John Hughes, 1950-2009

john hughes

John Hughes, the writer-director-producer whose movies became defining experiences for kids of the ’80s and ’90s, has died of a heart attack at the age of 59.

Born in Michigan but a resident of Chicago (who set most of his films in or around that city), Hughes was one of the most prolific screenwriters in Hollywood in those two decades (it was said that he could write a script in a weekend), and most of the movies he wrote were successful. As a National Lampoon writer, he started his film career by writing films for the humour franchise, including the hit National Lampoon’s Vacation and the disastrous TV adaptation of Animal House, entitled Delta House. After only two years as a successful Hollywood screenwriter, he asked for, and won, the right to direct his screenplay Sixteen Candles, a comedy about the humiliations and triumphs of a sixteen-year-old girl. Though Hughes had by some accounts never been on a movie set before, and his star, Molly Ringwald, was best known for being dropped from the cast of The Facts of Life, the movie was a hit that created a new formula for teen comedies and established memorable personas for Ringwald and, as the local geek, Anthony Michael Hall; both would work with Hughes on several other films.

After Sixteen Candles became a success, Hughes threw himself into the creation of at least two films every year. In 1985, he wrote and directed both Weird Science, a fantasy-comedy about two nerds who accidentally create a magical woman who teaches them how to live, and The Breakfast Club, a comedy-drama about several archetypal teenagers forced to spend time together in weekend detention. (In 2005 I re-imagined The Breakfast Club as an opera by Richard Wagner.) The following year he wrote and directed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, starring Matthew Broderick in a star-making part as a high-school con artist who can get out of any kind of trouble.


These movies created certain rules that most teen comedies have followed for the next quarter-century: a combination of anti-authoritarianism, sentimentality about friendship and living life to the fullest—and sex jokes. Many makers of today’s teen films, like Superbad, have talked about their indebtedness to Hughes; Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow even made Drillbit Taylor, based on an unproduced Hughes story. Hughes also began to move into movies about older characters, working frequently with star John Candy, whom he directed in such popular ’80s films as Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Uncle Buck.

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The prolific Hughes also wrote and produced many films that he did not direct, but the directors took orders from him, and movies like Pretty In Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful and Career Opportunities (a film notable only for the young Jennifer Connelly in a tank top) have Hughes’s style even though he wasn’t the director. In 1990, he created one of his most unexpectedly successful projects, Home Alone, which he wrote and produced and assigned to the young Chris Columbus to direct. The combination of a sentimental, kid-friendly story with wild cartoon slapstick was the biggest box-office success he’d ever had, a film that, as he explained to Bill Carter in The New York Times Magazine, “will keep both the kids and the parents inside the theatre.”  Hughes, perhaps sensing that the teen market was drying up, put more of his efforts into writing younger-skewing slapstick comedies, including Home Alone 2, Baby’s Day Out, and two live-action adaptations of 101 Dalmatians.

Sometime in the ’90s, despite his enormous success, Hughes started to become increasingly reclusive. In the mid-’90s, at the height of his fame, he gave up directing and stopped giving interviews; by the time the decade was over, he had given up writing and producing as well. Hughes left Hollywood and moved to Wisconsin, unreachable by all but a few people, and withdrew from the public more and more. Though he recorded an audio commentary for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the ’90s, he refused to allow the commentary to be included when the film was reissued, and was absent from the DVD special features of all his other movies. Ironically considering his avoidance of the big city, Hughes suffered his heart attack while on a visit to Manhattan.