I was born too early for the films of John Hughes, who died Thursday of a heart attack in New York City. His movies, like Sixteen Candles (1984) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) always seemed, as the templates for the decade’s popular youth comedies they eventually became, more mean-spirited and crass than sympathetic, and as a filmmaker Hughes always seemed too willing to buy into, or excuse, the elitism and entitlement at the heart of a movie like Ferris Bueller or the screeching poutiness of movies like Sixteen Candles and, to a lesser degree, Pretty in Pink. Even his most satisfying movie for adults, Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) eventually gave over to the kind of sentimentality that I never believed Hughes himself actually believed, but was too willing to build into his films as an eager concession to the movie’s potential at the box office. (He wasn’t frequently wrong in this regard.) All that said, even though I was, by the time the movie came out, a generation too old for it, Hughes sucked me in with his empathy for the outsider in The Breakfast Club (1985). That film still has moments of power, even though one could eventually come to see how that movie too eventually seemed phony and calculated, long before it became an official artifact of ‘80s nostalgia. By the time he became the guy who made Home Alone (1990), the Hughes formula had ossified into something entirely predictable and unpleasant and he became irrelevant as a storyteller. (So much so that he stopped directing altogether after the commercial rejection of his 1991 comedy Curly Sue, though he kept writing under the pseudonym Edmond Dantes.)
His greatest legacy in the movies, for better and for worse, may not be his films so much as Hughes’ presciently edgy ability to compile smart, hip soundtracks (and soundtrack albums) for his movies. The album that accompanied The Breakfast Club would, in addition to being chock full of memorable pop, come to represent Hughes’ ability to tap into the teenage zeitgeist with more sincerity and taste than any of his movies. The Breakfast Club album would also become the template for commercially successful movie soundtracks that has stuck to pop culture with a vengeance up to this very moment.
For me, Hughes will always be remembered with fondness not for his Hollywood career, but for his stint as a writer for National Lampoon whose caustically hilarious stories, like ”Vacation ‘58” not only provided the basis for the hit film (written by Hughes, directed by Harold Ramis), but also prefigured his ear for irony-tinged nostalgia and spiky teen-speak, which, ironically, he never seemed to access as truthfully in the movies as he did for the magazine. (Hughes also was the creator-writer of one of my favorite features of the Lampoon in the late ‘70s, a parody of Hollywood gossip columns, the name of which escapes me at this late hour, that was as consistently tasteless and laugh-out-loud-funny as anything that ever appeared in those pages.)
No matter whether one appreciates Hughes’ comedies or not (and his script for National Lampoon’s Vacation is, even to this detractor, pretty goddamn clever and appealingly obnoxious), his sudden loss is tragic for it having come so early in his life (Hughes was 59). And for a generation of moviegoers it would be silly to deny or try to denigrate his influence or his importance—one can, however, discuss that influence critically without insisting on marginalizing that importance or necessarily accepting it at face value. For many young viewers, Hughes defined a decade-- his may have been the central sensibility behind the first movies to hold any real importance for them. Those films were not for me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand or appreciate how much they meant for many others, and that Hughes himself was an icon for a generation of Hollywood comedy filmmakers. I cannot truthfully say I will miss Hughes as a creative force, but as a human being with a family left behind his passing is exceedingly sad, a sobering reminder, especially for those near Hughes’ age, that the ice upon which all of us walk could be much thinner than we suspect. I can only hope that, through their veil of pain and heartache, his family is aware of how difficult it is for so many to be writing and thinking about John Hughes, so long out of the spotlight, in such a way tonight.