Saturday, August 8, 2009

John Hughes (1950-2009)

*Work and sickness has made this post a couple of days late, but better late than never.

I was born toward the end of John Hughes reign in the film industry. I was only a year old when Macaulay Culkin was hitting Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern in the head with paint cans in Home Alone, which was arguably Hughes last hit film. That said, I find it hard to think that any teenager in the last thirty years has not in some way been effected by Hughes' work. Surely, the 80's were a beacon for high school films, but no one found the heart or the insecurity of growing up better than Hughes did when he had that amazing six-film run between 1984 and 1987.


The film that started it all. It introduced us all to Hughes, but was probably more memorable for introducing us to Hughes' main muse Molly Ringwald. A young, supple actress with pouty lips and winning smile, Ringwald became a movie star overnight after the release of this film. She plays Samantha, an angsty teen who hates her clueless parents who have forgotten her sixteenth birthday. She has a horny foreign-exchanged student (Gedde Watanabe) living in her house, and though she wants desperately to get the attention of the Mustang-driving hottie (Michael Schoeffling), all she can get is the embarrasing flirtations from the school's biggest dweeb (Anthony Michael Hall). Certainly the lightest of Hughes' work, Sixteen Candles focuses on the awkwardness of being in high school and anger which comes with being ignored.


Usually credited as the "greatest high school film ever made", The Breakfast Club is probably the movie that Hughes' will be remembered most by. Following five inexplicably different teens on a Saturday detention, Hughes gives us a looking glass into youthful rebellion as all five work implicitly toward deconstructing their micromanaging dictator of a teacher (played with unforgettable bravura by Paul Gleason). Among the five of them, there is a jock (Emilio Estevez), a geek (Anthony Michael Hall), a princess (Molly Ringwald), a psycho (Ally Sheedy), and a criminal (Judd Nelson). To say that they learn that they're not so different after all is to shortchange the effect of the film. They do learn their similarities, yes, but the most effective part of this film is how it truly showcased the rage and seriousness that comes from attending high school.


For most fans of this movie, a controversy still circles around its story and its ending. Molly Ringwald (once again) plays a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, who finds herself having to choose between the popular, rich, and good-looking guy (Andrew McCarthy), and her devoted, dorky best friend who worships her (Jon Cryer). Probably the most dated of Hughes films, it still possesses an incandescence which escapes its canned sentimentality and foolish ending (WHY DOESN'T SHE CHOOSE DUCKIE!?!?!). Did I forget to mention James Spader's role as McCarthy's evil friend, sporting impeccable hair and wardrobe? *note: This film was only 'written by' John Hughes, and not directed. Not that it matters, his fingerprints are all over it.


Ferris Bueller brought new insight into the phrase "Senior-itis". As a twelfth-grader, gradually but begrudgingly pulling into the finish line of his high school career, Ferris Bueller (Matthew Borderick) decides to go out in style, and have the greatest day of hookie ever planned by man. He convinces the entire city that he's near-terminal with illness, and in the meantime, grabs his girlfriend (Mia Sara) and his nebbish best friend Cameron (a memorable Alan Ruck), and they have a fabulous day off which includes: stealing Cameron's Dad's Ferari, sneaking into a high class restaurant, and performing "Twist and Shout" on a parade float. Ferris does all of this while being stalked by a jealous sister (Jennifer Grey), and a meddling principal (Jeffrey Jones), both trying to expose Ferris' irresponsibility. Endearing for it's fantastical (and sometimes implausible) story, and unforgettable because of the great performances from a young Borderick and Ruck.


Another film which was only scribed by Hughes and not directed, Some Kind of Wonderful is yet another in a string of films which perfectly described the unpredictability and pain behind young love. Eric Stoltz is a young man from the wrong side of the tracks (no, seriously, the beginning of the movie is him walking toward a steam train on train tracks), who blows all of the money he saved up for his college tuition on some diamond earrings and a chance to go on a date with the most popular girl in school (Lea Thompson). All the while, his best friend, a drumming tomboy named Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson) realizes that her feelings for him runner deeper than originally intended. If this sounds like an inverted version of Pretty In Pink, it's because, well, it is--only this time the ending is a whole lot more satisfying.


Now, this film gets an asterisk because it is easily the most un-Hughes film of Hughes' filmography, and does not deal with teenage angst at all. In fact, I didn't even know that it was a John Hughes movie until I'd discovered he'd died, and did some research. All that said, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is John Hughes' very best film, for a multitude of reasons. For one, it possesses two unbelievably tender performances from it's two lead actors Steve Martin and John Candy, and also it contains the greatest balance of laughs, sentiment, gravitas, and effectiveness of any John Hughes film before or after. The film follows a bothered businessman played by Martin who's having a difficult time getting home for Thanksgiving, especially since he keeps running into an obnoxious slob of a shower ring salesman played by Candy. In a decade ruled by buddy comedies, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles may stand above them all. If those familiar with Hughes haven't gotten around to it, they should.

After 1987, Hughes had some disappointments with She's Having a Baby and Curly Sue, but wrote the screenplays for the uber-successful Home Alone films. By 1993, he had vanished, occasionally getting a story credit when others revamped his original screenplays (these include Maid In Manhattan and Drillbit Taylor--whew!). Was John Hughes a great filmmaker? Probably not. Some of his movies have trouble holding up these days, and I don't think any one considered him to be another Scorsese or Woody Allen. What made Hughes special, though, was his intrinsic view into a world many never seemed to understand: youth. Other good teenage films (Fast Times at Ridgemont High or American Pie, for example), settled for using raunch to display the awkwardness of teenage sexuality, while Hughes always kept a Victorian distance, instead relying on the thematic to tell the story. Maybe his innocence was his greatest accomplishment of all.

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