Arts and Culture

John Hughes, Breeder of the Pack

He made Dubya's favourite film and spawned the Brat Pack. Don't hate him for it.

By Steve Burgess 10 Aug 2009 |

Steve Burgess writes about film and culture for The Tyee.

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Hughes: Rest in peace, 1980s.

The Pop Culture Shrink Ray zaps every decade. It reduced the ‘60s to the Beatles, Vietnam and Woodstock; the '70s were disco, John Travolta and Watergate. What were the ‘80s? Reagan, Duran Duran and Who Shot J.R.? Perhaps, but most people will also include something from John Hughes. Hughes, who died on Thursday at age 59, reportedly of a heart attack, is forever identified with the decade as the director/writer/producer responsible for Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Home Alone, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles. As that list suggests, it's a mixed legacy. The French never hailed him as an auteur, but he definitely qualified. Like them or hate them, there was no mistaking John Hughes’ movies.

Being the emblematic director of the ‘80s may not be a cineaste's dream, but in his prime Hughes put a genuine stamp on the zeitgeist. Certainly it would be unfair to judge him on the fact that Ferris Bueller's Day Off was once identified by George W. Bush as one of his favourite movies (as a big Beatles fan, Hughes might have pointed out that Charlie Manson was inspired by Helter Skelter). Hughes may also carry some blame for the career of Ben Stein, who became a screen legend simply by intoning “Bueller? Bueller?” and then going on to make the evolution-denying film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. And of course Emilio Estevez started making his own movies too. But those were just necessary byproducts of the Hughes genre. While he was creating the careers of many young actors he also created the era's prevailing teenage myth.

Detention grabber

Hughes actually directed only eight films. After writing early ‘80s fare like National Lampoon's Class Reunion and Mr. Mom, his directing debut came with 1984's Sixteen Candles starring Molly Ringwald. The next year saw the arrival of perhaps his defining movie, The Breakfast Club. The whole gang was there -- Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, and Judd Nelson -- all playing walking high school stereotypes thrown together by a weekend detention, during which they realize that one stereotype fits all, to the tune of Simple Minds' (Don't You) Forget About Me. It may not have been The 400 Blows, but it did qualify as a thinking teen's teen movie.

If Hughes unleashed the Brat Pack, he also carries the can for the rather unhappy career course of Macaulay Culkin. 1990's Home Alone was the biggest Hughes blockbuster, providing us with the definitive picture of how a sensitive preteen deals with issues like after-shave and burglary.

Today The Breakfast Club has largely disappeared from pop culture and Home Alone has spun off its last sequel. But Ferris Bueller's Day Off goes on. Hughes' wish-fulfillment fairy tale about the likeable yet supremely self-possessed truant has acquired cult status. For a generation of fumbling and insecure adolescent boys, Matthew Broderick's Bueller became a sort of low-key James Bond.

1987's Planes, Trains and Automobiles was an atypical film for Hughes -- a movie about adults, starring Steve Martin and John Candy. For the most part Martin spends the movie demonstrating the acting limitations of stand-up comics, while Candy is wonderful to watch. He's a big part of the reason the movie is still a pleasure. Hughes deserves a lot of the credit too. The movie may drip with sentiment, taking numerous detours into corn and slapstick, but it's often very funny. And like most Hughes scripts, it features real characters.

Hughes, the brand

He may not have been Hitchcock. But Hughes shared the same brand-name quality -- a sense that his movies represented an identifiable style. As with Hitchcock, Hughes' efforts were rarely identified by their stars. They were John Hughes movies.

Despite the monstrous success of Home Alone and its sequels (the first one anyway), Hughes would end up proving the cautionary Hollywood adage that you're only as good as your last movie-- plus the one about how some cinematic disasters can pretty much finish you off. The 1991 bomb Curly Sue would be Hughes' last directorial turn. That coincidental timing reinforced the impression that John Hughes had been a creature of the 1980s, swept away like some Republican bureaucrat in the Clinton era.

More recently, Hughes contributed to scripts like Drillbit Taylor in 2008 and the Jennifer Lopez vehicle Maid in Manhattan in 2002, tellingly under the pseudonym ‘Edmond Dantes.’ No doubt he wanted to avoid the perception that any of these projects was a John Hughes movie. For better or for worse, John Hughes was a name.


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