Friday, August 07, 2009

Obituary: John Hughes

Before today I assumed that any movie John Cusack did prior to 1990 was among writer/director John Hughes' many 80s era teen movies. In fact, Better Off Dead (1985) was wriiten and directed by Savage Steve Holland, who also did One Crazy Summer a year later. The Sure Thing (also 1985) was a Rob Reiner movie, and Say Anything (1989) was written and directed by Cameron Crowe.

So what did John Hughes direct? It's actually only eight movies:
Sixteen Candles (1984)
The Breakfast Club (1985)
Weird Science (1985)
Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)
She's Having a Baby (1988)
Uncle Buck (1989)
Curly Sue (1991)
He wrote far more, including:
Mr. Mom (1983)
Vacation (1983)
European Vacation (1985)
Pretty in Pink (1986)
Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)
The Great Outdoors (1988)
Christmas Vacation (1989)
Home Alone(1990)
He continued to write for Hollywood; his name appeared in the credits for recent drivel like Drillbit Taylor, Maid in Manhattan, and all five Beethoven movies (the ones about the big dog).

Although I've seen enough bits of each to fake it, I've never sat down and watched the entirety of Pretty in Pink or The Breakfast Club -- two of Hughes' most famous movies. As a child of the 80s, I loved Ferris Bueller's Day Off. But looking at his oeuvre, I realize that the sum of it is greater than the individual parts. Making allowances for the teen comedy genre, Ferris Bueller may be the only really good movie Hughes did. None were great. Many resonated strongly with white, middle class and upper-middle class kids who grew up in the 80s.

I was pleased to see a respectfully dissenting view of Hughes' work from New York Magazine's movie critic David Edelstein. "I found it gruesomely unfunny," he wrote of Sixteen Candles. "I often found his films difficult to watch. I didn’t buy the relationships, and I couldn’t get past the self-pity and anger." He was bothered by "Hughes' racist stereotypes" (Sixteen Candles foreign exchange student Long Duk Dong comes to mind here).

Edelstein is as puzzled as the rest of us about what happened to Hughes' career:
"At the height of his success, Hughes got strange, and stories abound of his unpleasantness. (I interviewed him once for a Rolling Stone story I decided not to write and found him neither nasty nor nice—not indifferent, just… neutral.)"
To most of us, he just dropped off the face of the earth, sort of like an 80s moviemaker version of J.D. Salinger. But he was actually more like fellow 80s writer/director Savage Steve Holland, who, after Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer kept working steadily, but did nothing anyone has ever heard of. It's just as sad, really, but at least he made a living.

John Hughes died of a heart attack in Manhattan. He was 59.

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