Don't you forget about John Hughes

His name remained synonymous with movies that captured the awkwardness of teenage life, long after he had moved on

Published August 7, 2009 10:07PM (EDT)

This 1984 file photo shows director John Hughes. Hughes is the man who wrote "National Lampoon's Vacation," "Mr. Mom" and "Natonal Lampoon's European Vacation." He also wrote and directed "16 Candles," "The Breakfast Club," and "Weird Science." Hughes, who was 59, died in New York on Thursday.
This 1984 file photo shows director John Hughes. Hughes is the man who wrote "National Lampoon's Vacation," "Mr. Mom" and "Natonal Lampoon's European Vacation." He also wrote and directed "16 Candles," "The Breakfast Club," and "Weird Science." Hughes, who was 59, died in New York on Thursday.

Even if you weren't a teenager in the 1980s, you can still watch Molly Ringwald in the first picture John Hughes directed, the 1984 "Sixteen Candles," and get a sense of what it's like to be the forgotten girl. Ringwald's character, Samantha, has just reached her 16th birthday, one of those old-fashioned milestones that's supposed to mean something for a young woman. And yet no one in her family has remembered -- they're too caught up in the preparations for her older sister's wedding. Ringwald had previously appeared on television (in "Diff'rent Strokes" and "The Facts of Life"), but "Sixteen Candles" was her first big movie role, and her coltish vulnerability was deeply touching. Hughes had found the right actress for the right movie at the right time, and the combination was gold.

Awkwardness, yearning and frustration with parents and authority figures have always been part of teenagerdom, and they've been a part of teenage movies since "Rebel Without a Cause." And yet Hughes -- who died on Tuesday, of a heart attack, at age 59 -- had a knack for placing these perennial problems squarely in their particular age, and for making it seem, even just temporarily, as if they actually meant something. "Sixteen Candles," with its breezy, casual pop-culture references, spoke plainly to its target audience, and reached quite a few people outside of it. It was genuinely tasteless (it featured a character named Long Duk Dong, after all), but it was also genuinely sweet.

"Sixteen Candles" set the tone for a short but influential string of movies, for and about teenagers, that Hughes would go on to write and direct in the next few years, including "The Breakfast Club" (an orgy of special pleading about misunderstood kids and mean old adults) and the spectacularly sophomoric -- and sometimes hilarious -- "Weird Science" (both 1985), as well as "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986). These movies featured a brood of young actors, among them Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall and Judd Nelson, who would come to be called the Brat Pack.

By the time of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," Hughes' movies had attained a high level of efficient facility. For everything that was refreshing and new about them, they also followed fairly pat formulas: The kids were always right, and the parents were always wrong and needed to learn a lesson. Sometimes the pictures had vaguely cruel or unpleasant undertones. And even by the time of "The Breakfast Club," a nascent savvy for marketing had become part of the Hughes touch. After "Sixteen Candles," I remember going to see his movies -- which by then included movies he wrote and handed out to be directed by others, like "Pretty in Pink" -- and feeling as if I were part of a group being sold to.

But that didn't make Hughes' movies any less entertaining, or any less significant as zeitgeisty flashes. The misfits and cool kids of "The Breakfast Club" -- among them Ally Sheedy's quiet loner, with her shaggy black hair and droopy black clothes, and Anthony Michael Hall's irrepressible nerd -- were types that were easy to recognize, even if you'd been out of high school for a while. The movies Hughes wrote and directed in that brief period, from 1984 to 1986, were so popular, and so overexposed, that it became all too easy to use the phrase "like something out of a John Hughes movie" to refer to any aspect of teenage feeling or experience that felt canned, lifeless or inauthentic.

And yet those movies were really just the beginning of what would be a long and extremely profitable career. After Hughes' early directing success with those teen movies, he went on to write and direct a few vehicles for John Candy (including the 1987 "Planes, Trains and Automobiles"), and "She's Having a Baby" (1988), which, instead of teenagers, focused on young newlyweds (played by Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern). The last movie Hughes would direct was the 1991 "Curly Sue," which flopped at the box office and was widely considered a dud. But that failure was really just the beginning of another kind of success: Hughes had already written and produced the 1990 megahit "Home Alone," and from there he went on to rack up a number of writing and producing credits. Most recently, he co-wrote "Maid in Manhattan" and "Drillbit Taylor," both credited to the pseudonym he frequently used, Edmond Dantes (a nod to "The Count of Monte Cristo").

Hughes, a native of Chicago, was always something of an outsider in Hollywood and seems to have felt more at home in the Midwest: He had lived, in recent years, in both Wisconsin and Illinois, mostly out of the public eye, and had given interviews or been photographed only infrequently. While it's always sad when a public figure dies so young, there's something to be said for a man who, in an era when plenty of us are busy oversharing details of our lives via Twitter and Facebook, can maintain some semblance of mystery about his life. After a period of overexposure -- albeit one that brought him great success -- it appears that Hughes decided, simply, to live the life he wanted to live.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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Movies R.i.p. Teenagers