John Hughes dies, and my adolescence goes with him

08.06.09 8 years ago 4 Comments

AP Photo

Before I ever saw a single film he was involved in, I was already a fan of John Hughes and his comic writing.

My first exposure to him was through his work for National Lampoon, where he was part of that magazine’s best era.  In August of 2008, Zoetrope magazine republished the original short story that Hughes wrote that became the source material for “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” and the new introduction that Hughes wrote now looks to be his last word on his own Hollywood career that we’ll see in public, made all the more noteworthy because of how rarely Hughes spoke about himself:

“… Despite my finishing the story in time for the FedEx pick-up, it was ultimately bumped from the vacation issue to an annual edition comprised of pieces that didn’t make their intended issues. Unbeknownst to me, Warner Brothers purchased the story upon publication in September. I was in Chicago, and my only experience of any reaction to “Vacation ’58” occurred on a flight home from New York, when I heard two businessmen laughing out loud and discovered they were reading my story. As a salaried editor, I had no ownership. The publisher, Matty Simmons, generously invited me to write the screenplay despite my never having even seen one.

This was all happening during Hollywood’s post-Shampoo era of gold chains, red Ferraris, and big sideburns. As a print humorist-envisioning myself as Chicago’s Booth Tarkington Jr.-I willfully knew nothing of show business, except that it was a rich target for satire. P. J. introduced me to the eminent literary attorney Morton Janklow, who advised me to go to Los Angeles and get an agent. When I arrived at the incipient powerhouse Creative Artists Agency in my poplin suit and rep tie, I was mistaken for an IRS agent. Despite my contrastive definition of hip, I passed the audition and got the Agent and the requisite accessory, the Lawyer. After securing a copy of a screenplay to use as a format model, I returned to Chicago to write a script and inexorably alter my life for WGA scale.”

Yet even as he waxed nostalgic about his own beginnings in the business, there’s some mythmaking and some revisionism going on.  Didn’t he write for “Delta House,” the “Animal House” spin-off TV show?  And wouldn’t that predate “Vacation”?  How did he do that if he’d never seen a screenplay?  These contradictions and half-truths are hallmarks of the incredible lengths Hughes would go to in order to protect his privacy, writing under a pseudonym at times, rewriting his own personal history, and just plain disappearing when he felt like it.  For the last twenty years, I would argue that he has been an artistic non-entity.  His last film as a writer/director was “Curly Sue,” for god’s sake.

And yet…

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I would argue that 99% of the grief and the nostalgia and the emotion you’ll see spilled all over the internet in the next few days can be traced back to a few particular entries in the filmography Hughes leaves behind.  Although he had his hands on a number of films as a writer or a producer or some combination of the two, he only wrote AND directed AND produced eight films.  That’s not much of a body of work, and yet the films he made that connected with audiences did so in a way that reaches deeper than just “I liked that movie.”  He defined the lunacy and the silly angst and the emotional turmoil of adolescence with a keen eye and ear in “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and even when those movies leave reality behind and launch into pure wish fulfillment, there’s an honesty underneath that is what made them resonate.  He didn’t just write in archetype; he defined those archetypes for a generation.

Beyond that, the man was just plain funny.  “National Lampoon’s Vacation” is still one of the best films Chevy Chase was ever involved in, blistering and filthy and oh-so-painful for anyone who has ever enjoyed/endured a vacation across country in a car with their own dearly beloved.  “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is the single most appealing and charming portrait of sociopathy ever presented on film.  Movies like “Pretty In Pink” and “Weird Science” introduced dialogue into the permanent daily usage of hundreds of thousands of ’80s geeks.  And “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” not only revisited some of the ideas of “Vacation” with a greater maturity, it also provided the late John Candy with his very best role on film.  The scripts to those movies, which Hughes was said to write quickly and from a place of almost pure instinct, are filled with dialogue that is electric with wit and a love of language, both dirty and otherwise.

No matter who directed the films he wrote, you could tell Hughes was part of their DNA.  He understood that with the closeness and the joy of family comes absolute abject frustration and misery and borderline mental collapse at times, and turning that into laugh-out-loud humor is no easy feat, and certainly not something to be dismissed.

He gave young actors the best material anyone wrote for their age group.  Anthony Michael Hall may have been gifted with amazing comic timing, but if he hadn’t been given scripts like “Vacation” or “Weird Science” or “16 Candles,” that wouldn’t matter.  Just look at “Johnny Be Good” sometime if you want to see the difference Hughes made.  Same is true of guys like Chevy Chase or John Candy, guys who were naturally funny but who made terrible movie after terrible movie.  Their films with Hughes are remembered as some of their best because he gave them real characters to play, and he gave them classic lines in almost every scene.

I’m sure I could spend the afternoon recounting quotes from his films or debating the merits of Bill Paxton’s performance as Chet in “Weird Science” (best big brother douchebag ever) or trying to work out why he quit filmmaking after “Curly Sue,” and why he directed that one while handing off “Home Alone” to Chris Columbus.  But none of that could really sum up the impact he had.

No, instead, I think I’ll probably thrown on “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” which I haven’t seen in a while (and which, in a sad case of timing, was announced today as a special edition DVD later this year), and then I’ll watch “Vacation” after that, and I’ll enjoy the living body of work that Hughes left behind.  He’s a perfect example of the truth that it’s not about how many movies you make, it’s about how well you make the ones you make.  Hughes had his creatives ups and downs, and I’d say everything he touched after 1989 was nearly unwatchable, as far as I’m concerned, but I don’t care.  John Hughes leaves behind a handful of films that will remain in circulation, watched and embraced and internalized as long as families are uncomfortable, teenagers are awkward and self-centered, and human behavior is both insane and hilarious.  What he did best will never go out of style:  he listened, and when he wrote, he told the truth.

John Hughes was 59 years old.  He was walking in New York when a heart attack dropped him.  It sounds like it was sudden and unexpected.  Shermer, Illinois is dark tonight, sure, but Hughes left a filmography that was about laughter.  So don’t mourn.  Don’t work yourself up to some display of public grief.  Do what I’m doing… pick one of his films that you really love, put it on, and laugh.

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