Three weeks ago I wrote about Celebrity deaths and how they affect us. Last week I wrote about High School. Because life has no lack of irony, today I’ll be writing about them both.
Film director John Hughes died yesterday. I theorize every decade, every film genre has maybe three guys that own that decade. For eighties comedy, it would have been Ivan Reitman, John Landis and more importantly, John Hughes. If you were born before 1970 that name may escape you. If you don’t know him, you probably know his work.
Hughes invented the modern road movie with National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) and everything David Spade and Chris Farley did fifteen years later is owed to him. Harold and Kumar should be sending him royalty checks, too. He gave Michael Keaton is first leading man material with Mr Mom (1983), a movie about a man who stays home while his wife works and is clearly a product of the post-feminist era like Nine To Five and Private Benjamin three years earlier. The poster of Michael Keaton’s drying a baby’s ass with a rest room air dryer is embedded in my head forever. That’s good advertising.
Hughes etched his name in granite with Sixteen Candles (1984) and this is where it starts to really get good. I remember being on a bus in 1984, a kid who could count the times he was taken to the movies on one hand and still have fingers left, and hearing kids talk about Sixteen Candles. I wouldn’t see the movie for three more years until we got a VCR.
For my readers born after 1990, it wasn’t until the late eighties when home video became commonplace. There weren’t Blockbusters on every corner, Netflix or vending machines offering you movies. There was no pay-per-view and stores didn’t sell movies. The internet didn’t exist so you couldn’t go there and steal it. You waited for the movie you wanted to air it on television once a year, they would make a huge deal out of it, and you either saw it or you didn’t which means you waited until next year. And VCRs cost around $600 and maybe two people on your block were lucky enough to have one.
If you haven’t seen it, Sixteen Candles is about a girl who has a crush on a boy she can’t have, a boy who has a crush on her she doesn’t want, and she turns sixteen and nobody remembers her birthday. When Hughes would start to plagiarize himself he’d reverse the points of the triangle and call it Some Kind Of Wonderful and Pretty In Pink. It made a career for Molly Ringwald she was only able to escape by learning French and moving to France where she had a very lengthy film career and every now and again pops up in something American. A few years ago there were rumors of a sequel called Thirty-Two Candles about a housewife whose husband forgets their anniversary and for better or worse it never happened.
Now this is where he manages to define a generation in 1984 with The Breakfast Club. Don’t ask me what the title means, I don’t know. What I do know is this is where Hughes proves he’s an expert at something. Kevin Williamson, who reinvented the slasher film with Scream (1996) once said he writes teenagers not as they are, but how they think they are. Hughes wrote them as they are (granted, maybe he exaggerates a little; he is, after all, a writer). Breakfast Club is teenage group therapy and God knows, we needed it. Five teenage archetypes in Saturday detention realizing they aren’t that different. The brilliant part here is how the film manages to be funny, poignant and vulnerable. Twenty-five years later I still talk to people years younger than me who see the film and identify with it. Again, Hughes toyed with the idea of making a sequel at a twenty year reunion and for better or worse it never happened.
How influential is The Breakfast Club? Here is the poster for the film.
And here is the poster for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 a year later…
And here is a JCPenny Back To School commercial from last year that my friend Heidi’s fifteen year old stepson saw and said, “They should make that a movie,” at which point she picked up her cell phone reserved a copy from JimFlix.
The commonalty in his films is the outsider and everybody, even the most popular cheerleader in high school who will tell you how hard it is to be her, thinks she’s the outsider.
I have a movie I watch when I am depressed and it’s called Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). I find it impossible to watch and not feel better when it’s over. The thing about Ferris is he’s some unnatural nerd/cool kid hybrid that nature hasn’t discovered and quickly decided it upset the natural order and thus, must be destroyed. A cool kid would have his own car and never have the hypochondriac Cameron as a friend. A nerd kid would never have the severely crush-worthy doe-eyed Sloan as a girlfriend who isn’t just pretty, she’s kind, and makes you think even Cameron might have a chance with her if Ferris wasn’t in the picture. But why would you not want Ferris in the picture? He was our alter ego and through him we all got what each an every one of us wanted… to be liked… by everyone. In the words or Edie McClurg as Principal Ed Rooney’s long-suffering secretary Grace,
“….he’s very popular Ed. The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, waistoids, dweebies, dickheads – they all adore him. They think he’s a righteous dude.”
