John Hughes didn’t make the smartest, wisest, most hilarious movies about American teenagers. Cameron Crowe and Amy Heckerling did. He didn’t make the sexiest. Those would be Francis Ford Coppola’s “Rumble Fish” and “The Outsiders.” He didn't make the drunkest and druggiest as Richard Linklater did with "Dazed and Confused." He made neither the most feeling (I like either “American Graffiti” or “Valley Girl” for that) nor the most volcanic (see “Rebel without a Cause”).
Hughes, who died today, made the most paradigmatically popular. In three years, he either wrote or wrote and directed “Sixteen Candles,” “Weird Science,” “Pretty in Pink,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and “Some Kind of Wonderful”– part living suburban diary, part generational scripture. Without saying anything new or even necessarily true (“It’s so hard being cute, white, middle- American, and middle-class”), he changed a segment of the movies by giving us aspirational emotional archetypes. Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, Jon Cryer, Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson, Charlie Sheen, Matthew Broderick. Speaking conventionally, they weren’t stars. Their attitudes were. Nobody wanted to be those actors per se, they wanted to be what those actors felt. I grew up in a poor, black Philadelphia neighborhood. Hughes's movies were like a nature special whose only corollary was a rare, exotic field trip to the Cherry Hill Mall.
Few directors made glibness seem as urgent as Hughes did. He sanded away the edges of lust, angst, and rebellion until what remained were anodyne anthems for the MTV era. He didn’t invent the movie soundtrack. He was just the first director to perfect it visually. Classic and original pop songs became the life force of a new mainstream moviemaking: the American musical as long-form music video. These movies made you want to dance to them, and the songs were where most of the soul came from – Jon Cryer pantomiming “Try a Little Tenderness” in “Pretty in Pink,” Matthew Broderick doing the same to “Twist and Shout” in “Ferris Bueller.” I know who Sigue Sigue Sputnik and the Psychedelic Furs are because of Hughes. And Yello’s totally dada “Oh Yeah” is as memorable a comic device as anything else in “Ferris Bueller.” (“Chick. Chicka-Chickaaaaah.”)
What enhanced the movies' resonance – and, to a certain extent, made them bogus – was Hughes’s exaltation of adolescent resistance. His PG-13 generational fights were never fair. He merged the worst parts of “The Catcher in the Rye” and the best parts of “Rebel Without a Cause” into proto-hipster cartoons. Emilio Estevez and the gang trying to break out of detention might have been exhilarating at 15 years old – or, in my case, 10. But they were all in detention for unambiguous infractions. By the time it’s all over, though, they’re exonerated for everything. You see, the kids come from dysfunctional families.
The oppression of parental expectation, the tyranny of divorce: Broken homes were breaking them down. Although not enough to stop them from crawling though air ducts and sliding down the school halls as if they were Duran Duran. “The Exorcist” made Satanic possession the punishment for divorce. Hughes made self-pity and entitlement a consequence for having any parents at all. His movies turned adults and authority figures into buffoons – Jeffrey Jones and Edie McClurg in “Bueller,” Paul Gleason in “The Breakfast Club” - or bullies (John Ashton in "Some Kind of Wonderful.") Part of the fairy tale of Hughes was that grownups suffer at the hands of kids who get away with everything. Harry Dean Stanton and Annie Potts in "Pretty in Pink" stand as affectionate aberrations.
There was no war, no sweeping social movement during this period. Just Ronald Reagan and sad-old Grenada. No one talked about race or AIDS. The world revolved around detention, crushes, and proms. It was "Petty in Pink."But what redeemed these movies was their sideways cool. Eric Stoltz and Mary Stuart Masterson were sexier misfits than I'd ever seen. And on his uneven playing field, Hughes did come up with true, human characters. They were always on the sidelines or reluctant to get in the game - even their own. Ringwald's Samantha in "Sixteen Candles" Cryer's Duckie in “Pretty in Pink.” Masterson's Watts in “Some Kind of Wonderful.” And, best of all, Jeannie Bueller and Cameron Frye in “Ferris Bueller.” Jennifer Grey was the seething Cassandra of that movie, desperately trying to expose the little brother as the brat Broderick so star-makingly was. Alan Ruck, meanwhile, was the hopelessly congested Sal Mineo to Broderick’s weasely James Dean.
That movie was on a couple of months ago, and I still think, despite its being rigged against Jeannie and Principal Rooney, that it's Hughes’s best. The shots of his native Chicago and the music that accompanies them give the film a sense of place missing from almost every teen movie that followed. (Visually, the suburbs are a void.) Also: it’s the wisdom that comes from casting. Ruck was almost 30 when the movie came out, and he’s playing the part with the gradual truculence of a grown man still carrying a little boy’s grudge. "Ferris Bueller" is actually about Cameron.
It’s right here that anyone thinking about Hughes responsibly interrupts to ask, “What about ‘Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.’” It’s a fair question about a fine movie. It’s Hughes trying on street-level Jacques Tati with John Candy and Steve Martin doing Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. The result is a dyspeptic comic strip with moments of riotous screwball comedy and real tenderness.
But it was also the beginning of the end for Hughes, who would next try a full-blown grownup comedy with “She’s Having a Baby,” a sitcom that had its moments. He then reverted to movies centered around children – the last two of the eight comedies he directed were “Uncle Buck” in 1989 and “Curly Sue” in 1991. (Hughes also wrote “Mr. Mom” and three of the National Lampoon’s “Vacation” movies, the first of which is a crude minor classic.) In the dozens of scripts he wrote, either under his name (“101 Dalmatians,” “Home Alone,” “Baby’s Day Out,” to name but three) or under the pseudonym Edmond Dantès (“Beethoven”), adults became inconsequential, impotent, or villainous.
He was to the 1980s what Judd Apatow has been to the second half of this decade: comedy’s biggest influence and the reason it remains gathered safely in the middle, away from the edge. He’s actually still giving Apatow a run for his money. What else is “(500) Days of Summer” but art-school Hughes - the movie Ally Sheedy's "Breakfast Club" character might have made? But American moviemakers who were raised on Hughes’s movies took the wrong lessons from them: his progeny are glib and complacent.
Hughes gradually withdrew from public life. There would be no kind of comeback or exit from the shadows. If he couldn’t achieve being J.D. Salinger as a moviemaker, he would be him as a man. As my friend Alex put it in a text message to me a couple of hours ago: The greatest ungettable film story is now totally ungettable. In death, at 59, Hughes calls to mind Michael Jackson, who died in June at 50. They’re two men of the MTV-era who, later in life, seemed happier personally or professionally surrounded by tokens of adolescence and childhood (or actual children). They were different men from the middle of the country who provided a decade with a lifetime of nostalgia-inducing memories. It’s difficult not to imagine them sharing a corn dog at the big food court in the sky.