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john hughes

John Hughes would have been 63 today. His death in 2009 shocked me even though he had been out of the public eye for years and hadn’t directed a film since Curly Sue in 1991. Hughes was the absolute MAYOR of the 80s. His youth/teen films raised the bar for the genre and, in my opinion, have yet to be eclipsed. But he was more than just a teen film director. His adult comedies were as pertinent as anything he did in the teen realm, echoing the same themes of acceptance and understanding all while bringing the funny sprinkled with moments of levity.

I knew you'd come around...

I knew you’d come around…

Hughes‘ films are important to me. I hold them as dear to my heart as any film(s) that I’ve ever seen. I saw Weird Science at the Rivoli Theater in downtown Muncie, Indiana, when my parents were in court over visitation rights. I couldn’t imagine a better way to have staved off the nervousness I felt that day. I happily recall watching Sixteen Candles with friends, rewinding about a hundred times the scene where Anthony Michael Hall is dancing with Molly Ringwald and farts, laughing equally hard each time. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off may or may not have been the inspiration for my own two-week school skipping streak in 7th grade. These films helped me with the rough road through adolescence, showing me that insecurity, dysfunction and all of the other problems of youth were the norm, not the exception. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that and I believe that’s why his films resonated so well then and continue to do so to this day.

You know, there's going to be sex, drugs, rock-n-roll... chips, dips, chains, whips... You know, your basic high school orgy type of thing. I mean, uh, I'm not talking candlewax on the nipples, or witchcraft or anything like that, no, no, no.

You know, there’s going to be sex, drugs, rock-n-roll… chips, dips, chains, whips… You know, your basic high school orgy type of thing. I mean, uh, I’m not talking candlewax on the nipples, or witchcraft or anything like that, no, no, no.

I have been trying to rack my brain and I can’t think of another filmmaker that had a run of success in such a short time as John Hughes did from 1983-1987. As prolific as Rainer Werner Fassbinder was (is this the first time Hughes and Fassbinder have been mentioned together, I wonder?), I don’t think he even put up the resume that Hughes has. Woody Allen has had some good runs in his life, but none quite so strong as Hughes. Let’s take a look at the the films that Hughes either wrote or wrote/directed in this time period:

  • Mr. Mom (1983) – wrote
  • National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) – wrote
  • Nate & Hayes (1983) – wrote (I had never heard of this one)
  • Sixteen Candles (1984) – wrote and directed
  • The Breakfast Club (1984) – wrote and directed
  • National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1984) – wrote
  • Weird Science (1985) – wrote and directed
  • Pretty in Pink (1986) – wrote
  • Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) – wrote and directed
  • Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)- wrote
  • Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987) – wrote and directed

By my count, that’s 11 films, eight of which represent some the most well-known and iconic films of the decade. Hughes only directed three other films past this period – She’s Having a Baby, Uncle Buck and Curly Sue – all fair films, I suppose, but none match the beloved status of the bulk of the list above. While he continued to write mostly family films (Home Alone series, Beethoven series) for years after pulling his best Keyser Söze (And like that, poof. He’s gone), he never quite captured the magic he had from 83-87. That’s a pretty tall order in the grand scheme of things.

As is the norm here are my 5 (cheated, really 6) favorite works to which John Hughes contributed and why they still rock:

5) Mr. Mom (tie)

mr-mom poster

The Wall Street Journal just declared the caricature of inept stay-at-home dads depicted in Mr. Mom dead just a couple of weeks ago. However, the appeal of this movie still endures. Michael Keaton‘s portrayal of Jack Butler, the former GM engineer who lost his job and now stays home with the kids, is incredibly funny and I believe was probably pretty spot on for the time. I was raised by my father and I can certainly say that he was far more able to raise three kids than poor Jack, but this would seem more the exception rather than the rule. I think that’s why this is so enjoyable for me as it gives me an insight to what my childhood could have been like with a more maladroit father. Keaton is loveable despite his cringe worthy displays. For example:

All this aside, this film was pretty groundbreaking. Showing a woman, Caroline (played magnificently by Terri Garr), who is out in the workforce while the children are at home, succeeding and moving up the corporate ladder? I can’t recall a single film like it at the time. And as is typical, Hughes gives his characters some really great, memorable lines:

How'd you like a little trim on that moustache, Ron?

How’d you like a little trim on that moustache, Ron?

