John Hughes wrote what he knew: geeks and basketcases and cool kids and “grown-ups” in the Chicago suburbs. These five classics prove he was the master.
What will define the late John Hughes as a seminal screenwriter and filmmaker is his remarkable string of films that defined comedy for a generation. He cannily outlined teenagerhood for the 1980s generation by casting as his protagonists real, awkward-looking teenage actors (the type of casting that would turn into twentysomethings-playing-high schoolers by the time Beverly Hills 90210 came around). Hughes' work stands out because he stayed rooted in his native Chicago suburbs: He wrote what he knew. He covered family (Planes, Trains & Automobiles), childhood (Home Alone), and the teenage years (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off). The films centered around extremely relatable and realistic insecurities: from feeling ignored to feeling like a fake and far, far more. Bonus: They were funny!
It was a magazine that led to "John Hughes"; after Hollywood took notice of his National Lampoon piece Vacation '58, it led to Hughes writing the screenplay of that piece, which became National Lampoon's Vacation. After detailing the buffoonery of the father, Hughes then moved into the teen years that defined him, with his "Molly trilogy" of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink, all huge hits that led to his frequent star, Molly Ringwald, being on the cover of TIME Magazine. Why did Hughes' vision of teenhood hit? Perhaps because he gave voices to "the silent majority" of teens, average kids who just want someone to remember their birthday and not necessarily slot them into classifications like "the freak," "the geek," "the brain," etc.
Hughes wrote at a furious pace, and Ferris Bueller, sort of the ne plus ultra of his teen films, served as a goodbye to that era (although there was also the B-list rewrite of Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful, which was simply not as fun, even if it did have Mary Stuart Masterson as Watts). Hughes ended the decade by going back to the funny, awkward persona of John Candy (another muse) and then kicked off the 90s with one of the highest-grossing films ever, Home Alone. While he stayed away from Hollywood for the past twenty years, he wrote an occasional screenplay: his last produced work was 2008's Drillbit Taylor, written under the pseudonym of Edmond Dantes (taken from The Count of Monte Cristo).
John Hughes was a rare combination: a pop talent who was able to write funny and real, who had a chance to shape his films into his own voice, and who spoke—in a straightforward, Midwestern manner—to millions of people about life in the 1980s. He's left a ton of tributes, followers, and imitators, which could fill up another article easily (ABC's late, great My So-Called Life, now available on Hulu, bears a mention). Teen movies haven't been as real since Hughes; after all, last year's American Teen, which turned to The Breakfast Club playbook in order to market itself, was a documentary. Funny, right?
"They forgot my fucking birthday." That line sums up Samantha's (Molly Ringwald) luckless day in general, and being overshadowed by her sister's looming wedding is not the only complication in her life. There are also Farmer Ted, the "geek" (Anthony Michael Hall, who ended up on SNL after becoming Hughes' go-to nerd) who steals her underwear; the legendarily offensive racial stereotype Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe), the foreign exchange student; and the super-dreamy Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling), on whom she has a debilitating crush.
While Samantha's at the center of it all, Ted and the Donger steal a lot of the show, in their zealous drive to get some—any—attention from girls. And Samantha, even if she's a step above the geeks, well, she's got some tendencies. Jake Ryan, on the other hand, just remains super dreamy. (Perhaps due to Schoeffling's disappearance from the industry after 1991? Apparently he's a carpenter now.) Jake may just have spoiled an entire generation of women, waiting for him to roll up in his red Porsche and rescue us from obscurity. Sigh.
Is The Breakfast Club the greatest Hughes film? Is it the greatest high school film ever? You could argue for both. It's a solid script that could easily work as a play, and its formula has been endlessly replicated in films and TV, to the point where you forget how original it once was. The ensemble piece follows a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal as they all convene on their high school for Saturday morning detention. They're separated by stereotypes, popularity, smarts, and class (the latter being a common Hughes topic, and a good one; we also love the slimy example of James Spader in Pretty in Pink, bringing class issues up the wazoo to poor, wrong-side-of-the-tracks Andie).
