Life is not a John Hughes movie

I just saw the bulletin that movie maven John Hughes died today, of an apparent heart attack.

How great a loss this news is to the cinematic community depends somewhat on your tastes. It also depends, to a certain degree, on your age, as Hughes — one of Hollywood’s most active and popular producer/directors throughout the 1980s — helmed his last film in 1991. Hughes retired to his native Upper Midwest in the ’90s, and has been entirely absent from the entertainment scene for the past decade.

But when the man was working, he was money in the bank.

I first discovered Hughes long before he got into the movie business, when he was a staff writer and editor for National Lampoon magazine in the 1970s. Hughes was my favorite Lampoon scribe, contributing infinite belly-laughs to those halcyon times when I sported considerably less belly. I still have, buried in a filing cabinet somewhere, a copy of the Sunday newspaper parody that he and PJ O’Rourke cowrote in 1978. It was one of the funniest things my adolescent brain had ever read at the time. I’ll have to dig it out and see whether the sophomoric humor holds up.

Hughes soon segued from publishing to film, scripting the comedy hits Mr. Mom and National Lampoon‘s Vacation in 1983. The following year, he made his directorial debut with the movie that made Molly Ringwald a superstar: Sixteen Candles. For the next several years, Hughes could do no wrong — he wrote and directed such classics as The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (my personal favorite), Planes, Trains & Automobiles, and Uncle Buck.

When Hughes wasn’t directing his own scripts, he was penning screenplays to be lensed by his army of protégés — Pretty in Pink (directed by Howard Deutsch), Some Kind of Wonderful (Deutsch again), National Lampoon‘s Christmas Vacation (Jeremiah Chechik), Home Alone (Chris Columbus) and its two theatrical sequels (Columbus redux, then Raja Gosnell), Career Opportunities (Bryan Gordon), Beethoven (Brian Levant), Dennis the Menace (Nick Castle), and the live-action remakes of 101 Dalmatians (Stephen Herek) and Flubber (Les Mayfield).

If you added up the combined box office from all of the above flicks, you could pretty much erase the national deficit.

The critics didn’t always embrace Hughes’s works, especially in his latter period from Home Alone forward. (In fairness to those critics, they were right about the stuff Hughes churned out during the 1990s.) His name became synonymous with teen angst, the Brat Pack, and mawkish sentimentality. For abut 15 years, though, the public devoured almost everything on which the Hughes name (and his nom de plume Edmond Dantes) appeared.

I never knew why Hughes left the business in the late ’90s. I don’t know whether he lost creative focus, got tired of the ridicule from film snobs, or just decided to take his mega-millions and go home. But when one’s name becomes the brand for an entire genre of cinema — if you say “John Hughes film” to anyone who knows movies, they know exactly what you mean — he or she has accomplished something. Like it or not, Hughes’s legacy is more than secure.

In memoriam, we present Uncle Swan’s Top Seven John Hughes Films, in ascending order of greatness.

7. Nate and Hayes. The third Hughes screenplay produced in 1983, and the only one to bomb at the box office, it’s Hughes’s most atypical effort — a pirate movie starring Tommy Lee Jones. It’s largely forgotten today, but if you enjoy Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, it’s well worth seeking out. Directed by the otherwise obscure Ferdinand Fairfax.

6. Weird Science. Best remembered for its bombshell starring turn by Kelly LeBrock (the future Mrs. Steven Seagal) and its quirky theme song by Oingo Boingo, this bizarre fantasy also features solid work by young actors Anthony Michael Hall — a Hughes staple — and Ilan Mitchell-Smith. Any movie in which Bill Paxton turns into a humongous pile of excrement — literally! — is worth seeing once.

5.The Breakfast Club. The quintessential Brat Pack flick. The acting is worse than you remember — Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald, and Ally Sheedy are dreadful here, and Judd Nelson is… well… Judd Nelson. But the screenplay, while overwrought, is effective, and the lesser roles are excellently performed (especially the underrated Hall — again — and Paul Gleason). Besides, it’s an icon of the Me Decade.

4. National Lampoon‘s Vacation. Still hilarious after all these years. Right now, I’m betting that you can quote a dozen lines from this movie. Docked one place on the list for making Chevy Chase think he’s funnier than he is. (Has Chevy ever made a non-Vacation comedy that was even remotely good?)

3. Some Kind of Wonderful. The best Hughes film not directed by Hughes is also one of the strongest, most realistic teen pictures in Hollywood history. It also boasts the solid cast that The Breakfast Club desperately needed. Can you imagine Eric Stoltz as Andrew, Lea Thompson as Claire, Mary Stuart Masterson as Crazy Freak Girl, and Elias Koteas as Bender? Now that would have been some kind of wonderful.

2. Planes, Trains & Automobiles. Hughes’s most adult comedy, and his only one centered around two fully realized and believable adult characters. It’s one of the few films in which Steve Martin plays straight man to a superior comedian. John Candy finally got a starring role worthy of his talents. A Thanksgiving weekend staple at Casa de Swan.

1. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The best teenage comedy ever made — period — and among the finest film comedies of all time. About as flawless an example of the genre as could be constructed, while managing to be touching and thoughtful at the same time. Matthew Broderick creates one of the truly great comic heroes, and Jeffrey Jones matches him note for note as one of the great comic villains.

As Ferris Bueller once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” John Hughes, dead at 59, proves the truth of those words.

Explore posts in the same categories: Celebritiana, Cinemania, Dead People Got No Reason to Live, Disney, Listology, Ripped From the Headlines

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