Back during Stanley Kubrick’s search for a fresh face to play Private Joker in Full Metal Jacket, he had an unusual phone conversation with a promising newcomer, an American teenage actor named Anthony Michael Hall.
Hall, from a recent interview with Vanity Fair: “The phone rings. Stanley Kubrick gets on and says, ‘I want you to know: I just screened Sixteen Candles three times. . . and you’re my favorite actor since I saw Jack [Nicholson] in Easy Rider!”
Hall’s career hasn’t quite lived up to this holy ordaining, but then he wasn’t alone. Hall was part of a rising group of young 80s superstars that the press dubbed—no doubt while winking and making a finger-gun—The Brat Pack. Hilariously described on Wikipedia as “roughly interchangeable”, the Pack boasted cover-ready stars like Molly Ringwald, Rob Lowe, Judd Nelson, and Emilio Estevez, and partied hard enough to carve a permanent spot for their antics in the newspaper gossip pages (the same spot where Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton roost today.)
Anthony Michael Hall fared better in his career than many of these names, but only just. (He starred in the successful Dead Zone TV series after shedding his nerd image and morphing into a form I can only describe as “ruggedly Winklevoss-ian.”) Still, Kubrick’s passing compliment today seems like an overstatement and way too much pressure to slap on a nervous kid still on the squeaky side of puberty. But, watching Sixteen Candles recently, I realized that Kubrick really wasn’t far off the mark. OK, maybe he’s not Nicholson good, but Hall’s Farmer Ted is the heart of the film, and the movie wouldn’t hold together as well without him. Hall is so good, in fact, that he’s really never been better, a phrase you can apply to most of the Brat Pack in the 80s. For a variety of reasons many of these actors gave the performances of their careers before the clock struck 1990. The biggest reason is John Hughes.
I was touched when the Academy staged a special tribute to Hughes at the 2010 Oscar ceremony, thinking at the time that it was a fairly classy move to honor a man at the industry’s signature event who had never been seen as a real “Oscar” kind of guy. To my surprise, the tribute was slimed the following day by a small, vocal minority of columnists who relished the chance to dust off their poison pen on a subject other than a red carpet blunder. “All the Gen-X nostalgia in the world isn’t going to turn Hughes into Akira Kurosawa,” said Scott Tobias in The AV Club’s rundown, a comment that strikes me as missing the point by a country mile. The Oscars exist to reward cinematic achievement, true, but the show honors the entire industry, and nobody did more for the movie industry in the 1980s than John Hughes. I don’t just mean in terms of money; a couple of well-oiled action heroes can take the credit there. No, I’m talking about relationships, a much more valuable commodity in the long term than striking opening weekend oil.
Hughes may not have been Kurosawa, but he found viewers who didn’t need him to be. Although Hughes was in his 30s by 1983, he attracted an audience half his age by being fluent in the only languages teens know: music and heartache. His teen heroes were unexceptional and oh-so-typical, which made them universal. Teens flocked to his films and stuck around for other non-Hughesian sagas like St. Elmo’s Fire or Say Anything. Even better, Hughes movies became landmark titles in the early days of VHS, held as talismans by the young and confused who searched for life’s answers in Hughes’s wisdom until the tracking wore out. John Hughes taught kids to look up at a movie screen and see themselves, creating an untold number of lifelong movie fans in the process. He never produced fine art, but Hughes gave Hollywood a generation.
That has to count for something, right? Should Hughes be thrown to the margins because he made movies more beloved by kids than critics? Sure, most of his work was fluff, but his fluff mattered to people in a way that so many critical darlings never did. How many Best Picture winners since Hughes’s debut have already faded into obscurity, technically amazing but of ultimately no use to anyone? (Answer: six, in my opinion, but that’s another column).
I made up my mind after the tribute, right about the time that the conversation shifted away from Hughes and over to Judd Nelson’s unfortunate tux. I want to know if his films have anything to say today, or if they really were just for that time and those teens. John Hughes was the 80s, and now he’s my next Hollywood Project.
John Wilden Hughes, Jr.
