John Hughes, the landmark director and voice of awkward disassociated teens everywhere died Thursday of a heart attack in Manhattan while taking a walk. He was 59. The filmmaker, whom critic Roger Ebert once called “the philosopher of adolescence,” was without a doubt a major influence on many of the filmmakers to come since his heyday including Wes Anderson, Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow, who told the L.A. Times last year, “Basically, my stuff is just John Hughes films with four-letter words.”
His vaguely disguised anti-establishment message was uniquely American and certainly help seal his movies appeal with the American public. Called a contemporary J. D. Salinger, Hughes didn’t make movies; his work was social commentary in high school, a slice of the microcosm writ large on the macro. He gave a real voice to the American teenager and in doing so opened up a window on the souls of the rest of us. He reminded us as adults that being young was legitimate and important and that the experiences of youth were real and universal and sweeter than we remember. He would, through his dysfunctional grouping of miscreants and social outcasts, show us where we came from. His lessons were simple and clear and absolutely true, we are all a product of our childhood and we are all the same.
“He understood young people in a way few filmmakers ever have. He tapped into the feelings of teenagers and literally changed the face of the ’80s. The film industry has lost a giant — a gentle, wonderful giant,” said “Home Alone” said actor Devin Ratray in a statement given to the press.
Born in Michigan, Hughes used his high school town of Northbrook, Ill., as a location for many of his films. He got his start as an advertising copywriter in Chicago and started selling jokes to performers such as Rodney Dangerfield and Joan Rivers. Hired by National Lampoon magazine after submitting his short story “Vacation ’58,” he wrote his first screenplay, “Class Reunion,” while on staff at the magazine, and it became his first produced script in 1982. His next, “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” based on his short story, became his first big hit and spawned several sequels.
Behind the scenes Hughes would become renowned as the script doctor of choice for Hollywood while his own work was slower in materializing. He worked on a Jaws sequel, and with PJ O’Rourke wrote The History of Ohio from the Beginning of Time to the End of the Universe, neither of which were ever made. He locked horns with the director of his first produced screenplay, the horror-comedy National Lampoon’s Class Reunion, and the film was widely considered a disaster; he also co-wrote the unremarkable swashbuckling adventure Nate and Hayes. Bruce Berman, who was VP of production at Universal and president of production at Warners when Hughes made several films with those studios, told Daily Variety, “He was one of the most challenging relationships an exec could have, but one of the most fun, most talented and gifted.” Berman said that Hughes was one of the fastest writers in the biz, saying “He could write a draft over a weekend” but “he didn’t like to be rewritten.”
Hughes’ first film as a director was 1984’s “Sixteen Candles,” starring Anthony Michael Hall, John Cusack and Molly Ringwald. The teen romance introduced several of the actors who would make up Hughes’ “stock company” a legendary group that would eventually become known as the Brat Pack. In 1985, “The Breakfast Club” became that era’s, and possibly the 20th century’s, most iconic and influential high school film. It starred Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Hall and Judd Nelson as teens who must learn to get along when thrown together during Saturday detention.
After an impressive string of hits — “Home Alone” is one of the top-grossing live-action comedies of all time — Hughes, who never won a major show business award, stopped directing in 1991 and virtually retired from filmmaking a few years later, working on his farm in northern Illinois.
While his work has a visual style that is unique to its era the messages that he conveyed with absolute skill are timeless. He taught us that “society” will always see us as it wants to see us. In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out, through his work, is that each one of us is a brain…and an athlete…and a basket case…a princess…and a criminal.
Does that answer your question?
Yes it does Mr. Hughes. Yes it does.
Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.
John Hughes is survived by his wife of 39 years, Nancy; two sons, John, a musician, and James, a writer; and four grandchildren and he will be missed by us all.