Sunday, August 09, 2009

“No More Yankie My Wankie”: In Memory of John Hughes 1950-2009

As a film buff, I often dread the deaths of certain filmmakers. The thought of never seeing another movie by Eastwood, Scorsese, or Spielberg is a disheartening one. One filmmaker I had never thought of in that way was John Hughes. In fact, Hughes hadn’t directed a movie since 1991. But when his sudden death was announced, I found myself both nostalgic for his high school comedies that permeated my own high school experience and saddened that we had lost an artist who so accurately portrayed the psyche of a generation.

On Thursday, August 6, 2009, filmmaker John Hughes died from a heart attack suffered on his morning walk in Manhattan. He was 59. Hughes had been a staple of the Cineplex during the eighties and early nineties. He started out as a writer for National Lampoon magazine. The movies that sprung from the comedy publication gave Hughes his first screenplay success. While his debut screenplay for “Class Reunion” (1982) didn’t enjoy the success of the earlier National Lampoon film “Animal House” (1978), it got Hughes on his way toward building a reputation as one of Hollywood’s premiere comedy screenplay writers.

Hughes’ first big success came with the screenplay for the Michael Keaton vehicle “Mr. Mom” (1983). Once his third screenplay was filmed, Hughes shot into the stratosphere of ‘80s comedy. “National Lampoon’s Vacation”(1983) became a national phenomenon, coming at the beginning of both the public acceptance of paid cable channels and the birth of the home video market. Within a few years of its release the family vacation comedy became loved by audiences of all ages despite its ‘R’ rating.

Hughes made his directorial debut in 1984 with “Sixteen Candles”, another family-oriented movie that pushed the bounds of good taste while perfectly capturing the alienation of adolescence. Stamped with the an inexplicable ‘PG’ rating, which allowed for the profane humor to reach a larger audience, “Sixteen Candles” kicked off a quick succession of high school-based movies that would help to define a generation and usher in a whole new era of filmmaking. Hughes followed up with a teen comedy or drama in quick succession including, “The Breakfast Club”(1985), “Weird Science”(1985), “Pretty In Pink”(screenplay only 1986), “Ferris Beuller’s Day Off”(1986), and “Some Kind of Wonderful”(screenplay only 1987), often utilizing the stars of “Candles”, Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall, and always depicting awkward teenagers flying in the face of authority and defying the class-oriented structures of their environments.

In 1987 Hughes directed his first grown up-themed movie “Planes, Trains & Automobiles”. Centered on a family holiday—Thanksgiving—the movie followed a man’s (Steve Martin) failing attempts to get home to his family during the busy travel holiday. He continued in the adult vein for his next project “She’s Having a Baby”(1988), about the loss of identity a man (Kevin Bacon) feels as he attempts to start his own family. He returned to family-based movies with his next two directorial efforts “Uncle Buck”(1989) and “Curly Sue”(1991), which focus on the unanticipated relationships adults can share with children.

“Curly Sue” would be Hughes’ final trip to the director’s chair, but he continued to pen a number of family films, including National Lampoon’s “European Vacation”(1985) and “Christmas Vacation”(1989), “The Great Outdoors”(1988), “Home Alone”(1990) and two sequels, “Dutch”(1991), “Career Opportunities”(1991), “Beethoven”(1992), “Dennis the Menace”(1993), the remake of “Miracle on 34th Street”(1994), “Baby’s Day Out”(1994), “101 Dalmatians”(1996), “Flubber”(1997), “Reach the Rock”(1998), and “Just Visiting”(2001).

Hughes was not a flashy director, but his writing skills helped him get into the mindset of the American high school teenager in a way that no other writer-director ever had before. Aside from a few contributions by a handful of other directors, Hughes essentially created the high school genre, one that to this day produces a new picture every couple of months. For the first time, Hughes ushered audiences inside the psyche of high school aged kids, and he took them seriously. Even in his most raucous comedies, his teenagers were intellectual and striving beyond the positions that had been predetermined for them.

He always had a great depth to his cast of characters. They were kids that really existed in American high schools. For the first time teenagers recognized themselves represented in film. As Hughes matured as a filmmaker, so did his characters. What were at first essentially plots constructed to provide shocking laughs provided by the imagination of his teens, eventually evolved into studies in how adults tried without success to control these kids as cattle, and then into examinations of the class systems that formed in high school society. His direction got more inventive as he moved into his adult fare, but he seemed most at home with his teenage characters.

Hughes also introduced the world to a new generation of actors. They became known as the Brat Pack; although, I imagine this categorization must have frustrated Hughes. He was trying to tell adults that these kids weren’t brats, but intelligent thinking people just trying to survive a period in their lives that most adults had lost touch with. Many of his stars never survived this inaccurate label. Molly Ringwald, Alley Sheedy, Anthony Michael Hall, Andrew McCarthy, Judd Nelson, Lea Thompson, Eric Stoltz and others shared well over fifteen minutes of fame, but never seemed to outlive their ‘80s personas. Others, like John Cusack, Matthew Broderick, Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Joan Cusack, and Bill Paxton became major stars. Hughes also showed a knack for creating the perfect vehicles for well-established performers such as, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, John Candy, Walter Mathau, Glenn Close, Catherine O’Hara, Dan Aykroyd, Paul Dooley, and Charles Grodin.

A contribution that Hughes had a hand in was the development of the soundtrack album as a moneymaking enterprise of its own. While George Lucas and Martin Scosese blazed the trail of incorporating pop songs into the structure of a film, Hughes is in a small part responsible for making the soundtrack album more marketable. Although the studio executives probably would have driven the market on their own anyway, Hughes touched the ever-important teen market with his ability to include underground bands on his soundtrack that spoke to the counter culture leanings of teens. Hughes introduced audiences to the likes of The Smiths, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, The Psychedelic Furs, Simple Minds, Everything But the Girl, Kate Bush, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Suzanne Vega, Echo & the Bunnymen, New Order, and INXS. Suddenly teens were exploring music beyond the American Top 40 charts. Soon bands would be making more money by contributing tracks to a film soundtrack album than they might from their own album sales.

Following the announcement of Hughes’ death, my home page on Facebook was aflutter with quotes from his movies. High school friends and college friends all had their favorite quotations. Quoting “The Breakfast Club”, one friend in particular noted that nobody had ever summed up his high school experience better, “You see us as you want to see us - in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Correct? That's the way we saw each other at 7:00 this morning. We were brainwashed.” Thank you for opening our eyes. R.I.P. John Hughes.


Rick said...

One of the better tributes I've read. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Andy.

angie w said...

Ok, so let's start with The Great Outdoors and then move alphabetically through the others...sound good?