If Mr. Moms are indeed dead, then I’m glad we will always have this record to remind us of their haplessness. For that, John Hughes, I say thank you.

Here’s the trailer:

5) National Lampoon’s Vacation (tie)

vacation - poster

The first in the Vacation series by National Lampoon, and undoubtedly the best, Hughes adapted a short story he wrote while working for advertising/public relations firm Leo Burnett (you can read it here) to start the journey of the Griswolds on-screen. Hughes seems to be especially hard on fathers in his films, and this one is no exception. Released in the same year (1983) as Mr. Mom, they seem to be perfect companion pieces to one another.


We watch his program… We buy his toys, we go to his movies… he owes us. Doesn’t he owe us, huh? He owes the Griswolds, right? Fucking-A right he owes us!

As most everyone knows, this movie follows the Griswold family – Clark (Chevy Chase), Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo), Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall) and Audrey (Dana Barron) – as they traverse the country from Chicago to California on their way to Wally World, America’s Favorite Family Fun Park. Convinced that driving is the only way to travel, the Griswolds stop at roadside attractions as well as seeing some family. Randy Quaid makes his first appearance as white trash Cousin Eddie and is in fine form. After a series of car breakdowns, getting lost in the ‘hood of St. Louis, nearly getting arrested for animal cruelty, a dead aunt, and a near adulterous encounter, Clark glides the finally happy family into the parking lot of Wally World…only to find out that it’s closed for two weeks. The final punctuation on a road trip where not much else could have gone wrong. So, he takes matters into his own hands…

An homage to all shitty family road trips, National Lampoon’s Vacation hits the proverbial nail on the head. Even as stupid as Clark seems, he still has a the biggest heart and wants nothing but the best for his family. Unfortunately, he fucks it up every time, a motif that plays itself out over the course of the three other films in this series –  European Vacation (without a doubt the absolute worst of the bunch – that Hughes had anything to do with this one makes me sad), Christmas Vacation and the awful Vegas Vacation, whose only saving grace is the appearance by Wayne Newton.

Far and away the best part of this movie, I still laugh hysterically each time I see it:

The edited version for TV is nearly as funny: What I look like – Christopher Columbo?

So if you’re preparing to take the kiddos to Disney (as I am in May – God help me) or any other long road trip, give this one a watch and learn what not to do.

Here is the trailer:

4) The Breakfast Club

breakfast club poster - roxana gark

The quintessential 80s angst film, The Breakfast Club has comedic moments, but this one hits a closer to the bone than the rest of his films. Set in Saturday detention, five seemingly different high school students – a nerd (Anthony Michael Hall), a freak (Ally Sheedy), a popular rich girl (Molly Ringwald), a popular wrestling star (Emilio Estevez) and a hood (Judd Nelson) – are charged with writing an essay telling the tyrannical Assistant Principal Mr. Vernon (Paul Gleeson) who they think they are. As the day progresses, the group of teens go back and forth, attacking one another, reconciling, telling each other their tales of why they are there. The more time they spend together, the more they realize they are alike.

Obscene finger gestures from such a pristine girl...

Obscene finger gestures from such a pristine girl…

This was one of the two films (St. Elmo’s Fire being the other) that spawned the term The Brat Pack and solidified Molly Ringwald‘s short-lived status as Hollywood’s “it-girl.” This of all of Hughes‘ films still seems to resonate the most, ring as the most timeless. These characters still exist in today’s high schools (watch Nanette Burstein‘s documentary American Teen for easy examples), so it’s no wonder why Hughes is/was the teenager’s poet laureate. Its anti-authoritarian message certainly helps.

The ending sequence is pretty unforgettable (pun intended), as Vernon reads the essay that the five left behind, Anthony Michael Hall narrating. That Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” plays over it (flush with a Truffaut-like freeze frame) really is the perfect accompaniment, an anthem that all high schoolers echo just wanting to be noticed.

I always adored this moment. Even though I was only in fifth grade when this came out, it struck a chord. While I couldn’t know the rough waters I’d have to tread when in high school, this was a nice primer and one of the many reasons I cherish Hughes‘ oeuvre. I think it was this film that Hughes found his full voice as a writer. You could see traces his craft coming together in his previous films, but this is a fully realized work that melds the comedic and serious perfectly.

