With the litany of major deaths that have occurred in the past few months, John Hughes' unexpected demise went slightly under the radar. Sure, there's been a fair amount of publicity, but the response and reaction has been more or less fairly tame. The reasons for this are twofold: He hasn't written and directed a consequential film since the early nineties and has, accordingly, sequestered himself for almost twenty years. Even so, a visionary is a visionary and should be revered as such.
For someone as subtly iconic as John Hughes, it goes without saying that he had just as many detractors as he did revelers. For every one person who touts the greatness and authenticity of his high school themed films, there are probably three who will argue it was an exaggerated, unrealistic glorification of the white kid's high school experience, the most overt case being Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Ferris (Matthew Broderick's one-time standout role) lives in a suburb of Chicago and is very put upon because he received a computer for his birthday instead of a car. "How's that for being born under a bad sign?" Ferris is perhaps the sole John Hughes character that does not live on the fringes of high school life. He is, instead, the center of it, the guy everyone aspires to be. All other Hughes acolytes (Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Eric Stoltz, Jon Cryer, et. al.) were portrayed as somehow socially defective, which, I suppose, compensated for how white and plightless they were.
Hughes' first real career making film was Sixteen Candles. Before this, he was just another ribald comedy writer making jokes for the sake of making jokes in films like Mr. Mom and National Lampoon's Vacation. But it was with Sixteen Candles that he acquired a distinct voice and became a bona fide force, really the only force, in the teen film genre, which was at the time in dire need of resuscitation. After the surprising success of the film as a result of Molly Ringwald's relatable performance as an awkward and average 16 year old with a lust for a boy well out of her league, every girl was soon led to believe she could snag a Jake Ryan of her own. This might also be the cause for a certain amount of vilification of Hughes as most high school boys aren't likey to go for the Molly Ringwald type.
From 1984 to 1990, there was nothing and no one that could stop Hughes from making the films he wanted. And those films were consistently youth-oriented. After Sixteen Candles came the successors to complete the Ringwald trilogy, The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink. These three are possibly the most lauded of the Hughes canon because, in a way, they are an extended version of Sixteen Candles, particularly Pretty in Pink, where, yet again, Molly Ringwald plays a girl who is not on the radar of the social group she wishes to be a part of so that she may gain the favor of her heart's desire, Blaine (Andrew McCarthy).
Like any auteur, Hughes had many trademarks, most notably his exemplary taste in music. Some of the most memorable scenes in his films are linked to the song he chose for it: Thompson Twins' "If You Were Here" at the closing scene of Sixteen Candles, New Order's "Thieves Like Us" as Andy gets ready for the prom in Pretty in Pink, The Smiths' "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" as Duckie stares in a blank depression in his room, and, of course, Simple Minds' "Don't You Forget About Me" as the theme song for The Breakfast Club.
His most important signature of all, however, was the uncanny ability he had to reflect youth back to itself. There are very few middle-aged white men with such a skill, possibly because John Hughes stole it from all of them and kept it for himself. Even if there are those who say Hughes' writing was hardly indicative of the total high school experience, they cannot take away his undeniable knack for describing how bittersweet growing up can be.
Just because a man is dead does not mean his faults have to be blotted out. John Hughes had numerous films that are better left undiscussed in the look back at his career. Every great writer-director has the occasional blemish on his record (Woody Allen with Hollywood Ending, Billy Wilder with The Fortune Cookie, and Federico Fellini with Roma). Accordingly, it's probably safe to say that Baby's Day Out and Flubber were not John Hughes' proudest moments. But this man earned the right to make mistakes after filmically shaping the cultural landscape of the eighties.
So say what you want about him: "You see him in the simplest of terms and the most convenient definitions."