John Hughes did one thing extraordinarily well that most critics thought wasn’t worth doing at all. He made teen comedies — funny, distinctively humane pictures that resonated with young people in the 1980s in ways that we, now living in a much raunchier age, may not see again.
Hughes, who died of a heart attack on Thursday (August 6), during a visit to Manhattan, was a madly prolific writer, director and producer with a strong aversion to the Hollywood movie-making machine. Even at his hit-churning peak, he remained stubbornly based in Chicago, and rued every moment he had to spend in Los Angeles. “L.A. is a real bad place to get a perspective on the country,” he once told the New York Times. “I never saw anything but the 405 freeway going to and from work. And I realized when I sat down to work I didn’t have anything to write about.”
He was a one-time ad man (and National Lampoon writer) who started out in the business selling scripts for movies like “Mr. Mom” and “Vacation” (the first film in what eventually became a Chevy Chase trilogy). He broke into directing — and scored his first hit — with the 1984 “Sixteen Candles,” the movie that turned Molly Ringwald into a major teen star. The following year came “The Breakfast Club,” which helped make “Brat Pack” celebrities out of Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson and Anthony Michael Hall. From that point, he pretty much owned the teen ’80s with “Pretty in Pink” and “Some Kind of Wonderful” (which he wrote) and “Weird Science” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (which he wrote and directed). He started branching out with the 1987 “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” a more grown-up sort of picture starring Steve Martin and the late John Candy. (Hughes claimed he wrote the script for it in three days. According to Molly Ringwald, he polished off the screenplay for “Sixteen Candles” in just two.)
Then came his biggest hit, the 1990 “Home Alone” — the movie that turned Macaulay Culkin into an international screamy-face icon. Written and produced by Hughes, and directed by his friend Chris Columbus, the picture was made (in and around Chicago) for about $18 million, and went on to gross more than $530 million worldwide. Hughes no doubt appreciated the financial avalanche (he was always closely involved in the marketing of his films), but there was an equally important creative gratification. “I made a segment of the marketplace laugh at things they don’t usually laugh at,” he said. “It wasn’t macho jokes. It was this little kid running around dropping paint cans on guys. And you could hear grown men laugh. That was really satisfying for me.”
After the piddling “Curly Sue” in 1991, Hughes abandoned directing to concentrate entirely on writing and producing, continuing to turn out some scripts under the pen name Edmond Dantès (the titular character in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo). One of these screenplays, after lying around unproduced for 20 years, was exhumed for last year’s Owen Wilson comedy “Drillbit Taylor,” with unfortunate results.
Hughes seemed to become somewhat reclusive in his later years — but what did he have left to prove? His movies — solidly constructed, unapologetically mainstream — made a powerful emotional connection with a mass audience, and they may retain a following as long as there are teenagers around to discover them.
“I happen to go for the simplest, most ordinary things,” Hughes said of his work. “The extraordinary doesn’t interest me. I’m not interested in psychotics. I’m interested in the person you don’t expect to have a story. I like Mr. Everyman.”
Mr. Everyman liked him right back.