John Hughes never got his third act. Argue all you want to over his creative canon, but here was a filmmaker who became a legitimate cinematic phenomenon, parlayed said undeniable success into a solid post-fad commercial career, and then…nothing. Self-imposed exile, a refusal to revisit his past, and now an untimely death from a heart attack at age 59. There is no denying his impact on the artform. Hughes melded the nostalgic feel good facets of life in high school with the real world traumas facing contemporary youth, combining comedy, sex, partying, parents, and suburban Chicago good times into the viable visual yearbook of our lives. And more times than not, he had a bitching soundtrack loaded with popular and unusual musical acts to accompany it.
Not bad for a mild-mannered Midwesterner who got his start in advertising. After a stint selling jokes, he wrote a piece about a prickly family holiday that caught the attention of the infamous National Lampoon. Soon, he became a staffer for the noted humor magazine, working on the ill-fated follow-up to the franchise’s Animal House, Class Reunion. Still, that minor screenwriting stint landed Hughes a couple of high profile gigs. He crafted one of Michael Keaton’s early blockbusters, 1983’s Mr. Mom, and that same year adapted his original short into the wildly successful National Lampoon’s Vacation. When both films became hits, Hollywood came calling and offered Hughes a chance to direct. The results - the ultimate ‘80s teen romp Sixteen Candles.
In this simple story of Samantha Baker, her big birthday, and the thoughtless family that completely forgot about it, Hughes found his motion picture purpose and his artistic muse. He had a wonderful ear for dialogue, combining current cultural touch stones (arcade games, rock band cues) with real feelings of alienation and awkwardness. In Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall, he also discovered the perfect onscreen reflections of his own days at Glenbrook North High School. Though it wasn’t a massive triumph, it touched a nerve with a growing adolescent demographic, a fanbase Hollywood was desperate to serve. Home video spun it into a whirlwind. Giving Hughes room to grow, supporting studio Universal approved his next project - a semi-serious look at the complicated personalities patrolling the local schoolyard. The results were the milestone known as The Breakfast Club
Like celluloid shorthands for everyone’s alma mater, Hughes found a unique way of taping into teen angst without making it seem too preachy or predictable. Talking realistically about parental expectation, clique controls, peer pressure, and the constant battle between conformity and individuality, it remains a movie totally in touch with its subject matter, a meaningful experience for everyone, no matter if you were “a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, or a criminal”. Of all the movies he made between 1984 and 1991, Club stands as one of his most important, if not his most popular. It has also become a signpost for a time when American youth were feeling disconnected from their elder’s world - and Hughes was rapidly becoming their troubadour.
While its flailing follow-up, the loopy, libido-driven Weird Science, showed signs of the formula falling apart, it was the next movie in his oeuvre that became a benchmark by which all his future endeavors would be judged. With up and coming actor Matthew Broderick on board, and a narrative lifted directly out of every kid’s daydream desire to play hooky, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off helped confirm Hughes’ burgeoning box office credence. As outsized fantasies go, this wild wish fulfillment glazed with a somber statement about maturity and taking responsibility is often seen as the most “grown-up” of his teen titles. Along with two other films that he scripted and produced - 1986’s Pretty in Pink and 1987’s Some Kind of Wonderful, Hughes was clearly outgrowing the minor raunch and ridiculousness of his previous efforts. He was ready to try his hand at more updated adult fare - and his next film proved he was up to the task.
Sweet, sentimental, and all together silly, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles was a brilliant showcase for comedian Steve Martin and SCTV sketch comedy giant John Candy. Playing two businessmen baffled by the travel conditions over a typical storm-strangled Thanksgiving weekend, Hughes took his penchant for quick one-liners and clever character shtick and forged a fascinating look at love and loneliness. As with many films centering around the holidays, there was a sentimentality at play that never got too weepy or too trite. Instead, Hughes dealt with his ad man Neal Page and traveling salesman Del Griffith as he would any mismatched comedy pair - he played to their strengths while stressing their obvious (and sometimes painful) differences.
By this time, Hughes was his own mini-multinational. He was helping assistant directors like Howard Deutch and newcomers like Peter Faiman and Jeremiah S. Chechik find work behind the lens and he continued to craft starring vehicles for fresh faced talent like Jennifer Connelly, Mary Stuart Masterson, and an under-aged firecracker who would soon become one of the most bankable child stars of all time, Macaulay Culkin. Hughes had featured the precocious pint-sized dynamo in what would end up being his second-to-last stint behind the camera, the hilarious Uncle Buck. Seeing how well he came off on camera, the gifted scenarist crafted a script solely for the talented 10 year old. The Christmas themed comedy, Home Alone, would go on to become one of the highest grossing films of all time. Oddly enough, it would create a kind of industry bankability that would drive Hughes out of the limelight and into a bizarre intentional banishment for the next two decades.
Indeed, Curly Sue would be his last directorial credit. From 1991 to 2008, he became a hired gun, working mostly for Disney forging family films and remakes of classic House of Mouse titles like The Absent-Minded Professor (renamed Flubber) and the live action 101 Dalmatians update starring Glenn Close. When DVD arrived to the home video format, many fans waited eagerly for Hughes’ commentary thoughts on his early ‘80s classics. Yet aside from a nominal appearance on the Ferris Bueller disc, he has almost completely avoided his earnest earlier period.
As of 1999, he wrote only one screenplay (2001’s Just Visiting) and became more and more media shy. There are very few photos of him from the last few years, even less interviews and print appearances, and aside from helping out his son with the film Reach the Rock, he all but eschewed film. It’s a falling out that still makes little sense, especially in today’s nostalgia-oriented mindset. One wonders if Hughes had a desk drawer filled with unfilled ideas, concepts waiting for his love of cinema to return.
All of which makes his sudden death so shocking. No before-their-time passing is ever acceptable, but Hughes has been so important to so many people, especially the founding facets of the Internet’s geek nation, that his lasting legacy was more than secure. But as with any hungry viewership, always wanting more, many wondered if Hughes would ever return to the big screen, crafting an undated version of the comedic fare he mastered over 25 years before. Like Thomas Pynchon or more appropriately, J. D. Salinger, Hughes was the voice of a generation silenced too soon - first, by his own hand, and second by the demands of destiny. While we will now never know if there was a third act in Hughes’ already massive myth, one things for sure - with how things began for the ‘80s icon, he will always be a part of cinema’s coming of age, both literally and figuratively.