The news of John Hughes’ shocking death is still in my head. There has already been a lot of space dedicated to paying tribute, but I feel compelled to add more. The man’s gift as a screenwriter was monumental. It wasn’t just about capturing the zeitgeist of modern teenagers in films like The Breakfast Club or Pretty In Pink, it was also about the way his writing was just do damn sharp. So smart, so funny. And, without his influence, the face of modern Hollywood cinema would be entirely different. I’m convinced that without John Hughes, we would have no Kevin Smith, Judd Apatow, Todd Phillips, or Wes Anderson. Plus, I’d argue that TV shows such as Seinfeld, The Simpsons, or The Office could not have succeeded without the road paved by his legacy. Conan O’Brien would not be the new host of The Tonight Show, without the impact of John Hughes.
Hughes made it acceptable to create screen heroes out of misanthropic slackers. His style was post-modern and sarcastic, in a way that turned everything on its head. Hughes took “the antihero” and merged it with “the sidekick” and “the everyman,” forming a new and original character for film culture. Look at his early screenplays National Lampoon’s Vacation and Mr. Mom, two prime examples of his ability to take the everyman and turn him into a hero through sheer wit. His “brat pack” films were famous not only for being funny, but also for treating high school kids like adults. This, of course, would later influence everything from Saved By The Bell to Gossip Girl. His latter-day “kids” movies such as Home Alone and Curly Sue, didn’t stray far from the same ideas. The only difference was, the lead characters got much younger and the writing got a bit sloppier. It was a disappointing turn of events, after the promising adulthood projects such as She’s Having A Baby and Planes, Trains & Automobiles. Even though these more mature films were not the massive cultural landmarks of his earlier work, how can you not see the same trajectory of Apatow or Smith, in how Hughes went from project to project?
And, what about side effects of his influence, like music soundtracks? Before the film soundtrack was converted into a merchandise item, Hughes deftly scored his 1980s films with state-of-the-art pop songs. He singlehandedly helped create radio hits that were resonant (“Don’t You Forget About Me”), pointless (“Weird Science”), and somewhere in between (“Pretty In Pink”). He was the first auteur of the MTV generation, and shaped an audio/visual experience that I still can’t shake. John Hughes did spend the 1990s seemingly on-the-run from these breakthrough moments. He wrote odd adult/kid hybrid films such as Dutch and Career Opportunities. He entered an unusual phase of unnecessarily remaking classic material such as 101 Dalmatians, Miracle on 34th Street, Dennis The Menace, and Flubber. Then, there were the frankly embarrassing children’s films Beethoven and Baby’s Day Out.
His last produced, original screenplay was for the 1998 drama Reach The Rock, an indie film directed by his onetime assistant William Ryan. After that brief glimmer, Hughes slowly faded into the distance and became a recluse. Now, at the young age of 59, he’s dead over 10 years since we last saw a film with his unique voice. It’s a sad thing, but all I can hope is that there are pages and pages of unproduced screenplays waiting to be unearthed. Just because he didn’t have the stomach for Hollywood, doesn’t mean he stopped writing, does it? No one that prolific and talented can just hang it up, can they? Like one of his memorable characters (Ferris Bueller, Clark Griswold, Duckie, Samantha Baker, Kevin McCallister), he’ll always keep us guessing.