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Essay

John Hughes, Master of '80s Angst, Captured Collective Uncool of High School

Remembering the life of the writer-director behind '80s teen classics like "Sixteen Candles," "The Breakfast Club" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

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By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 8, 2009

On the wavy matrix where popular culture and one's time in high school intersect, Gen Xers can often feel like they were born too late (post-Beatles) or too soon (pre-"American Pie"). But with John Hughes's cycle of five high-school movies that he wrote and/or directed in the 1980s, it simply felt like perfect timing. What were meant to be larky, cheaply made teen comedies remain fixed in memory as documentary accounts of that time, that place, that music, those clothes, those people, that angst.

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"Sixteen Candles" came out in 1984, as I was about to turn 16, offering the faintest glimmer of hope that no person was ever truly uncool. "The Breakfast Club" came out in the winter doldrums of the pre-college fret fest that was junior year: What's going to happen to me? What am I really? Does anyone notice? Care? It was self-absorption for the self-absorbed.

"Weird Science" (maligned by critics and many Hughes fans, but, in retrospect, a brilliant fantasia about the male teenage id) came out in the glorious summer of 1985, between junior and senior years, and was better if you saw it in a state of underage drunkenness.

"Ferris Bueller's Day Off" was a liberating ode to playing hooky, released a few weeks after graduation, 1986, when the idea that I'd never have to go to another day of high school seemed an impossible dream. Now I know how possible it was, and the impossible dream is the one about getting a chance to go back.

Officially, you couldn't pay me enough to return to high school, but secretly, you have to consider: What about just one more day, a do-over -- a day that plays out exactly like a John Hughes movie? A prom the way Molly Ringwald would have bravely faced it in "Pretty in Pink"? A truant jaunt to museums and ballparks and backyard swimming pools with Ferris, Cameron and Sloan? Saturday detention with Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy?

Why else is that dreamy new-wave pop soundtrack from his movies always playing in every grocery store in America? To make people in their 30s and 40s wistful enough to buy more Lean Cuisine dinners and pints of Ben & Jerry's? (Don't you forget about me/. . . If you leave, I won't waste one single day /. . . Please, please, please let me, let me, let me get what I want this time . . . )

Hughes, who died of an apparent heart attack Thursday in New York at age 59, directed only eight films. He co-wrote or produced several more, with increasing intermittency, including "Home Alone" in 1990, a success that seems to have thrown him off-balance; his last work was a pseudonymous story credit on the 2008 flop "Drillbit Taylor." Hughes spent the past 15 or so years avoiding the endless media opportunities to talk about his work's impact or deeper meaning.

Good for him. In a way it is ridiculous to take that sort of thing too far; before you know it, you start using words like "the Hughes oeuvre." You write 2,079-word articles (I plead guilty) about how Jake Ryan from "Sixteen Candles" set a strange, imaginary bar for young women seeking the perfect mate.

Why did Hughes stop making the kinds of films he was so good at making?

Why does anybody who stops stop?

Where Hughes would not talk, the rest of us would, and eagerly so. While on a reporting trip to Los Angeles in early 2008, I spent part of a day at a small film studio in Burbank, sitting for an interview that would become part of a documentary included with a new John Hughes movie DVD box set. They'd asked writers and pop-culture experts (feel free to put quotation marks around "experts") to think aloud about the Meaning of John Hughes. The interviewees included "Juno" screenwriter Diablo Cody, and more improbably, me.

They'd also invited the cast members who'd been Hughes's company players: Anthony Michael Hall ("the Geek" -- a.k.a. Farmer Ted -- from "Sixteen Candles" and the nerd from "The Breakfast Club") grew up into a handsome man; Gedde Watanabe, who played Long Duk Dong in "Sixteen Candles," managed to find a sliver of intellectual peace with the enduring popularity of the gross Asian stereotype he'd brought to life. I had my makeup done next to John Kapelos, the actor who'd played the "oily variety bohunk" fiance in "Sixteen Candles," the janitor in "The Breakfast Club" and other parts in Hughes's movies. I was told they'd need to film me for a half-hour of insight.

I talked for two hours. The producer of the documentary kept thinking of more things to talk about. I was an almost-40-year-old man making way too much sense about something that makes enough sense on its own: heartbreak. Nevertheless, I talked about the contradiction of Jake Ryan. (The perfect boy abandons his passed-out girlfriend? He beats up Long Duk Dong? He drives a Porsche?) I made the best case possible for "Weird Science." I reversed position on "The Breakfast Club," a movie I'd been so devoted to as a teenager, which now strikes me as a grating, whiny workshop in psychodrama. (As it must have played to most adults in 1985.)

These movies all had the mark of excellent reporting, from a director who, at the time, was in his mid-30s. It seemed he listened to us, took notes, reflected it back. These movies look like the '80s because it was the '80s. The teenagers in "Sixteen Candles" look like teenagers because Hughes, for the most part cast teenagers -- instead of 26-year-olds -- to play teenagers. All the facts check out: The clothes are right from the mall. The soundtracks are like mix tapes from God. School looks like school, with all its cliques tagged and categorized by species, the way Principal Ed Rooney's secretary, Grace (Edie McClurg), describes them in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off": "The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies . . . they all adore [Ferris Bueller]. They think he's a righteous dude."

And yet, for all the universality in the Hughes high school movie, there were people who went to high school in the '80s and did not always see themselves reflected therein. His world was white, suburban, middle-to-upper class, a place that had not yet undergone the diverse corrective of, say, "Clueless" or "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle." It was a world where parents left teenagers at home over the weekend and everyone drove drunk. This was not a perfect place, no matter how much perfect nostalgia we ascribe to it.

But it was "our" place, whomever "our" means. Years after the '80s, a friend and I wondered if the popular kids had liked John Hughes movies, too, the way we had. How could they relate, after all, when the popular kids in those movies were portrayed as the enemy?

At the 20th reunion, I realized something: Everyone related. It turned out no one had felt cool in high school, not really, and that's the story John Hughes told best.


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