At Sunday’s Oscars, the late writer/producer/director John Hughes received a rare special tribute — something that his fans agree was a richly deserved validation of his work. Although Hughes made great movies about adults (“Planes, Trains and Automobiles”) and children (“Home Alone”), he will be forever associated with teenagers — and for good reason. The movies he made in the 1980s about teens, including “Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Pretty in Pink,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Some Kind of Wonderful,” did nothing less than revolutionize the youth film genre.
These films permanently changed how Hollywood makes and markets teen movies, but more than that, they made a great sociological impact, changing the way many young people think about everything from love and friendship to sex, class distinction, fashion and music. As the author of a new book about Hughes and his films (among others), I’ve spent the last few years immersed in John Hughes’s world, interviewing the people who worked with him (including actors like Molly Ringwald, Matthew Broderick, Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy) and loved him. And through this process, which had largely been completed by the time of his death, I’ve been reminded, again and again, of just how much John Hughes matters. There are many reasons why this is so, but here are a few that I think are the most important:
He took teens and their problems seriously. With a few notable exceptions (like “Rebel Without a Cause”), before Hughes movies about young people tended to be light and comedic (“Meatballs,” anyone?), focusing on stuff like makeout sessions, hijinks and wild parties. Hughes was smart enough to treat teen problems seriously, whether they be heavy (Molly Ringwald’s character in Pretty in Pink helping her dad keep food on the table) or more everyday (concerns about popularity and the prom). He infused his films with plenty of drama (and melodrama), which appealed to that most dramatic demographic: teenagers.
He helped changed the music that Americans listened to. Hughes was incredibly passionate about music — he always had it playing while he wrote and would often come up with a movie’s soundtrack before he even started its script. He loved all different kinds of music, but he was particularly enthralled by the British new wave music of the early to mid-1980s. Songs written for Hughes movies like Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me” and OMD’s “If You Leave” gained popularity on American radio stations and on the newly blossoming MTV and remain standards of that era. Those artists, and others including Echo and the Bunnymen and the Psychedelic Furs, received huge career boosts from being featured in his movies. Hughes helped bring not just those bands but the entire genre of new wave into the American mainstream. (And it wasn’t just New Wave bands who benefited from the Hughes connection: The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” became a hit again after being heard in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”)
Almost all youth entertainment made today is somehow influenced by John Hughes’s teen films. From comedies like “Juno” and “Superbad” to the drama of “Gossip Girl” and the romantic intensity of the “Twilight” movies, virtually all of today’s youth entertainment has been influenced in some way by Hughes’s ’80s movies. His films taught Hollywood that well-made, smart, funny, poignant, dramatic entertainment that doesn’t condescend to young people is worth making, for both artistic and commercial reasons.
His films will always resonate because their messages are timeless. Sure, some of the surface elements of “The Breakfast Club,” like the music and the fashion, are totally ’80s — but the deeper narrative of the film speaks to timeless elements of the teen experience, like questions of belonging and identity that get to the heart of what it means to be an adolescent. It’s the reason today’s teenagers still watch Hughes’ movies and can quote the lines by heart. It’s been 25 years since “The Breakfast Club” flickered in theaters. That movie’s theme song was “Don’t You Forget About Me” — decades later, we haven’t forgotten about John Hughes, and we never will.
Susannah Gora is the author of “You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation.”
What did you think about the John Hughes tribute at the Oscars? Share your opinions, and your favorite Brat Pack movies, in the comments below.