I know: I can hardly believe the headline, either. John Hughes, whose slick, crowd-pleasing features made a fortune at the box office—and whose winsome but prickly teen comedy-romances raised the bar for youth-oriented movies in the ’80s, and helped make life marginally more bearable for moviegoers who came of age during that crap-tastic decade—died yesterday in New York City of a heart attack during one of his regular morning walks.
There’s too much to say on short notice, and bummed as I am by the news, I don’t want to oversell Hughes’ particular brand of inspiration. He directed classics or near-classics, but he also directed 1989’s bludgeoning Uncle Buck and 1991’s saccharine Curly Sue (and never directed again, sorry to say). Most of the time, Hughes wasn’t deep and wasn’t trying to be—and there was a conservative, even reactionary impulse lurking somewhere in his sensibility that sometimes rubbed me the wrong way; I never forgave him for that moment at the end of The Breakfast Club when preppy princess Molly Ringwald helps “clean up” Ally Sheedy’s introverted freak chick, and everyone (the movie included—or so it seems) concurs that she looks much better now. But at his best, Hughes balanced a consummate entertainer’s relentless pursuit of applause with an artist’s appreciation for the diversity of the human carnival unfolding before our eyes—on screens and in life.
Most of all, the man was a born filmmaker. His movies moved. His comedic gifts were visual as well as verbal. Think of his riff on the opening shot of Star Wars in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, with the parking attendants soaring over the camera in Cameron’s precious automobile; it’s my pick for the greatest Star Wars joke ever because it doesn’t just spoof Lucas’ pop culture re-aligning blockbuster, it demonstrates an un-ironic appreciation of the movie’s appeal—the physical rush that its pictures and sounds evoked. And whether intimate or overscaled, Hughes’ films were impeccably put together, with a uncanny ability to shift gears from one very different scene or sequence to another, without losing the audience. Even Hughes’ supposedly lightweight teen flicks often seesawed between goofy slapstick that put a grin on your face and foursquare melodrama that wiped it off.
Speaking of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the first time I saw the movie, I was immediately struck by how Hughes dared to build its emotional climax around tightly-wound best buddy Cameron (John Ruck) confessing his idolization and resentment of his rich daddy, then lashing out against him by destroying the old man’s car. The scene went on and on, like an outtake from Rebel Without a Cause dropped into the middle of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. But it wasn’t so much excessive as uncomfortably genuine; the young man’s pain was real, and by showing it, Hughes subtly acknowledged that the rest of what he’d shown us was pure escapism—and that by seeking out such entertainment, we were trying to avoid thinking about our own miseries, which might not be identical to Cameron’s in all the details, but were every bit as intense and alienating. Ditto the ending of 1988’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles, when John Candy’s irrepressibly needy traveling salesman is revealed to be homeless; that one bold stroke humanizes a character who’s previously been depicted as just another fat, funny oaf—and indicts Steve Martin’s character, the viewer’s surrogate up to then, as a self-obsessed jerk who could only see his own unhappiness, not anyone else’s.
When I think of Hughes, I also think of his musical sensibility. He had a gung-ho session player’s knack for segueing between modes so deftly that you didn’t realize until a particular scene was over that it had almost nothing in common, tonally, with the scene that preceded it (Cameron’s monologue being the most obvious example). Yet somehow all the pieces just seemed to fit. I don’t think it’s incidental that some of the most memorable moments from Hughes’ filmography are built around singing and dancing. Pauline Kael likened Martin Scorsese’s direction of Goodfellas to a musician’s performance. The comparison applies to Hughes more often than not. There was joy in his filmmaking—a rock star’s delight in his ability to control, channel and direct the audience’s emotions. He had a sung-through musical in him. Too bad we’ll never see it.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986):
Sixteen Candles (1984):
The Breakfast Club (1985):
Pretty in Pink (1987):
A Brooklyn-based film editor and a former critic for The New York Times, The Star-Ledger and New York Press, Matt Zoller Seitz is the editor emeritus of The House Next Door.