Best known for his many teen comedy movie hits, including Sixteen Candles (1984), Weird Science (1985), The Breakfast Club (1985), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), Pretty in Pink (1986), and Some Kind of Wonderful (1987), as well as Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), Uncle Buck (1989), and the Christmas family comedy Home Alone (1990).
Maybe on the surface, John Hughes’s films seem like happy-go-lucky Midwest suburban comedies — certainly enough so to become huge hits. Virtually all of them, though, break long enough from the laughs to show some deep feelings and even deeper chasms between middle-class kids and their parents, principals, neighbors, relatives, and — especially — each other.
John Hughes is a writer. All of the films he directed and most of the films he produced are his own creations. Though even people who should know better (like the editors of Rotten Tomatoes) think of Hughes as the director of “Hughes films” like “Pretty in Pink”, the Chevy Chase “Vacation” series, and the “Home Alone” series — he isn’t. They do certainly bear his unmistakable stamp, and he was the writer and producer of those films, but Hughes has actually only directed eight films. The last one, “Curly Sue”, was in 1991.
John Hughes grew up in Michigan and moved to Chicago just in time to have it shape his teen years. (Whew! Can you imagine all those films set in Lansing?) He was a copywriter in the prestigious Chicago advertising agency Leo Burnett Co. in the seventies (leaving in 1980, just a few days before I was hired there). The legend goes, he wrote advertising in the morning and, in the afternoon, wrote jokes for the likes of Rodney Dangerfield and stories for National Lampoon magazine — and, of course, the screenplays. His early efforts for National Lampoon included “Class Reunion” and “Vacation”, as well as a swashbuckling “Nate and Hayes” and “Mr. Mom“.
Though his first directorial effort, “Sixteen Candles“, (1984) was a hit, making Anthony Michael Hall and especially Molly Ringwald stars as well as the first brats of the Brat Pack, he was just warming up. A year later, he directed the classic “The Breakfast Club“, with Judd Nelson one-upping the heretofore height of high-school rebellion, James Dean.
Was John boy working out his childhood loathing of authority figures? If so, it works. Principal Vernon of “The Breakfast Club” was bad, but Principal Rooney of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” was, well, without principles. Purposely out of touch and loathing of students, Rooney’s villainy makes Ferris absolutely heroic, and makes his good times that much more fun. Ferris is recess to “Breakfast Clubs” detention, and is perhaps even more of a classic. Not only does it supply true teen angst, but it purposely foils it with self-actualized teen heroes ingeniously manipulating the adult world. (He reprises it to huge success with childhood hero/angst in the Home Alone” series).
Are the characters of “The Breakfast Club” Ferrises as sophomores? Maybe. Involvingly real as Ferris is involvingly fantastic, the five youth in detention battle to détente with each other, small victory over the man”, and great victory over their own fears. It is telling that Hughes took away part of Molly Ringwald’s complaints in “BC” and gave it to Ferris’s foil, Cameron.
Directorially, Hughes graduated to Planes, Trains & Automobiles” in 1987, and made a virtually perfect pairing of John Candy and Steve Martin. This magnificent buddy” (using the term rather loosely) farce that centers on their hopeless efforts to get from New York to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving, moves in the pathos in the blink of Candy’s big, boyish innocent eye, and suddenly the audience switches sides. Its no longer about getting home; its about coming to terms with each other.
Hughes brings back John Candy for “Uncle Buck” in 1989. Candy works the good-hearted” angle into his loser yet smart character and works magic, even though the best (and only thing) he has to play off of is a kindergartener named Macaulay Culkin.
Hughes’s directorial finale was in 1991 with “Curly Sue”, before Jim Belushi took acting lessons. Whatever happened, it was for the best. Hughes turned his writing/directing talents into writing/producing, this time tackling the kid genre with “Home Alone”, “Dennis the Menace”, Flubber”, and “101 Dalmatians” — all of which, certainly, bear his stamp.
— Nate Lee
“I stumbled into this business, I didn’t train for it. I yelled “Action!” on my first two movies before the camera was turned on.”
“I don’t think of kids as a lower form of the human species.”
“My generation had sucked up so much attention and here were these kids struggling for an identity. They were forgotten.”
“When I did Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), I had the idea on Monday and the following Tuesday it was in budget at Paramount.”
“Many filmmakers portray teenagers as immoral and ignorant, with pursuits that are pretty base. But I haven’t found that to be the case. I listen to kids. I respect them. Some of them are as bright as any of the adults I’ve met.”
“I was obsessed with romance. When I was in high school, I saw Doctor Zhivago (1965) every day from the day it opened until the day it left the theater.”
Hughes died of a sudden heart attack while taking a morning stroll down West 55th Street in Manhattan. At the time he was visiting family in New York City.
He has directed two films that have been selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant: The Breakfast Club (1985) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).
He notoriously cut off contact with his favorite young performers – Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall – after they rejected some of his scripts in the mid-1980s. When he died in 2009, Hughes hadn’t spoken to either of them in over 20 years. In a NY Times editorial about his death, Ringwald wrote: “Most people who knew John knew that he was able to hold a grudge longer than anyone — his grudges were almost supernatural things, enduring for years, even decades. [Hall] suspects that he was never forgiven for turning down parts in Pretty in Pink (1986) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). I turned down later films as well [Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)]. Not because I didn’t want to work with John anymore — I loved working with him, more than anyone before or since.”
Hughes wrote a screenplay called National Lampoon’s The Joy of Sex (1981), a comedy anthology film about the life of a young man obsessed with sex, even when he enters adulthood. It was originally to star John Belushi and be directed by Penny Marshall, but when a reluctant Belushi decided to go ahead with the film, he died from a drug overdose the next morning and Paramount did not produce the movie.
He wrote the original script for Dumb and Dumber (1994). Due to the deal he made with the directors, his name was to be stripped from the project, including the script.
(with an admitted prejudice for physical comedy)
John Hughes’ directing credits include…
|1985||The Breakfast Club|
|1986||Ferris Bueller’s Day Off|
|1987||Planes, Trains & Automobiles|
|1988||She’s Having a Baby|