John Hughes would have turned 62 today. When he died two and a half years ago, fans of his '80s movies mourned… and relived their childhoods. Krishna Andavolu examined why we love Hughes so much. Originally published August 2009 on Obit-Mag.com.
So John Hughes is dead, unexpectedly suffering a heart attack while walking down a Manhattan street yesterday afternoon at the age of 59. The Internet is abuzz with tributes, appreciations and obituaries. And for good reason: Hughes owned teen comedy in the 1980s. He brought an auteur’s eye to the mechanisms of high school frustration, taking boilerplate characters—the jock, the nerd, the outcast-- and setting their interactions in motion like a finely tuned watch.
<img style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 10px" alt=" This 1984 file photo shows director John Hughes. Hughes is the man who wrote " national="" lampoon's="" vacation,"="" "mr.="" mom"="" and="" "natonal="" european="" vacation."="" he="" also="" wrote="" directed="" "16="" candles,"="" "the="" breakfast="" club,"="" "weird="" science."="" hughes,="" who="" was="" 59,="" died="" in="" new="" york="" on="" thursday.="" (ap="" photo)"="" data-cke-saved-src="http://www.legacy.com/UserContent/ns/Photos/Hughes_177x300.jpg" src="http://www.legacy.com/UserContent/ns/Photos/Hughes_177x300.jpg" width="177" height="300" align="left">Both Balzac and Tolstoy evoked genuine pathos towards their characters while gently mocking the mundanity of their concerns. Balzac was more vicious than Tolstoy for sure, but as novelists, they found narrative momentum from the generosity of their motivational descriptions. Hughes, while certainly no literary master, afforded his characters a similar depth of discovery, or at least for the standards of a teen comedy. Think of Emilio Estevez’s varsity wrestler in The Breakfast Club. He dates the perfect girl but has militaristic, demanding and borderline abusive parents. Or, remember the bumbling principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Edward Rooney, whose Ahab-like quest to catch Ferris in the act of skipping school approaches madness, but mirrors the dedication of his prey.
Hughes’ characters are still recognizable. Whether it’s the nerd we used to be or the asshole rich kid we still despise (or used to be) or the eating issues we all still have due to high school athletics. But as a collection of films his body of work stands out for few other reasons. I humbly offer three below, citing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club and Pretty In Pink as demonstrative examples of Hughes’ oeuvre.
His ability to write convincingly from the perspective of both sexes
Hughes was fluent with the concerns of boys and girls alike. This is in no small part thanks to the actors he chose to play his leads. Molly Ringwald’s turn as the tortuously introverted character in Pretty in Pink is the mirrored opposite of the young Matthew Broderick who played Ferris Bueller, a character who has no problem hijacking a parade in front of his father’s office building.
These actors do marvelous jobs as protagonists because they are offered such rich roles as young men and young women. This is not to say that girls, by nature, are introverted and boys are extroverted, but that from those initial positions, Hughes gives each character an arc that helps them, and us, learn about what it means to be a man or a woman. How many authors, let alone filmmakers, can achieve convincing coming-of-age stories for both male and female characters?
Given the current rules of comedic gender engagement where Apatowian bromance relegates female characters to thinly written shrews and the standards Katherine Heigl-starring chic-flicks sketch men as the lantern-jawed objects of a woman’s flailing, Hughes’ achievement is especially impressive.
His use of music
“Don’t You Forget about Me”
“Pretty in Pink”
“Twist and Shout”
These are scenes that have been immortalized on VHS, Cable reruns and Youtube, parodied in commercials and firmly planted as pop culture referents. But between these tent poles, Hughes incorporated music into his films with a deft understanding of a soundtrack’s power to define a character. How about when Ducky dances to Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” or when Cameron is sick in bed and unexpectedly offers the contra-basso “When Moses came to Egypt-land… Let my people go!”
His acknowledgement of Class:
Obituarists and observers have done a great job identifying the theme of class as one of the defining elements of Hughes’ brilliance. Andrew McCarthy’s character in Pretty in Pink serves as a great example of, again, Hughes’ generosity. The film proceeds from perspective of the outsider peering into the partying of upper class teens and its superficiality. But the moment when McCarthy, the rich kid, sloughs off his dickhead friends, namely James Spader, to join Molly Ringwald in an inter-class embrace, we see how difficult it must have been for him to suffer the abuse of his friends for dating below the peerage, and cheer at his bravery.
Class is a real divide between adolescents. Hughes, growing up in suburban Chicago felt that awkward and terrifying divide from the bottom end. He wrote plausible scenarios that could sub-in for the neighborhoods and inter-teen mechanisms in suburbs across the country.
There are other reasons of course that John Hughes’ movies will be the main event at sleepovers, rainy days in college dorm rooms or comfort food for adults seeking to reminisce for years to come (his pithy dialogue and timeless one-liners being an especially popular and satisfying method of remembrance on the Internet). But class, gender and music are three pillars of his appeal that can be found across the entirety of his work, and point to the special sensitiviy and story-telling talent that sets him apart from other filmmakers who make movies for teens.
Now its time to dust off those VHS tapes and work on my best Molly Ringwald head toss.
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