Saying that John Hughes was a chronicler of the American teenage experience is quite an understatement. Even if the film writer/director/producer is remembered primarily for his unparalleled string of classic teen comedies in the 1980s, that misses the bigger picture. Perhaps not since Frank Capra has there been a filmmaker so obviously in love with his country.
It’s worth noting that Hughes emerged from the 1960s and ’70s in much the same way as P. J. O’Rourke and Denis Boyles, his friends and fellow National Lampoon editors, with politics that ran counter to the counterculture. The two decades before Hughes emerged as a filmmaker were filled with representations of America as a bitterly divided and deeply unjust place. According to Ben Stein — the former Nixon speechwriter Hughes made famous for a new generation with his brief role in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — Hughes even ended up a Republican.
You can catch a fleeting glimpse of Hughes’s politics in this bit from the original Ferris Bueller screenplay:
FERRIS: My uncle went to Canada to protest the war, right? On the Fourth of July he was down with my aunt and he got drunk and told my dad he felt guilty he didn’t fight in Viet Nam. So I said, “What’s the deal, Uncle Jeff? In wartime you want to be a pacifist and in peacetime you want to be a soldier. It took you twenty years to find out you don’t believe in anything?” (Snaps his fingers.)
Grounded. Just like that. Two weeks. (Pause.) Be careful when you deal with old hippies. They can be real touchy.
Of course, that bit never made it into the final film, and it’s probably for the better that Hughes didn’t build a career commenting on the moral vacuousness of baby boomers — though as anyone who has suffered through The Big Chill knows, cinema could use some more of that. Hughes connected with an audience because he had a knack for celebrating American values and the American experience.
If there’s a better celluloid expression of ordinary American freedom than Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, I have yet to see it. If you could take one day and do absolutely anything, piling into a convertible with your best girl and your best friend and taking in a baseball game, an art museum, and a fine meal seems about as good as it gets. Tellingly, almost all the humor and conflict in the movie comes from an obsessive school bureaucrat and those who would get in the way of Ferris Bueller’s freedom to experience the perfect spring day in Chicago. Ben Stein put it this way: “John Hughes — Republican — saw that potential, saw that the individual still had the ability to transcend whatever was weighing him or her down and come out leading a parade down Michigan Avenue.”
Similarly, Hughes’s first big hit, National Lampoon’s Vacation, is practically an extended meditation on the importance of family values. Sure, the film is clearly absurd and far from wholesome — but its premise mines comedy from the fact that seemingly all the forces in contemporary life are geared toward undermining the traditional family. Whether it’s inner-city crime or shady relatives giving his kids pot, everyone seems to be conspiring to keep Clark Griswold from having the old-fashioned family vacation that he so desires. Particularly telling is the appearance of Christie Brinkley as the temptress in the red Ferrari. While the producers no doubt thought that having the Sports Illustrated cover girl strutting around in a white bikini wouldn’t hurt ticket sales, she appears in the film not really as a flesh-and-blood character. Rather, Brinkley appears mostly as a mirage illustrating how the oversexualization of the culture undermines families — before Griswold wisely returns to the arms of his long-suffering wife.
It seems that no matter how wild the premise, Hughes’s moral compass always pointed north. In Weird Science, two horny adolescent boys watch Bride of Frankenstein and then bring their ultimate female fantasy to life. From there, the film could have been just another sexploitation romp. But in Hughes’s film, the Frankenstein monster turns into a smoking-hot female version of Henry Higgins, who ultimately teaches the boys that the key to unlocking the mysteries of the opposite sex is developing their own sense of maturity and self-respect, rather than indulging their silly fantasies. Similarly, Sixteen Candles starts out with another premise fraught with overt sexual tension: a girl coming of age who is explicitly conscious of her virginity. She gets the boy of her dreams in the end, but all that happens is a chaste kiss on the occasion of her birthday. Again, no one would call many of Hughes’s classic films wholesome — but they are decidedly, profoundly moral. Sex, drugs, and other prurient topics are dealt with as unfortunate realities, not as subjects of titillation. Compared to the horror films expressly marketed to today’s teenagers, Hughes might as well be Walt Disney.
Of course, no one wants to be preached at by popular entertainment. No one wants to be lectured to about class divisions in American communities. Yet nearly 25 years later, Hughes’s fully realized characterizations make The Breakfast Club a crystalline representation of the pressures felt by American teenagers. Hughes’s boundless capacity for empathy is apparent; audiences respond to the characters Hughes created, not the fact that the plots are woven around broadly moral themes. On that note, special mention needs to made of Hughes’s ability to create real female protagonists, whereas nearly every other teenage girl on film before and since seems to be a one-dimensional girl-next-door or unattainable sex object. (Hughes’s empathy for teenage girls apparently spilled over into real life, as evidenced by this touching story of how he became penpals with one of his teenage fans.)
In his prime, from 1983 to 1991, Hughes wrote or directed an astounding 19 films. The worst of those films — National Lampoon’s European Vacation, Career Opportunities, Curly Sue — are still entirely watchable and entertaining efforts. Some of his works are bizarrely underappreciated — e.g., Some Kind of Wonderful, Dutch, Nate and Hayes. At least half a dozen of the remaining films — give or take — are generally agreed to be American classics. That is an achievement few filmmakers can hope to surpass. (Eat your heart out, Judd Apatow.)
After 1991, Hughes became something of a recluse, leaving Hollywood and working primarily on kids’ films and occasionally writing screenplays under a pseudonym. It was clear that his heart wasn’t in it. Hughes didn’t give much of an explanation, though he did say that he worried about the corrosive influence of Hollywood in raising his two sons, and that he was shaken by the death of his friend John Candy, who he believed died as a result of being overworked.
But despite working only sporadically for the last two decades, John Hughes still occupied an outsize place in American popular culture. On the occasion of his death, Ferris Bueller comes to mind. “Life moves pretty fast,” Bueller says, in one of the rare moments in Hollywood film where a character breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience. “You don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Dead of a heart attack at only 59, John Hughes moved too fast. And now the rest of America will miss him.
– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.