all-end-all of movies. It was the ultimate kid fantasy: home alone with no one to tell you what to do and when baddies come around you get to beat them up like they are characters in a cartoon.

The Hughes formula was to balance slapstick humor with clever dialogue and a sense of pathos, the zenith of which was “Home Alone,” his most financially successful film and still the highest grossing live action comedy of all time. But even though it made him the most money, Hughes legacy will not be “Home Alone,” but rather a series of perennial teen films in the 1980s.

When I outgrew “Home Alone,” I discovered such teen classics as “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” both of which should be required viewing upon turning 13. These movies helped me through my formative years as I’m sure they will for future generations.

Hughes got his start as advertising writer in Chicago in the 1970s before trying his hand as a comedy writer. He landed a job at National Lampoon magazine, which led to writing the 1983 hit “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” A year later he would make “Sixteen Candles” — his first film as writer and director and his first foray into the teen film genre.

Up to this point teen films had been either sex comedies or slasher movies and were not much more than exploitation films. Although there were a few bright spots including “WarGames,” “Risky Business” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” for the most part the teen movie was bottom of the barrel junk.

Hughes changed that by writing dialogue that sounded real and by creating characters and situations that were relatable and recognizable. He had an ear for how teens spoke and he spoke to teens in a way that rang true to them.

Although he was in his mid-30s, Hughes seemed to have a clear recollection of what it was like to be an adolescent. He was able to accurately depict all the insecurities, the awkwardness and newly discovered desires for love and lust. Through his film, he was able to offer a bit of escapism and let teenagers know they weren’t alone in the how they felt.

“Sixteen Candles” introduced the world to Molly Ringwald as the girl whose family forgets her birthday and Anthony Michael Hall as the definitive geek. Ringwald and Hall would appear together again in Hughes' next film as writer and director, “The Breakfast Club.” Where “Sixteen Candles” was a broad comedy, “The Breakfast Club” was a more thoughtful film with teens from different high school cliques bonding over Saturday detention.

“The Breakfast Club” was quickly followed by “Weird Science,” easily Hughes silliest, strangest and least effective teen movie, but its goofball charm still makes it more endearing than most teen films.

“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” followed, and it represents a teen dream come true: being able to get away with skipping school for a day of fun in the city. It is a film that is full of classic scenes and lines and with Matthew Broderick at his most charismatic in the title role.

Hughes would also write winning the teen romances “Pretty in Pink” and “Some Kind of Wonderful.” In the late 1980s, Hughes shifted away from teens and made “Trains, Planes and Automobiles,” the comic teaming of John Candy and Steve Martin. Hughes proved to be just as assured at writing observant, funny dialogue for adults.

Hughes became disillusioned with Hollywood in the mid-1990s and slowed his output substantially, only writing the occasional kids movie including “Dennis the Menace,” “Beethoven,” “101 Dalmatians” and "Flubber."

Hughes’ best films will remain timeless. Sure, many are dated by their 1980s music and their now quaint references to computers, but they tapped into universal feelings in a way few films can. Hughes was more than just a voice of a generation. He was the voice of the adolescent experience.

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