CHICAGO — Walley World? John Hughes came up with that one. Ferris Bueller on the town? Hughes.
The formula behind the “Home Alone” phenomenon? Add three parts Three Stooges slapstick to two parts holiday sentiment, and poof: enormous global hit, courtesy of screenwriter Hughes.
While he sold us more than one brand of escapist fantasy, nobody exploited the rigidity of high school cliques and the squirmy humor in teenage insecurities more profitably than this man, this increasingly reclusive man, whose star dimmed in recent years but whose influence remains enormous.
In the 1980s Hughes, the product of advertising and a former copywriter and creative director for the Leo Burnett agency, was untouchable — the Eliot Ness of comedy. Millions came to movies such as “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” at just the right age, and their enduring devotion is a given.
So much cultural residue from that period has gone the way of C. Thomas Howell’s sport coats, yet millions can quote “The Breakfast Club” a generation later. “When you grow up, your heart dies”: That’s one Hughesian sentiment expressed in that film, and while it’s facile, well, Hughes’ sensibility may not have been deep, but it cut an extraordinarily wide swath across the world.
After honing his satiric edge at National Lampoon magazine and his wisecracks in Chicago advertising, Hughes grew into a force in American entertainment. As a writer and, from 1984 to 1991, a writer-director, Hughes created young, quippy, charmingly jaded teenagers played by Molly Ringwald, Matthew Broderick and others. Most of these characters were soaked in suburban privilege, living with (or near) distracted, sometimes callous, occasionally saintly parents. His films were fairy tales, and they knew their audience. Every 20 minutes another pent-up adolescent male discovers “Weird Science” on cable.
That was fantasy; Hughes’ biggest hits had one foot in something like reality. Besides turning Ringwald into a widely loved star and symbol of humiliation-with-panache (“Sixteen Candles,” the first feature he directed and one of his best), Hughes transformed simple setups into the stuff of populist legend, such as “The Breakfast Club’s” motley morning detention crew learning to see past their surface differences. In “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” Hughes fashioned an easygoing rascal, bending the adult world to his will, laughing all the way.
There were hits before those films (“National Lampoon’s Vacation,” written by Hughes, directed by Harold Ramis) and huge global successes afterward, particularly the first two “Home Alone” pictures in the early ‘90s (Hughes-written, directed by Chris Columbus). In recent years, new waves of comedy washed across the screens, and Hughes seemed out of step. His final directorial project was “Curly Sue,” back in 1991. He received story credit under his pseudonym, Edmond Dantes, for the recent flop “Drillbit Taylor,” based on an old Hughes scenario.
When news broke Thursday that Hughes, 59, had died of a heart attack in Manhattan, it came as a painful reminder of fame’s vicissitudes. But consider that run from “Sixteen Candles” through “Home Alone.” That’s quite a commercial streak.
And nobody during that time was a more enthusiastic onscreen backer of Chicago. In the British paper The Guardian last year, Andrew Pulver called Hughes “the laureate of Chicago suburbia,” characterizing “Ferris Bueller” as “the most Chicago movie since ‘Little Caesar.’ “
Hughes imagined a world where conformity ruled but where there was always enough wiggle room for the kids who wanted to play by their own rules and challenge the stereotypes. At their most successful, Hughes’ scripts were seductive double-dealers, at once challenging and embodying the stereotypes. Luckily for their creator and for the audience, they also were funny.