John Hughes, 59

'80s Filmmaker Captured Soul Of Teen Torment and Mundanity

Remembering the life of the writer-director behind '80s teen classics like "Sixteen Candles," "The Breakfast Club" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 7, 2009

John Hughes, 59, the Hollywood director, producer and screenwriter who inspired an entire genre of teenage angst films and comedies about young outcasts, including "The Breakfast Club" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," and who wrote the popular "Home Alone" series about a resourceful boy with very careless parents, died Aug. 6 in New York after a heart attack on a morning walk.

Apart from some Depression-era fare, movies for and about young people tended to depict them as cheerful, all-American entertainers (Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in the 1940s) or moody, troubled and mumbling (James Dean in the 1950s).

Mr. Hughes struck an entirely new direction when he arrived in Hollywood in the early 1980s after a career that included stints as an advertising writer and a joke writer for National Lampoon. He created films that were distinguished by the very ordinariness in which he captured teenage life: the mini-dramas over class distinctions, peer pressure, serious (and often unrequited) crushes and classroom detention. He set most of his films in suburban Chicago, where he grew up and which he considered "a place of realities" in contrast with the glamour of Los Angeles.

In his films, Mr. Hughes reversed the long-standing view of caring parents and their clueless offspring to create an entirely new caricature of savvy teens and self-involved and hopelessly uncool authority figures, whether parents, principals or receptionists. Mr. Hughes's young protagonists spoke in perceptive ways peppered with the latest slang, and despite all their differences, they were unified by their need to survive without any help from their elders.

Film critic David Kipen said Mr. Hughes was an influential figure in a period when Hollywood began noticing the box-office power of teenagers.

As a writer and director, Mr. Hughes helped make a star of actress Molly Ringwald, who appeared in his films "Sixteen Candles" (1984), about a girl whose parents forget her birthday as they prepare for her older sister's wedding; "The Breakfast Club" (1985), about a group of five high schoolers who make an unlikely bond while spending a Saturday morning in detention; and "Pretty in Pink" (1986), about a teenage girl who is pursued by boys from different social classes.

Mr. Hughes's other popular hits included "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986), starring Matthew Broderick as a high-schooler who liberates himself from school for a day of adventure in Chicago. But Mr. Hughes's greatest achievement from a box-office standpoint was as writer and producer of "Home Alone," about an 8-year-old boy (played by Macaulay Culkin) stranded at his home one Christmas after his family forgets to take him on vacation.

"Home Alone," directed by Chris Columbus, was reportedly the biggest moneymaking comedy in Hollywood history at the time and spawned sequels that Mr. Hughes also wrote and produced. In addition, Mr. Hughes made several films aimed at an adult audience, including "Planes, Trains & Automobiles" (1987), with Steve Martin and John Candy as mismatched travelers forced into each other's company, and "She's Having a Baby" (1988), with Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern.

His greatest legacy, Kipen said, was in "forever changing how teenagers behave onscreen. Without 'Ferris Bueller,' you wouldn't have the alienated teenage antihero that Wes Anderson did, frankly, so much better in a movie like 'Rushmore.' Without 'Sixteen Candles,' it's kind of hard to imagine an admittedly better picture like 'Juno,' which also captured that alienated teenage heroine quite so empathetically. Hughes did not make movies for the ages, but who ever owned a decade the way he owned the 1980s?"

John Wilden Hughes Jr. was born Feb. 18, 1950, in Detroit and spent his high school years in Northbrook, Ill., near Chicago.

He left college in Arizona to work as a joke writer and worked his way into advertising, becoming creative director at the Chicago-based Leo Burnett, one of the nation's largest agencies. In the late 1970s, he quit to return to comedy as a writer for National Lampoon as it was moving into movie production with such films as "National Lampoon's Animal House" (1978).

Mr. Hughes soon signed a contract with Paramount studios as a writer. As happened throughout his career, Mr. Hughes's initial screenplays drew mixed critical opinion but were major commercial successes. They included "National Lampoon's Vacation" (1983), starring Chevy Chase as the patriarch of a clueless Midwestern American family on a trip to a California theme park, and "Mr. Mom" (1983), with Michael Keaton as a man who must adapt to life as a homemaker after losing his job.

Mr. Hughes was gradually given more power to control his scripts and eventually moved into directing them. To overcome a logistical concern -- lacking any experience as director -- he opted to keep the plot of "The Breakfast Club," for example, restricted mostly in one room: the detention hall.

He earned a reputation as a man with his finger on the pulse on the much-coveted tastes of young ticket buyers, and he survived the dismal reviews that trailed him as a writer of "National Lampoon's European Vacation" (1985) and as writer-director of "Weird Science" (1985), about teens who create their fantasy woman using a computer.

Mr. Hughes never overcame his reputation as a middling director with minimal visual flair, but he continued to retain his Hollywood cachet as a writer after the smashing success of "Home Alone." He continued to write and contribute to broad, family-oriented comedies such as "Dennis the Menace" and "Beethoven's 2nd," the latter about a precocious St. Bernard who drives its owner crazy. He said it was inspired by problems with his German shorthair, Molly.

In many of his later films, he used the pen name Edmond Dantes, after the protagonist of the Alexander Dumas novel "The Count of Monte Cristo."

Mr. Hughes, who married his high school sweetheart, developed a reputation as a recluse after turning down nearly all requests for interviews. He shunned Los Angeles for farm properties in Wisconsin and Illinois and professed to enjoy the anonymity of visiting a hardware store and lingering in the hammer section. He was visiting friends in New York when he died.

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