The Many Ages of John Hughes: Director, Screenwriter
As a latchkey kid growing up on an estate, it was all parkas and grass-stained shirts, BMX rides and paper rounds, sherbet dabs and jawbreakers, the Beano and Shoot, climbing trees and mucking about on building sites. If my life back then could be a movie, it would be a compilation tape of those grim public information films from the ‘70s and ‘80s. It was a happy childhood, survived without burning the house down or maiming myself with fireworks.
It was a world away from the films of John Hughes. They seemed impossibly glamorous by comparison.
The kids in Hughes’ movies all lived in mansion-like houses in leafy suburban neighbourhoods with two cars in the driveway, bustling with extended family from dodgy uncles to annoying cousins and siblings. Dads worked well-paid executive jobs and could afford to fly the whole tribe out to Europe for Christmas. The main worries of our protagonists were finding a date for the prom, people forgetting their birthday, or just navigating that awkward stage between adolescence and adulthood.
In short, they faced a list of first-world problems, but even in my less affluent surroundings, it felt like Uncle John was listening. My own worries were comparable; pulling my finger out to prepare for my GCSEs (decent results, but not what I’d hoped for), plucking up the courage to ask out the girl I was smitten with since childhood (I did, and she turned me down), and raising enough money to replace my pair of fake Adidas from the market with the real deal (one out of three ain’t bad). While Hughes never threatened to challenge the norm, his teen comedies gave kids the sense he was making movies about them.
His films were inclusive, so long as you were white and middle-class. The Breakfast Club was the story of “a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal,” while the irrepressible Ferris Bueller was so popular with “the sportos, the motorheads, geeks sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads” in his school.
Even at the time, Hughes drew criticism for his portrayal of people of colour. On the rare occasions he acknowledged their existence, they were usually crude caricatures. The most infamous example was Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, a horny exchange student straight out of the “Flied Lice” school of Asian stereotypes, complete with a gong sound effect when he appeared on screen. The only other non-white character I can recall in a Hughes movie is Richard Edson’s shifty garage attendant in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which didn’t exactly paint Hispanic people in a good light.
Hughes wasn’t alone in these crass depictions, of course. Hollywood movies in the ‘80s were awash with them, from the old Chinese man who runs the mystical boutique in Gremlins (another gong) to the horrid black and brownface of Soul Man and Short Circuit respectively. I think the reason critics home in on Hughes in this regard is because it wasn’t a one-off; he wrote what he knew uniformly and unapologetically, and what he knew was white, middle-class, suburban Chicago, as if that was the only place and way of life that mattered.
Despite his colour-blindness and sometimes inappropriate approach to female characters (more on that later), the films of John Hughes are still immensely beloved and influential. Modern teen comedies like Booksmart, The Way, Way Back, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower undoubtedly pay a debt to Hughes’ films, and you can find Easter eggs for his movies in Ready Player One, Stranger Things, and Black Mirror’s beautiful ‘80s love-in, San Junipero.
Director John Hughes (1950-2009)
Given his impact on popular culture, it’s crazy that Hughes only directed eight movies over a seven-year period, although he wrote many more. His screenwriting career began while he was working for National Lampoon magazine, where he wrote so prolifically that his editor, P. J. O'Rourke said it was hard for the monthly publication to keep pace with him.
His first script didn’t translate into a hit film. National Lampoon’s Class Reunion was a naked attempt to replicate the runaway success of Animal House, which had romped to $141 million at the box office from a modest $3 million budget. The sequel did not go down well with critics, audiences, or Hughes himself. He later claimed that he’d been kicked off the production and his screenplay butchered.
Mr. Mom, starring Michael Keaton as a stay at home dad, fared much better, as did the Griswald family’s first road trip. Hughes used his magazine article Vacation ‘58 as the template for National Lampoon’s Vacation, starring Chevy Chase as the indomitable dad and Beverley D’Angelo as his loving wife. The film was a success and spawned a franchise within a franchise, with five sequels. Hughes contributed the screenplay for one of them, Christmas Vacation, also based on one of his National Lampoon pieces.
The Teen Comedies
Then came the movie that marked Hughes’ rise to the king of ‘80s teen comedies: Sixteen Candles. It was his directorial debut, written over the space of a weekend inspired by a photograph of his young lead, Molly Ringwald.
Ringwald made her screen debut a few years earlier, but this was her breakthrough role on the way to becoming a teen idol. She plays Samantha with an awkward everygirl quality, negotiating gropey relatives and dorky exchange students as her family forgets her 16th birthday because they’re too hung up on her sister’s wedding the following day.
Ringwald is great, but the film hasn’t aged well, even in the context of ‘80s teen comedies. There is plenty of stuff that simply wouldn’t play these days; even critics at the time found that Asian stereotype problematic, and trading a blackout drunk girl for a pair of Sam’s panties is definitely a bit iffy. Still, Sixteen Candles tapped into the regular concerns of real kids, and it was a refreshing departure from the usual teen movies of the time where older actors were frequently cast due to the exploitative nature; either as the sex-crazed nerds, bimbos, and jocks of sex comedies like Porky’s and Screwballs, or knife-fodder in slashers.
Next came the film that many regard as Hughes’ masterpiece, The Breakfast Club. Ringwald teamed up again with her Sixteen Candles co-star, Anthony Michael Hall, joined by Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, and Judd Nelson as five mismatched teens bonding during an all-day detention.
