Many people will write with affection about the work of John Hughes, who captured for a generation of kids (largely white, middle- and upper- middle class) how it felt to be marginalized, misjudged, alienated from parents, and alone in a crowd of so-called peers. He showed the world through their eyes, so that the big dance coming up was a source of momentous existential trauma. Those who grew up with his movies will remember where they were when they saw The Breakfast Club or maybe how cool it was to take a day off from school after Ferris Bueller’s. They’ll play Simple Minds and a shiver will go through them. They’ll write about themselves as much as Hughes, because his films spoke directly to them and fueled their imaginative lives.
Mine, not so much. I was in my early twenties when Sixteen Candles opened, and I’ve always wondered if my adolescence would have been different somehow if I’d seen The Breakfast Club as a young nerd instead of one whose personality was already—for better or worse—formed. Instead, 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. But I did realize, more and more, how wrong I was in thinking Hughes—with his plundering of pop hits and self-conscious use of teen slang—pandered to the youth market. His vision was consistent, his movies of a piece. He was a very personal commercial director.
People I respect love Sixteen Candles, but at the time I found it gruesomely unfunny. I adore rude humor—my favorite TV show is South Park—but Hughes’s racist stereotypes were particularly coarse. More than that, I hated the tone: flip bordering on chill. Hughes was making light of a subject he’d confront more directly—and with more sentimentality—in The Breakfast Club: high school as a rigid caste system. I wanted to believe one’s status was more fluid, that acknowledging labels like “the Geek” would only reinforce them. But maybe kids took the movie the exact opposite way. Maybe having Anthony Michael Hall as one’s mascot was liberating. After all, the Geek kept plugging in the face of rejection and ridicule, never succumbing to the shame that hobbles most of his ilk. (People who laughed their asses off at Sixteen Candles found The Breakfast Club and its “heart” a huge comedown.)
The emotional hook of The Breakfast Club—and so much of Hughes’s work—was the indifference, incomprehension, and cruelty of parents and other grown-ups. That was the point of connection among those disparate kids, what allowed them to look beyond their superficial differences and unite against a hateful teacher, against all the adults in their lives. There were one or two exceptions to the Grown-Ups Are Soul Killers rule, like the hangdog working class single dad Harry Dean Stanton in Pretty in Pink. But he was an outsider himself, and impotent; he couldn’t begin to help his daughter (Molly Ringwald) fit in. The parents in Home Alone (which Hughes wrote) were affectionate enough but disastrously inattentive. Mostly, adults strangled kids’ self-expression for reasons that seemed vaguely demonic. I always thought Hughes should have joined forces on a movie with Stephen King, who in those days mined the same vein of adolescent rage.
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.) Films like Planes, Trains & Automobiles boasted child-men and homosexual panic. The movie of Hughes’s that haunts me is Uncle Buck, which looked in the ads like a broad comedy about the invasion of a slob-ola relative (John Candy) and turned out to be a mournful, minor-key quasi comedy against a background of illness and death in Chicago at its wintriest. Here was an opposite perspective: Kids left to their own devices needed a grown-up to set rules. Could Uncle Buck — an irresponsible bachelor who’d never committed to anything — rise to the occasion and be a good, strong dad? At one point he gestures to a big Russian hat he wears and says, “There’s a story behind that.” What was it? Was he a pinko in his youth who rebelled against authority and petit-bourgeois social mores and now found himself, in middle age, bereft? Was Hughes about to make Ferris Bueller’s principal’s case?
I don’t know — he up and quit, vanished, his time past, his Brat Pack moving on to (largely insufferable) films about angst-ridden twentysomethings. Of all the big, commercially successful American auteurs, he has always seemed to me the most mysterious, the most conflicted, the most unfulfilled. Now I guess it’s time to watch the tributes: to see Ally Sheedy ecstatically brush the crud from her hair and Matthew Broderick lead the parade; to listen to “Don’t You Forget About Me” and realize that even though Hughes had receded, we never had forgotten about him. We’ve been trying to sort out his legacy for twenty years.