Filmmaker Hughes put spotlight on teen insecurities

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

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.





The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.


90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

‘The Avengers’ Offer a Lesson for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.


How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.


Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.