One of my earliest memories is of a John Hughes film. The film in question was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and I can remember watching it with my teenage brother and sister at my grandma’s house when I was five. The film had just come out the year before and my grandma had allowed us each to rent a movie while we were staying with her. I think I rented Bambi. Your options are kind of limited when you’re five years old, you know?
But I can remember, even at an age where most of Bueller’s bizarre and largely profane humor went over my head, being really amused by the film. No matter what age you are, there are certain jokes that will always be funny, and Bueller has quite a few of them. Jeffrey Jones and Cindy Pickett fencing over the phone with their overly nasal pronunciation of the word ‘nine.’ Matthew Broderick discordantly playing the french horn and then happily reporting “never had one lesson.” Alan Ruck bellowing at the top of his lungs after he finds out the fate of the odometer on his father’s Ferrari. And, possibly most classic, Jones’s ongoing battle with the pit bull at the Bueller residence who chews up the man’s shoe and a little bit of his soul.
My fixation with Bueller extended into my teenage years where I would often watch just after getting home from school in the afternoons. When you love a movie, you pass a certain point where you are no longer just amused by it, but start recognizing the interesting ways in which it is constructed, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off started to exist for me as not just a funny comedy, but as a lesson on how to make a memorable film. Matthew Broderick’s asides throughout the movie could so easily be cheeky and over-the-top, but the actor and his director managed to strike the perfect balance between irony and reflectiveness. Jeffrey Jones’s principal character could be done as a simple cartoon villain, but Hughes layers in little touches of reality that make him feel like an authentic character. And the relationship between Cameron and Ferris never feels like teenage self-indulgence but like kids wrestling with problems way beyond their life experience up to that point.
Though Bueller might be remembered as one of Hughes’s more comedic films, it still exists as a good example of why the writer/director was so special. With a lot of directors who make films about young people, it is easy to hang slightly above the problems of the characters, judging them in a not so subtle way. Hughes always treated his characters with the same degree of respect regardless of their age, and their struggles always felt like they came from a very personal place within the man himself. It was always interesting to me that Hughes made so many movies about kids when he was older, but his films feel so much more authentic than stuff I see from younger, ‘hipper’ directors. They possess an older man’s wisdom and an honesty that a younger director might be too self conscious to put out there.
It’s a shame that Hughes has been stigmatized over the last decade as “the guy behind all of those eighties teen comedies.” He was, in many ways, exactly that, but he was more. People who lay that wrap on him seem to forget how many bad eighties teen comedies there were. For every Sixteen Candles there were about fifteen different versions of Porky’s floating in the ether. This doesn’t help Hughes’s rep any, as he remains the shining example of someone who was able to actually do a silly genre well. But there has always been more to his movies that just soppy endings and frivolous pop songs.
The Breakfast Club. If you haven’t seen it, I really don’t know what you have been doing since 1985. It ain’t perfect, but it holds up extremely well to repeat viewings. I don’t think anyone had taken the problems of teenagers quite this seriously since Rebel Without A Cause. There is an empathy for each of these screwed up kids that really moves your soul as an audience member. There are times when Hughes overplays his hand (would Clare really get together with Bender after some of the stuff he says to her?), but he makes up for it with brilliantly quick-witted dialogue and an attention to detail about his characters that really is awe-inspiring. Watch the scene where Andrew Clarke unloads his lunch bag and try not to cry out with laughter.
Timelessness is the best quality that a film can possess, but it is also the one that is hardest to quantify on each individual basis. The Breakfast Club is timeless, and my guess as to the reason why is that it isn’t a captive to its moment; Hughes treats the problems of his characters as if they are the same problems that have made their way through generations of teenagers. The film looks like an 80s film, but its themes are so universal and relevant that you could show it to teenagers today and they would probably still understand it. It’s one of those movies that, no matter what age you are, you can watch it and immediately remember both how great and how painful it is to be young. That John Hughes was still so perceptive about adolescent turmoil at an older age is remarkable, not just because he remembered how things felt, but because he could be so nakedly honest about it.
Hughes became something of a puppet master later on in his career. Many films came out with his name on them as producer or writer that weren’t up to the same standard as his earlier work. Films like Home Alone were hits, but were rumored to have been put together over a weekend. Directorial efforts like Curly Sue felt like cut and paste jobs, recycling quirky plots and filtering them through an audience friendly lens. Giant pancakes made their way into Uncle Buck and a toddler laid waste to a gang of criminals in Baby’s Day Out, and you could feel not just Hughes’s relevance but also his creative flame beginning to fizzle rapidly. Hughes might have wound up a victim of his own success; he has only eight directorial credits for his more than 30 year career, but the early nineties show him very much flooding the market with his material as writer/producer. During this decade, he had 13 writing credits, some for underrated gems like Dutch, where a would-be father and son make a cross country journey and olley between bouts of beating the shit out of each other, but others for really rough entries in the old filmography, namely the entire Home Alone series.
Hughes even started pulling his name off of stuff as a producer in the nineties and early 2000s, preferring to be credited as ‘Edmond Dantes.’ Curly Sue was his last film as a director. During the last two decades of his career, he disappeared into relative obscurity. Rough considering there are few directors whose work has been as widely accessible as Hughes’s has been, with Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Home Alone, Pretty and Pink, Weird Science, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and many of his other projects in constant rotation on T.V. networks like TNT and TBS. With a generation having been raised on his films, its hard to believe Hughes couldn’t come up with something that he had enough passion to direct.
But then again, maybe that is what is great about this story. I’ve never heard anything about John Hughes fighting the system or dishonoring his legacy via public spectacle. He didn’t die trying to make that one last movie that would explain everything and validate him in the eyes of his critics. Instead he died during a walk in Manhattan on a crisp August morning. There had never been any vehement protesting against his critics or overtly public affection of his fans. Just the peaceful recognition of his own passage into history.
It’s rare that you get to witness greatness, and death is an unfortunate footnote in the story of how greatness passes away. Many great directors die and you may know something about them, you may not. When Stanley Kubrick died, I felt like we had still only scratched the surface of what that man was trying to reveal to us. John Hughes wanted us to know something about him, and in the end, he succeeded beautifully. There have been few other filmmakers who have laid their deepest emotions on the table with such honesty, and helped people emerge with a deeper understanding of themselves as a result.
There is a great sequence in one of Hughes’s most underrated films, She’s Having a Baby, where Jefferson Briggs (Kevin Bacon) sits in a waiting room while his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) gives birth to their first son via Cesarian. Briggs twirls his wedding ring on his finger, lets worried tears fall from his eyes and files back through memories of their life together. This was Hughes’s most personal film, largely chronicling his early days as a suburban dad and his slow emotional maturation. This long, dreamlike sequence is one of the great illustrations of a man’s coming of age, of the collision between boyhood and fatherhood. It’s the kind of sequence that you take along on your own journey, and I’m happy that John Hughes gave it to me.