Here is the trailer:

3) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off


It doesn’t get much more iconic than Ferris Bueller. This movie drips cool, well…with the exception of Cameron’s (Alan Ruck) stupid ass Detroit Red Wings jersey. That sucks. Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick‘s signature role) is the guy everyone wants to know in high school – friend to all, big and small, cool or not.

When Ferris decides to fake being sick (who can be expected to go to school on a day like this?), an elaborate process that dupes his clueless parents, but not Vice Principal Edward R. Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), Rooney decides to catch Ferris and make him an example, in order to show other students that the path Ferris has chosen is wrong. Thus unfolds an epic game of cat and mouse between Rooney, Ferris and Ferris’ girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara),best friend Cameron and his sister Jeanie/sometimes Shawna (Jennifer Grey).

When Cameron was in Egypt's land...let my Cameron go.

When Cameron was in Egypt’s land…let my Cameron go.

Cameron is actually sick, but Ferris cons him into driving Ferris around for the day. Cameron is also a tight ass (if you stick a lump of coal up his ass, in two weeks you get a diamond) who needs to have some fun. So they embark on a journey for the ages, taking in the sites of Chicago and breaking through some barriers for each of the characters.

ferris board game - maxim dalton

If you didn’t want to be Ferris Bueller in 1986, then I don’t know what to say about you. Who didn’t want to sing Wayne Newton and The Beatles on a float in a German parade through the streets of Chicago?

Incidentally, I lost a bet to my mother on whether the person singing “Danke Schoen” was a man or a woman watching this movie the first time.

This is one of the most fun movies I’ve ever seen and may well be Hughes‘ finest creation. I think it, along with The Breakfast Club, is probably the most enduring as its themes are also universal. As Polonius said to Laertes in Hamlet: “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” I think Ferris followed this advice better than anyone. He never misrepresents himself to anyone he’s with, even to Rooney, and I think that’s why he’s such a relatable character. This was Hughes‘ biggest strength as a writer. It is evident in every film discussed here and why we are still talking about these films.

Shout out to Joshua Budich for the badass poster and Maxim Dalton for the killer board game image.

I hope The rebelliousness of Ferris is alive and well among the youth of today. If not, you must be a bunch of boring bastards…

Here is the trailer:

2) Sixteen Candles

16 candles poster 1

I’m not sure how I originally stumbled upon Sixteen Candles when I was a kid. I can’t remember if we just happened to pick it up at the video store (yes, kids, there used to be actual stores where you could go rent videos, not DVDs) or if we had seen some preview for it. I wasn’t exactly following certain directors’ work back when I was 9. Or was I? Nonetheless, this movie floored me with its humor, its depiction of family as insanely fucked up, and the hope that things you wish for may actually come true.

Well if it isn't Sammy Baker Davis Jr!

Well if it isn’t Sammy Baker Davis Jr!

The story centers around Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald in her first real starring role) who turns 16. However, her birthday happens to fall on the day before her older sister Ginny (Blanche Baker) is getting married. Since her family is up to their eyes in wedding details, they forget that it’s Sam’s birthday. An obvious nightmare for anyone, let alone a girl on her sweet sixteen. The scene when she realizes this is perfection, truly setting up each of the family member’s characters in a short 45-second scene. Watch:

Sam has one more big issue in this film as well, and that’s Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling). She has a crush on him, but he is the most popular guy in school, very rich and is dating the hottest girl in school, Caroline Mulford (Haviland Morris). When she passes a note that falls to Jake accidentally, he finds out about this. As she tries to make things happen with Jake, she is followed around by a geek and self-professed “king of the dipshits” named Ted (Anthony Michael Hall), who incessantly tries to pick her up. Couple all of this with being saddled with taking her grandparents foreign exchange student, Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe), to the school dance where Jake will be, and she’s got a lot on her plate.

No more yanky my wanky...the Donger needfood!

No more yanky my wanky…the Donger needfood!

One of the biggest successes of this film is that it is also Anthony Michael Hall‘s coming out party. He really established himself as a quality comedic actor in this film. He had obviously worked with Hughes material in National Lampoon’s Vacation before, so perhaps that was to his advantage. His character is so slimy, yet so endearing that you feel sorry for him. Also, he is the chief architect of a few of the film’s funniest scenes, e.g. when he and his friends (one being a young John Cusack) meet Long Duk Dong for the first time at Jake’s party, the aforementioned dance sequence, and when he takes a drunken/passed out Caroline to meet his friends in the middle of the night.

