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.