Perhaps Hughes’ most tightly written film, it has aged significantly better than its predecessor, although I personally have issues with its message of conformity. Over the course of the day, the story’s two outsider characters, Sheedy’s troubled Basket Case and Nelson’s moody Criminal, adapt to the norms of the conventionally Square characters like Ringwald’s pampered Princess and Estevez’s uptight Athlete to fit in.
Still, the film proved highly influential and the ending is iconic, with Nelson raising his fist in the air as he walks away across the football field to Simple Minds and “Dont You (Forget About Me)”.
Weird Science, about two nerds who use their computer to create a fantasy woman, preceded Ringwald’s third and final film as Hughes’ muse, Pretty in Pink. Unusually, she was cast as a working-class girl who caught between a preppy rich kid and her outsider best friend in the run-up to her high school prom. Despite the cliched premise, Ringwald owned the movie again, and it was another financial success.
Many years later, Ringwald wrote a thoughtful article for the New Yorker, discussing Hughes and his problematic blind spots in the era of #MeToo, trying to square the loving mentor and friend who helped her become a star and the sometimes inappropriate way he wrote women.
With the Ringwald era over, Hughes started moving towards adulthood. For Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, he found the perfect person: Matthew Broderick. Hughes wrote the screenplay with him in mind but several other actors were considered, including Johnny Depp and Jim Carrey. Bueller, a smarmy high school student who decides to skive off one last time before he graduates, could easily be insufferable. With Broderick in the part, he’s irresistible.
With his hypochondriac best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) and girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) in tow, the action takes place over one very busy day as they hit Chicago and see just about the whole city before a madcap dash home. As with all the best Hughes movies, there is more to it than just comedy. Ferris’s determination to pull off his hooky masterpiece is great fun, but the heart of the film is how the day out helps miserable, neglected Cameron pluck up the courage to confront his browbeating father.
Beyond the three friends, there are excellent roles for Jeffrey Jones as Ferris’ nemesis, uptight head teacher Ed Rooney, who is hellbent on catching him out; Hughes regular Edie McClurg as his secretary; Jennifer Grey as our hero’s jealous sister; and a small scene-stealing part for Charlie Sheen as the bad boy who gives her a fresh perspective.
Next up, Hughes wrote the script for Some Kind of Wonderful, reworking the premise of Pretty in Pink and flipping the gender roles, because he didn’t like the ending of the earlier film. Then he directed his third truly great movie, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, which really focused on the adults for a change.
The Grown Ups
Former wild and crazy guy Steve Martin, now gravitating towards slightly more serious characters, became an inspired straight man for John Candy in one of his most beloved roles. Martin played Neal Page, a straight-laced advertising executive who just wants to get home from New York to his family in Chicago (where else?) for Thanksgiving. When his flight is redirected to Wichita, he must make his way back via whatever modes of transport are available. But he’s not alone, saddled with Del Griffith (Candy), an overly-friendly shower curtain ring salesman he just can’t shake.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is arguably Hughes’s outright funniest film, with two comic legends perfectly matched and at the top of their game. It’s also one of his most moving; anyone who doesn’t have a lump in their throat when Del’s true story is revealed is a very hard person indeed.
The first cut of the film was almost four hours long, so it’s pretty amazing that the version we have today flows so well from one farcical set piece to the next so fluently. It’s a near-perfect comedy and, for us Brits who don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, it scans just as well as a Christmas movie.
After the middling She’s Having a Baby, Hughes wrote another good role for Candy in The Great Outdoors, before directing him again in Uncle Buck.
As the parents of a middle-class family are suddenly called away, he plays the slovenly, irresponsible uncle so naturally. The film isn’t a patch on Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, but Candy gets plenty of mileage out of the part.
Back to Childhood
Uncle Buck also gave a breakthrough role to a young kid called Macaulay Culkin, who would become a ubiquitous child star of the ‘90s after his brilliant performance in Home Alone. Hughes wanted Culkin for the role but director Chris Columbus still checked out hundreds of other child actors before taking the screenwriter’s advice. Although Hughes didn’t direct, it really feels like a Hughes film, perhaps due to the transparent directing style of Columbus.
Home Alone was a massive hit, and largely set the tone for the rest of Hughes’s career. He now felt that he had the formula to print money, enabling him to break away from the Hollywood system that he became so dismayed with during his short stint as writer and director.
He had only one more directorial effort left in him, the crass and mawkish Curly Sue, starring James Belushi as a homeless conman who looks after an orphaned young girl. It has its moments but it is easily the worst film Hughes directed, and it was widely panned by critics. It does mark an interesting progression in his work, though, going from teens to adults before arriving at childhood.
Hughes wrote and produced several more movies in the ‘90s as he receded from the spotlight, mostly sticking to the kiddy formula: Home Alone sequels, Baby’s Day Out, Dennis the Menace. And then, in the early 2000s, he was done.
In 2006, a group of Canadian filmmakers made a documentary about trying to track down the reclusive Hughes, who didn’t want to speak to them. It was called Don’t You Forget About Me, and it didn’t find a distributor until Hughes passed away after suffering a heart attack in 2009, aged 59. The title was so apt: despite his disappointing fade from glory, his incredible body of work, flaws and all, will ensure he won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
So there you have it, a brief look at the wonderful and sometimes problematic career of John Hughes. What are your favourite Hughes films and moments? Let us know!