The suburban Chicago life of John Hughes’ movies in the 1980s dressed some of the decade’s most memorable high school characters in sweaters and raw adolescent anxiety. After defining the early careers of icons like Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall and Macaulay Culkin with melodramatic high school moments and manic families, however, he left them fully prepared to define a new type of cool and, along with it, their era.
The heroes of Hughes movies like Ferris Bueller and Uncle Buck made parents angry but winked at his films’ fans, establishing alternative role models and geeky outcasts as his celebrated leads. For the generation that gave way to an environment where nerds and geeks can be cool, the stars of “Office Space” and “The Office” had to grow up somewhere before they got jobs, and Hughes’ fictional world of kids left home alone to defend their houses with makeshift booby traps, and high school kids forced to establish disjointed social alliances, built that incubator.
Hughes still wrote and produced following his final director’s credit of 1991’s “Curly Sue,” but his lasting impact lives on in the idiosyncratic youths who learned to rebel against and rule their structured school or family lives after being spurned by their peers and writing their own rules. Hughes died Thursday (August 6) of a heart attack at age 59.
Hughes was a writer and director with the ability to pitch scenarios to his characters’ strengths and bring them of age, often in the end demonstrating their unrecognized potential to angry parents, as Kevin did in his “Home Alone” movies or to cookie-cutter educational-system figureheads like “The Breakfast Club” or “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” His Anthony Michael Hall roles in “Vacation” and “Weird Science” provided triumphant examples of accomplishment to gawky and oddball kids who couldn’t make their school’s football team. And his Molly Ringwald characters in “Sixteen Candles” and “Pretty in Pink” rendered females forced to exercise social acrobatics to navigate their cliquish friends and discover who they are inside.
High school life has long been a universal metaphor for life in popular culture, but John Hughes reset the rules in his work. Films like “Superbad” and “Can’t Hardly Wait” owe him their visions of colliding social spheres and spectacular underdog achievers, but his lasting contribution might be bucking authority figures, whether they were mothers, fathers or principals, and voicing the childhood background noise that gave rise to “Shawn of the Dead” or NBC’s “Chuck.”
Suburbs like Hughes’ fictional setting of Shermer, Illinois, in “Weird Science,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Sixteen Candles” provide the perfect universal microcosm of well-measured and regulated daily life that in turn defined how the kids of his films were raised. Only after cultivating children in those prosperous but tightly moderated worlds did today’s workforce get a lesson in how to socialize and relate to their bosses and work circles.
Hughes turned his back on public life during most of his later years, but he set the bar for a genre during his time with Hollywood. His memory continues to thrive in the adult geeks of the world, both male and female, who he helped raise.