Look at director John Hughes, who died last Thursday at age 59, and one might think: accountant. The owl-rimmed glasses, boyish hair, and collared shirts would say to anyone likely to judge by such stylistic clues that this was a middle-class father of two who worked 9-5 and packed his own chicken salad sandwiches every day to save a few bucks. Ironically, it was John Hughes who taught us all that judging others by such superficial criteria was not only morally wrong, but usually factually wrong as well.
The two great criticisms of the 1980s, both incorrect, are that it was a “decade of greed” and a decade of mass conformity in which all who were different were shamed into submission or outcast. The first is a topic for another essay. The second is countered by Hughes’ greatest films: Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, and Weird Science, and by the lesser but still powerful Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful.
These were the films my friends and I talked about until late in the evening while cruising the McDonald’s parking lot. We were entertained by Indiana Jones, Top Gun, and Revenge of the Nerds, but aside from the Star Wars trilogy and the brilliant comedies of Rob Reiner, only John Hughes’ films got us discussing film as an art form. We knew only three Hollywood directors’ names: Spielberg, Lucas, and John Hughes.
Hughes lacked the technical and artistic genius of Spielberg and Lucas. He dazzled no one with dog fights in outer space, killer sharks or chiseled heroes who defeated the Nazis with only a whip. He captured our hearts with something much simpler: Stories of people just like us.
Not one John Hughes hero was muscular or rich. Eric Stoltz was probably the most handsome. The girls were cute, but you wouldn’t find a super model in any of the credits. So why did we, boy and girl alike, keep shelling out our money to borrow dad’s car and go see these people on screen weekend after weekend? It was because all of us knew that if only we had the pluck — the nerve — to take the kind of social risks these kids were taking, we could easily be the hero or heroine too.
For the children of the 1980s, John Hughes was our J.D. Salinger or Joseph Heller. He wrote us into his films. Those kids getting picked on, being misunderstood, struggling to establish their own identity, they were us. We didn’t have Yossarian or Holden Caufield. We had “Farmer Ted,” Ferris, Sam, Mary Stuart Masterson’s Watts, or the entire cast of The Breakfast Club.
But more than that, we had Hughes. We had a writer and director who didn’t exploit us by luring us into bad films with a couple of good songs and some attractive celebrities. We had an artist who respected us as individuals. That is why, no matter your class or crowd, you loved John Hughes’ films. He respected his audience as no director of teen films ever has.
John Hughes’ lasting mark on American cinema was to treat teenagers with dignity and respect. He did this by writing characters that did not blindly rebel against authority. None of Hughes’ heroes sought to destroy anything or anyone. They rebelled for the most basic human reason: to assert their individuality.
It wasn’t enough for a John Hughes character to wear a leather jacket or smoke cigarettes. They weren’t poseurs. In fact, his rebels, most notably excepted by Ducky from Pretty in Pink, tended to dress just like everyone else — or want to. Hughes’ great insight was to understand that rebellion had nothing to do with how you dressed and everything to do with how you thought and acted.
In his films, the hero doesn’t stand entirely outside of society’s norms or values, but rather embraces most of them. He rebels not through senseless destruction, but by asserting his independence from the role others assign him based on his appearance and age.
Ferris Bueller skips school because he concludes that he can learn more outside the school walls than within them. In Sixteen Candles, Ted and Sam show the cool kids that the skinny guy with braces and the alternative girl with no boobs have a lot more to offer than those who rely on their looks to get by. The members of The Breakfast Club and the characters in Some Kind of Wonderful learn that everyone is insecure, funny, caring, and — above all — worthy of treating with respect, no matter how they dress or wear their hair.
Yes, there are undeveloped characters written in for comic relief (Long Duck Dong). There are stereotypes (Chet). But in the end, Long Duck Dong gets the girl and becomes seen by the other characters in Sixteen Candles as more than just a “bizarre Chinaman.” Even Sam’s grandparents are written to defy type — one set is overly reserved and uptight, the other too loose and carefree. We are left to believe that “normal” is neither of these extremes, but somewhere happily in the middle.
Hughes understood that we are all stereotyped. His films rebelled against type not just for people who chose to dress in black and listen to The Cure, but for all of us. By showing that preppies and jocks are equally as misunderstood as geeks, stoners and basket cases, he taught a generation of teenagers to judge others by their character, not their appearance. He taught us that prejudice and forced conformity are evils because they deny the individuality, and therefore the humanity, of their objects.
This is why John Hughes’ best films rise to the level of greatness. The acting and directing are brilliant, but the writing lifts them into a place somewhere between entertainment and literature.
Hughes refused to caricature teens or the suburban, middle-American values of the 1980s with which they struggled. He didn’t belittle parents who worked hard or the wonderful homes and neighborhoods they provided their kids. He wasn’t telling his audience that they were right simply because they were young or that their parents and teachers were wrong simply because they were older.
In John Hughes’ world, adults were not always wrong; teens not always right. Nor were the poor always virtuous, the rich always evil, the counter culture always noble, or the prevailing norms always repugnant. Everyone was to be evaluated on his or her own merits as an individual, not as a representative of class, culture, authority, or anything else.
By asserting the supremacy of the individual, John Hughes was himself rebelling against type. He was a Hollywood director refusing to promote the standard Hollywood clichés about America and its youth. His vision was essentially a Reaganite one: that we are all individuals and that the key to our destiny is found not in external social causes, nor dependency on others, but in our own willingness to shape it.
He managed to impart this crucial lesson without preaching it, but by doing the vastly more difficult job of entertaining. He told honest stories, and the lesson told itself. His honesty was why we, his audience, loved him so much. And it is why his films will be watched — and loved — long after the hair styles, clothes and music cease to evoke fond memories from any living viewer.