Say cheese?

Say cheese!

But ultimately, this is Samantha’s journey. We ride the roller coaster with her, and at times, it is difficult. The talk she has with her father (Paul Dooley) after he realizes they forgot her birthday was very real and quite spot-on. Or I imagine it is as I’ve never had this talk with a teenage girl or been a teenage girl, but Hughes situated it where I could empathize. Not an easy task. While this film has its share of juvenile humor (it is a film about high school after all), it has a heart and certain characters end up showing this even when you think that they aren’t able.

This is for you ladies:

16 candles - i heart jake ryan

Here’s the trailer:

1) Weird Science

weird science - poster

So this is number one. With a bullet. This may be one of the three funniest movies I’ve ever seen. A absolute riot from start to finish, this was kind of a surprise from Hughes who with Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club had added more drama to each film leading up to Weird Science. It’s juvenile, filled with raunchy humor and is a departure from the prior formula he employed. And it works. WELL. At least in my opinion. It is far and away the Hughes film that I watch most and that it why it grabbed spot #1 on this list.

The basic premise is two losers, Gary (Anthony Michael Hall in his finest role) and Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith), can’t fit in. Picked on, abused by cooler kids, and ignored by all girls, they decide to build their own woman using Wyatt’s souped up computer while his parents are away for the weekend. They cull the most beautiful images from Playboy magazines, give her genius intelligence and finish the job by harnessing the electricity from a thunderstorm to give her life a la Dr. Frankenstein all while wearing bras on their heads (ceremonial). And BOOM! They have Lisa (Kelly LeBrock).

What would you little maniacs like to do first?

What would you little maniacs like to do first?

So it becomes Lisa’s mission to help make the guys transition from being nerds to cool. Not an easy process considering what she has to work with. She starts off with them in a night on the town, which quickly goes from bad to worse. But then, Gary hits his stride amid the funniest scene in the entire film. Watch:

Fats, man…let me tell you my story, man. Were funnier opening words to a story ever uttered? Methinks not.

And let’s credit Hughes for maybe the best part of this film – the creation of Chet (Bill Paxton), Wyatt’s older brother and caretaker while his parents are away. Abusive and gross in every sense of the word, Chet represents what these two are up against every day of their lives. And Wyatt, chicken shit that he is, takes everything Chet has to give, served in a dirty ash tray. Chet extorts him and abuses him verbally and physically. But when Lisa enters the story, things start to change even with Chet. All that aside, I would argue that Chet is the second best movie character next to Reg Dunlop (Paul Newman) in Slap Shot. And Paxton‘s performance pretty much rules. Who else can say, “But first, I’d like to butter your muffin…” any slimier than he does? I dare you to find someone. DARE YOU.

That is a severe behavioral disorder!

That is a severe behavioral disorder!

The guys have their eyes on two girls, Deb (Suzanne Snyder) and Hilly (Judie Aronson) at school, but they happen to be dating Gary and Wyatt’s arch nemeses, Ian (a very young Robert Downey, Jr.) and Max (Robert Ruslan). Lisa decides to help the guys out and throw a BIIIIG party at Wyatt’s house and invite everyone. When the guys stay in bathroom, Lisa does what she can to coax them out and prove their meddle so Deb and Hilly will see them for who they are. This of course yields two of the funnier parts of the film, but it’s here they make their final transition from nerds to being not necessarily cool, but noticeable, shall we say.

Your dropping wolf bait, and there's chicks outside! Light a match, light a fire. I don't know.

You’re dropping wolf bait, and there’s chicks outside! Light a match, light a fire. I don’t know.

While it doesn’t have quite the same touching ending that both Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club have, Weird Science earns its ending. While Hughes moved on to more adult and family friendly fare after this (with exception of maybe Uncle Buck which treads some of the same water here), I’m so glad he squeezed this one in.

Here’s the trailer:

So as I said before, Hughes left a mark on my childhood – his films helped me navigate the unsteady times of adolescence. These films are signposts that me and many of my friends can point to as we continue to try and make our way through this world. Hughes‘ passing in 2009 was tragic because he gave voice to my generation. While he hadn’t spoken for it in quite some time, he still held that title when he died and I believe he continues to do so. There are rumors that one of his unproduced scripts in moving into production. PLEASE DON’T. Let the man rest. There is a reason that project went unproduced.