John Hughes: Writer, director and producer whose Eighties teen movies captured a generation on film
Saturday 08 August 2009
John Hughes defined the 1980s teenager in a series of hugely successful and influential comedy films, including The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink, whose young stars became members of the group known as the "Brat Pack".
Hughes was born in Lansing, Michigan but studied in Northbrook, Illinois, where he shot many of his films, giving it the moniker "Shermer, Illinois" (after Northbrook's original name of Shermerville).
While working as a copywriter in Chicago, Hughes started selling jokes to performers including Joan Rivers and Rodney Dangerfield. The short story "Vacation '58" landed him a job at National Lampoon magazine, which combined bawdiness and bad taste with take-no-prisoners irreverence.
Though its glory days were arguably over, it had branched out into radio and stage shows, and in 1978 they moved into movies with the hit Animal House, a 1962-set frat-house comedy. Hughes wasn't a credited writer on that, but he did write several episodes of the following year's TV spin-off Delta House. Though it didn't emulate the film's success, it did spark many of the elements that would go into some of Hughes' most successful films: a largely youthful cast at odds with authority, a school setting and a script that authentically captured white middle-class teen angst.
In 1982 Lampoon returned with the Hughes-scripted Class Reunion, parodying slasher films and sex comedies. However, though graced with a degree of self-awareness, it lost out to the simpler Porky's.
In 1983 Hughes helped recover the franchise's popularity by elaborating his story "Vacation '58" as National Lampoon's Vacation, in which the Griswold family, led by their timetable-obsessed but accident-prone father (Chevy Chase), make a disastrous trip across America.
By now, Lampoon was faltering financially and Hughes began to look elsewhere, though initially with only moderate success. Mr Mom (1983) was a gentler comedy about a newly unemployed father coping with being at home with young children, and Nate and Hayes was an uncharacteristic swashbuckler.
As writer and first-time director, Hughes struck a home run with his next film, 16 Candles (1984). Sophomore Samantha Baker has "the single worst day of her life" as she tries simultaneously to attract the school hunk and avoid the school geek – while coping with the fact that everyone has forgotten her sixteenth birthday because the next day is her sister's wedding.
Samantha was a breakout role for the Brat Pack stars Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall (who played "The Geek"). There were also smaller roles for siblings John and Joan Cusack.
Several of Hughes' films take their titles from featured songs (in this case, the Stray Cats number), and their pop-filled soundtracks pleased the producers with knock-on album sales and promotional hooks; but more than anything, they helped to lock the films into their fashion and music obsessed teenage audiences.
In 1985 Hughes scripted, but didn't direct, his last Lampoon (European Vacation) preferring to focus on The Breakfast Club, in which five students are held in Saturday detention. Concentrating on character, Hughes' least plot-driven film is the quintessence of the genre, a conversation piece in which the teenagers ("an athlete, a princess, a brain, a criminal and a basket case") gradually open up, revealing aspects of themselves that they would, under normal circumstances, keep hidden.
Turning to a wackier world, the teen-Frankenstein Weird Science (1985) sees two nerds use their computer skills to conjure up a sassy, incredibly sexy Kelly LeBrock. But, having created her, they have no idea what to do, so she takes matters into her own hands, taking them through a series of adventures that help build their confidence. Sweetly touching, despite LeBrock's dynamite body and the boys' testosterone-driven but unfocused desires, nothing particularly untoward happens.
Hughes handed over directing duties for his next project, Pretty in Pink (1985), which took its title from the Psychedelic Furs' song. Again, Ringwald stars as a crush-smitten teen, this time living with her unemployed father and dreading an upcoming senior prom, for which she is dateless and, in Hughes' most fashion-conscious film, without a prom dress.
In Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), soon-to-graduate Matthew Broderick fakes serious illness to skip school, taking a "last-fling" adventure with a friend that includes borrowing his friend's father's Ferrari and blagging a meal at a restaurant. But the ending, while bordering on slapstick, shows both boys growing up and learning to accept responsibility. Paradoxically, the soberest of Hughes' comedies is also seen as one of his funniest.
Slapstick was a part of Hughes' next film, Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), in which ad-man Steve Martin, struggling to get home for Thanksgiving, is constantly thwarted by the hapless John Candy.
After all the silliness of the trans-American slog, with its occasionally Keatonesque stunt-comedy, Hughes finished with a more bittersweet moment, moving all the while towards a more adult comedy.
Continuing that line is She's Having a Baby (1988), in which Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern play Kirsty and Jake, young newlyweds. It is Hughes' most overtly autobiographical film: Jake and he are both drop-out alumni of Arizona State University who met their wives as teenagers and worked as copywriters. The film ends by crediting Hughes' wife as its inspiration.
When She's Having a Baby faltered at the box office, Hughes turned back to what he knew best, with Uncle Buck (1989). When Cindy's father has a heart attack, she and her husband unwillingly leave their three children with their feckless uncle (John Candy). Contrary to what might be expected, Buck actually becomes overly protective of the rebellious teen Tia, who grows to like him enough to engineer a rapprochement with his estranged girlfriend. Not only did the film get Hughes back into the number one spot, but it also introduced him to Macaulay Culkin.
The following year Culkin starred in the Hughes-scripted Home Alone, about a child who is accidentally left at home by holidaying parents and rebuffs a pair of burglars with cartoonish violence. It was Hughes' biggest commercial success and spawned two sequels (1992 and 1997).
In 1991 Hughes' last directorial credit came with Curly Sue, a slightly mawkish tale of good-hearted scammers starring James Belushi.
Though he only directed eight films, Hughes' domination of 1980s teen comedy was almost complete. The genre fell away in the 1990s, growing unfashionable, and withering in Hughes' absence and the fact that the Brat Pack had grown up.
But Hughes continued to write hugely successful films – the Home Alone sequels, the Beethoven series of canine comedies (1992 and 1993, pseudonymously as Edmond Dantes, after the Count of Monte Cristo), 101 Dalmatians (1997), and the rom-com Maid in Manhattan (2002). Increasingly, though, he devoted himself to his farm and made fewer media appearances.
Those early films captured the exquisite pains of teenhood, growing in popularity to achieve cult status. Hughes put their success down to his empathy and respect for teenagers: "I don't discount anything they have to say just because they're only 16."
The films became touchstones and reference points for a generation that knowingly enjoyed their combination of cheesiness and truth. Shermer has become a mythical town of nostalgically enjoyed pain and when the heroes of Kevin Smith's Dogma (1990) try to find it, they are dismayed to discover that it doesn't exist.
Despite bad behaviour and embarrassment, tentative and misdirected love, unconfident 1980s teens, filled with raging hormones, were reassured that nothing goes really wrong, and that they would finally get the freeze-framed, long-delayed kiss with the cute one who they always yearned for.
John Hughes, director, screenwriter, producer: born Lansing, Michigan 18 February 1950; married 1970 Nancy Ludwig (two sons); died New York 6 August 2009.
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