Every so often talk would come up of a Ferris Bueller’s Night Off where Ferris and Cameron skip out of a business trip and hilarity ensues. Again, for better or worse it never happened.
Hughes was writing machine. I once read he’d written Vacation over a weekend and Ferris Bueller in five days. For every sequel that didn’t happen, there are three Vacation, three Home Alones, and a Weird Science and Ferris Bueller TV show that probably shouldn’t have either.
He only directed four teen movies even with Some Kind Of Wonderful (1987) and Pretty In Pink (1986) being attributed to him eventhough they were directed by director/Lea Thompson’s husband Howard Deutch who also helmed The Great Outdoors (1988). Hughes would direct Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) and the vastly under seen She’s Having A Baby (1988) before writing Home Alone (1990). In rare Entertainment Weekly interview he would call Home Alone the best thing that ever happened to his career because it gave him the cache in Hollywood to do anything he wanted. When asked what was the worst thing he’d ever have happen to his career he answered, “Home Alone… because it gave him the cache in Hollywood to do anything he wanted.”
He was right. It made him lazy and it shows in the remakes of One Hundred And One Dalmatians (1996), Miracle On 34th Street (1994) and Flubber (1997). He cannibalized the “kid trapped in burglars” plot from Home Alone in Dennis The Menace (1994), Career Opportunities (1991) and Baby’s Day Out (1993). I’ll admit, I have a soft spot for Uncle Buck (1989) coming from someone who’s never found John Candy funny in a lead, this is the one I do like. He’d take that movie and the “Disaster Road Trip” he invented with Vacation and perfected with Planes, Trains, create Dutch (1991). The last film he’d direct would be Curly Sue (1991) and by that time Hughes was coloring by numbers and I was on to other things.
On occasion, people would ask me what happened to John Hughes and I said he still writes sometimes but I think he’s mostly retired. He wrote Maid In Manhattan (2002), Drillbit Taylor (2008) and the Beethoven movies under the pseudonym Edmond Dantes (and for those of you that paid attention in literature class know that’s the name of the wrongfully imprisoned man in The Count Of Monte Cristo).
Sure, he didn’t go out like I would have wanted him to, people seldom do. The man made smart comedies with heart and loved that he found success but hated that it came by sticking cute kids into movies and hitting people in the head with paint cans. He made smart movies about teens and then started making live-action cartoons (and with 101 Dalmatians and Dennis The Menace, literally).
Having watched Breakfast Club a few weeks ago, I always liked how his teenagers look like kids. The testament is my friend Jessica Zins who watched five episodes of USA’s The Dead Zone series before realizing Johnny Smith was Anthony Michael Hall, a guy so typecast as a nerd he was cast as uber-geek Bill Gates in Pirates Of Silicon Valley (1999). In Sixteen Candles he looks like he’s twelve. Even in Weird Science (1985), the odd child of his films, an exercise in teenage boy wish fulfillment, Kelly LeBrock’s Lisa isn’t a bimbo built for sex. She has the intelligence of Einstein. She’s smart, witty and ballsy. In sixties television with I Dream Of Jeannie and Bewitched, this type of character would be hidden or suppressed. In a John Hughes movie, she’s the one running the show. She answers to no one. God love her. She made puffy lips sexy when Angelina Jolie was ten.
John Hughes proved that although he wasn’t one of us, he understood us. That the more things change, the more they stay the same. Ally Sheedy was goth before anyone had a word for it. And let’s just say alternative rock in the eighties wouldn’t have gotten as far as it did had Molly Ringwald not picked the tracks for those soundtracks.
When the text went out that Hughes died my friend Jon Plant responded, “That sucks. I went to his high school.”