John Hughes: No apologiesWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
He never won Oscars like Steven Spielberg, or won respect on the scale of Martin Scorsese, but for those paying attention to movies in the 1980s and ’90s, John Hughes was The Man.
- “The Breakfast Club”
- “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”
- “Sixteen Candles”
- “Home Alone”
- “Pretty in Pink”
- “Uncle Buck”
- “Trains, Planes & Automobiles”
- “Mr. Mom”
- “National Lampoon’s Vacation”
- “Weird Science”
Hughes died of a heart attack Aug. 6, at 59 years old.
One’s first instinct is to apologize for his body of work as a guilty pleasure, to say, ‘Well, there’s no ‘Schindler’s List’ here, but Hughes made some good, albeit lightweight movies.”
Ignore that impulse.
As critic David Poland said, “John Hughes had as much impact on American culture as any filmmaker in history. At least two generations smile knowingly and nod at the points of reference from his films.”
As talented a writer and producer as he was a director, Hughes tapped into youth culture with a wisdom that makes his best movies timeless. No matter how dated the fashions are, the attitudes of his high school characters in “The Breakfast Club” are immortal enough to still be referenced on today’s teen Disney shows and such pop culture filters as “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy.”
No one drew better performances out of such comedic actors as Steve Martin and John Candy. “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” may be a movie set at Thanksgiving, but it plays all year long, and if it’s on, I’ll stop and watch it.
The writing in the film is dense and a constant source of discovery. It is difficult to remember how shocking it was the first time Martin’s F-word symphony played out at the rental car counter, and constant exposure to the word in movies has dulled the impact, but no one has ever topped that minute of dialogue as an exploration of one of the language’s most powerful words.
Believe me, I’ve tried.
Roger Ebert, in his essay on “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” in his “Great Movies” series, hits the essence of Hughes’ work: “John Hughes, who wrote, directed and produced the film, is one of the most prolific filmmakers of the last 25 years. He is not often cited for greatness, although some of his titles, like ‘The Breakfast Club,’ ‘Weird Science,’ ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ and ‘Home Alone,’ have fervent admirers. What can be said for him is that he usually produces a real story about people he has clear ideas about; his many teenage comedies, for example, are miles more inventive than the recent sex-and-prom sagas. The buried story engine of ‘Planes, Trains & Automobiles’ is not slowly growing friendship or odd-couple hostility (devices a lesser film might have employed), but empathy. It is about understanding how the other guy feels.”
That ability to capture “how the other guy feels” infuses Hughes’ best work.
Hughes utilized Candy for this purpose in “Uncle Buck,” taking a lazy slob of a man-child and turning him into a cipher for modern male anxiety about marriage, kids and growing up. Candy may not have been Olivier (and there’s that odd impulse to apologize again), but in Hughes’ movies, he creates characters that rise above cartoonish situations and anchor themselves in empathy and human emotion.
Audiences should not really like Matthew Broderick’s Ferris Bueller, who is cocky, reckless and self-centered. But Hughes so carefully crafts a Chicago universe of high school freak show people around Bueller, the character becomes endearing and cheered. The roots of every modern self-aware, fourth-wall-breaking character from Seinfeld to SpongeBob SquarePants can be traced to Ferris Bueller.
In his “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” essay, Ebert writes, “The movies that last, the ones we return to, don’t always have lofty themes or Byzantine complexities. Sometimes they last because they are arrows straight to the heart.”
That almost sounds like an apology, but as long as people watch movies, there will be people who discover and love John Hughes. And they will have nothing to apologize for.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com.