Over the course of the day, the group finds some common ground, however temporary. The typical Hughes troupe fills the film, but the standout is super sexy Judd Nelson as John Bender. In a role that could have also suited John Cusack or Nicolas Cage, Nelson makes it his own, ad-libbing lines like "neo maxi zoom dweebie" and prowling around the library with an intense physicality. He got the best scene, too, closing the film by stalking across the football field, hands raised in victory, Simple Minds' "Don't You Forget About Me" soaring over the soundtrack.
Bueller is a slightly different beast. It's a film about a "righteous dude," the teenager-as-Zen-genius-guru who has a clear handle on the meaning of life: enjoy every moment. It's a blast to watch a young Matthew Broderick, oozing charm and confidence, as he puts together his perfect day, sneaking into the big city, eating a grand meal, checking out the art museum, cruising in a sweet car, hanging with your best friend (Alan Ruck) and your best girl (the babetastic Mia Sara), and leading a float in a parade in a lip sync of The Beatles' "Twist and Shout." (Recreated live! earlier this year in New York by the good folks behind Project Bueller. Do it again!)
The world tries to conspire against Bueller—the sleazy principal (Jeffrey Jones); the angry sister (Jennifer Grey); the instantly classic Ben Stein; that sweet, sweet car that belongs to Cameron's dad—but he comes out smelling like roses at the end. This film is way too quotable, and way too memorable, and Hughes triumphed with a pretty perfect piece of teenage celebration. Save Ferris!
There's a South Park episode called "Simpsons Already Did It" where Butters tries to hatch an evil plan, only to find out that every potential plot was already done by The Simpsons. Sometimes it feels that way when you want to write something original about a film, only to find out that Roger Ebert has already killed it. So with that said, when it comes to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Ebert has labeled it one of his "Great Movies," writing a beautiful essay about what makes this film linger in his mind. A road trip/buddy comedy, the film pairs Steve Martin and erstwhile Hughes muse of family-fun-odd-couple-pictures John Candy as Neal and Del: an ad man and a salesman, a neatnik and a slob, trying to get home from New York for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Ebert acknowledges that Hughes' work isn't known for greatness, but "he usually produces a real story about people he has clear ideas about....the buried story engine is not slowly growing friendship or odd-couple hostility, but empathy. It is about understanding how the other guy feels... The movies that last, the ones we return to, don't always have lofty themes or Byzantine complexities. Sometimes they last because they are arrows straight to the heart. When Neal unleashes that tirade in the motel room and Del's face saddens, he says, 'Oh. I see.' It is a moment that not only defines Del's life, but is a turning point in Neal's, because he also is a lonely soul, and too well organized to know it. Strange, how much poignancy creeps into this comedy, and only becomes stronger while we're laughing."
Seeing Home Alone in the theaters during its Thanksgiving release was a big deal, and a significant movie memory for me. The air was full of chatter, the theater was clogged with people, and my group—my mother, my cousin, and the boy next door, and me—had to split up and find individual seats. The film, written by Hughes and put out with his imprimatur on it, was a great childhood fantasy of empowerment.
What's not to relate to? So your daffy mother (the ever-wonderful SCTV veteran Catherine O'Hara) and your mewling, yelling, attention-hound family goes so far as to accidentally forget you at home for the Christmas trip to Paris, leaving you rattling around in your gorgeous suburban Chicago house over the holidays. There are certainly echoes of Ferris Bueller in the set-up, but this is a children's movie. After little Kevin (Macaulay Culkin, in a role that made him the world's biggest movie star for a time) has his fun watching gangster movies and dancing around to music, he has to use all his slapstick ingenuity to defend his heart and home from the local robbers (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern). The kids know more than the adults in this film, a hallmark of Hughes' writing, and it's still fun today.