If You Leave: John Hughes (1950-2009)

John Hughes died today. He was 59. He’ll be remembered for producing, writing, and/or directing a series of popular teen films in the 1980s, which are enjoyed even today, long after those teens (i.e., us) have softened into middle age with teens of our own, kids who can somehow look past the dated (what the squirts sardonically call “retro,” although in a tone of reverence and awe) attire to the eternal truths of the adolescent experience buried within. For those of us who were his target demographic back in the day — I was in middle school during his peak, a cauldron of confusion and desire — the movies were a fantasy-laden version of a hormonal modern drama too horrific to contemplate.

Although I loved his Oxy oeuvre, I did have a few issues with Hughes. For one, the families in his films always seemed impossibly upscale (did anyone in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off live in a one-story house?) — even the broken one belonging to thrift-shop poster-girl Andie Walsh in Pretty in Pink. Her squalor was well-scrubbed. If that was the wrong side of the tracks, I’ll bet you could eat the mess hall’s Charlevoix Veal right off the jailhouse floor. Also, while the girls at my school swooned over Anthony Michael Hall and Jon Cryer, they were strangely immune to the true geek’s obvious charms. Oh, how they wanted to pamper Ducky, coddle Ducky, take Ducky in their spray-tanned limbs and kiss his fashionably quirky lips. It was bad enough I’d never be a Jake Ryan or a Blane McDonnagh; I wasn’t the right kind of outcast, either.

On the other hand, I’m glad Hughes at least acknowledged the loser’s humanity. Most teen-centric flicks tended to pillory the spaz as a sexless dope flailing impotently around the genetically blessed. With his Messy Marvin countenance, Hughes seemed to identify with the social underdog. When he cast the geek in Sixteen Candles, his directorial debut, he eschewed the look usually adopted for such roles. “Every kid who came in to read for the part … did the whole stereotyped high sch0ol nerd thing,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1984. “You know — thick glasses, ballpoint pen in pocket, white socks. But when [Anthony] Michael [Hall] came in he played it straight, like a human being. I knew right then that I’d found my geek.”

Although he may have understood the geek’s dilemma, as a successful man in his early 30s, perhaps he regarded his own adolescence with fondness and sympathy. Therefore, his films seem to simultaneously criticize and celebrate the artifice of high school, with the Beaver Cleaver happy-ending aesthetic of his youth transferred to Shermer, Illinois, with a more colorful palette and parlance. The girl scores the dreamboat (always a sensitive chap beneath the popular, chiseled sheen), the guy lands the babe. Or a babe: The Geek loses a redhead but gains a blonde in Candles, and poor-goob Ducky, politely declined by his own siren-locked pal, is awarded one helluva senior-prom consolation prize by the Hughes ex machina mere seconds before Pretty in Pink‘s fade.

These are but slight alterations, however; the old pecking order remains firmly in place. Even after an educational Saturday detention in The Breakfast Club, when Anthony Michael Hall (garbed in geek again) asks, “What’s going to happen to us on Monday, when we’re all together again? I mean, I consider you guys my friends. I’m not wrong, am I?”, the only right answer, as voiced by school queen Claire Standish, is the one he doesn’t want to hear. It’s the most honest moment in any of Hughes’ films — and he’s responsible for more than you think — which makes it his best.

I knew him initially as a filmmaker/producer. Then about 15 years ago I read some of his pieces for the National Lampoon. Most were toothless in the irreverent Lampoon vein, but the best had a nostalgic patina. The ones that stand out in my memory are “Vacation ’58” and “Christmas ’59,” from which he’d later draw the Griswold family (yep, Vacation was his brainchild). The latter story introduced one of his more alarming stereotypes, Long Duk Dong, whom he uprooted from the page and shoved into Sixteen Candles for comic relief. As much as I loved Gedde Watanabe’s performance — the character is memorable and lovable, even though you hate yourself for laughing — he seemed out of place in a whitebread fairy tale.

However, whatever need Hughes had to offend or subvert through deliberate provocation was usually complemented by a Capra-esque sentimentality. Crack him open, he was a sugarplum softy. Home Alone was Looney Tunes bathed in shmaltz. Despite its thorns, Planes, Trains and Automobiles walked a straight-and-narrow mawkish path. Uncle Buck teetered between sadism and morality but eventually fell on the right side. Curly Sue was paint-by-numbers sap. After that, Hughes just began cashing checks. I doubt many historians will defend the merits of Baby’s Day Out or Dennis the Menace.

Nonetheless, John Hughes was an important part of my life. I never got to live in Shermer, Illinois. My moxie and determination didn’t win the girl in the end. A detente was never reached through weekend summits between the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess, and the criminal. But Hughes succeeded where so many chroniclers of adolescent ennui have failed: by bringing comfort to all of us.


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