February 18, 1950 in Lansing, Michigan
August 6, 2009 in New York City (heart attack)
John Hughes spent his early years in suburban Michigan, a self-described non-athlete in an environment that honored physical ability over intelligence. His salesman father, John Hughes, Sr., moved the family to Northbrook, Illinois when John was a pre-teen, and Hughes adopted the town as his own. He attended high school at Glenbrook North, a school on which he would later base many of his film settings, and where he met his future wife, Nancy Ludwig. The couple married out of high school and moved to Arizona so that Hughes could attend university, but Hughes quickly tired of college life and dropped out to return to Chicago and go to work. Already interested in writing, Hughes got his start by selling jokes to established comedians before settling for a regular gig as an advertising copywriter. Hughes may have made this job his permanent career if he had not made certain connections at a New York-based comedy magazine called National Lampoon.
Hughes wrote comedy articles for Lampoon, attracting attention with his famous account of a family trip to Disneyland gone wrong, “Vacation ’58.” Hughes continued to moonlight for the magazine, sometimes even sneaking away from his desk to fly to New York and back in a single work day. The magazine brought Hughes on full time and tasked him with bringing life to their film division, struggling to find a follow-up hit to their massive first success, Animal House. Hughes wrote scripts for the Animal House spinoff TV series, Delta House, but finally broke through completely when he adapted his own short story in the mega-hit, National Lampoon’s Vacation. From there, Hughes became the hottest screenwriter in Hollywood, penning the script for Mr. Mom and lobbying to make his directorial debut with a personal teen comedy, Sixteen Candles. Hughes remained one of the most prolific voices in Hollywood for the rest of the decade before his directing career hit an abrupt end with 1991’s Curly Sue. Hughes left Hollywood and turned his attention back to his family, working occasionally as a script doctor and producing new, original screenplays under his preferred pseudonym, Edmund Dantes.
Hughes spent his final years with his family, still writing furiously, but keeping the work mostly for himself. On August 6, 2009, Hughes suffered a fatal heart attack while taking a walk through Manhattan, at only 59 years of age.
- Known mostly for dialogue-heavy teen comedies.
- His work frequently featured a signature nerd or misfit character who plagues the hero
- Hughes was a devoted music fan; his soundtracks were often as well received as his films
- His stories were often set in or around the fictional town of Shermer, Illinois.
- Liked to have characters break the fourth wall and address the audience.
Number of Eligible Films
I can’t talk about John Hughes without talking about his screenplays. In a decade where Shane Black made screenwriting a trendy lottery-ticket pursuit, Hughes remained a consummate writer. It was his passion and his compulsion. He wrote at a blistering pace. He sometimes banged out scripts over a weekend while working on other scripts. During his Hollywood career, Hughes wrote about 4 times as many screenplays as he directed, and that’s only his produced work. There are still rumors about lost scripts that never made it past the planning stages or that got trapped in development hell, including at least one screenplay—The Grigsbys Go Broke—that nearly received a green light months after his death. (That script will likely remain unproduced now that the similar-sounding Have You Heard About the Morgans? has come and bombed.)
Unfortunately, all of those wonderful scripts—as indicative of the John Hughes voice as they are—must remain outside of this project. We’re only going to look at the films that Hughes decided to actually direct, and hopefully that will get us closer to the heart of his work. That means some fairly well-known films that people think of as “John Hughes movies” are out. Among the casualties are Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful, Home Alone, and National Lampoon’s Vacation, to name only a few. While his voice is clearly a part of each of these films, they were still guided to the screen by other hands and cannot be included in my rankings.
Incidentally, if you’re looking for a fun read, check out this Vanity Fair article about Hughes’s super short stories that he wrote for himself in the years before his death. They’re very funny and yet another window into Hughes’s warm, gentle sense of character and self.
I’m not a music critic. (Actually, that deserves a repeat. I am not a music critic.) However, since music features so heavily into Hughes’s work, I’m going to take some time in every entry to discuss the film’s soundtrack and how it works or doesn’t work for that particular movie, at least as I see it.
Hughes had a signature weakness in his filmmaking: a sweet tooth. He had a hard time resisting a sugary moment, the kind of moment often followed by an “aawwww” on a sitcom laugh track. Even his best films have those cavity-inducing weak spots, and I’ll call out the biggest offender in each film. These moments lay the groundwork to explain Hughes’s big shift from the angst-filled teen romances in his early work to the tyke-friendly confections he started churning out in the mid-90s.
Check back next week for the first film in The John Hughes Project!
(The John Hughes Project is complete. Please enjoy the links below to explore the Project and let me know what you think! Give me your rankings!)
The John Hughes Project
8. Curly Sue
6. Uncle Buck