Film fans are mourning the loss of iconic filmmaker John Hughes, who died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 59. The genius behind hits such as “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Weird Science,” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” Hughes revamped the comedy genre to make room for a new brand of adolescent angst that merged heady rebellion with wistful romanticism. Working with a triple-threat combination as a writer, director, and producer, Hughes is known not only for spinning teen comedies like “Sixteen Candles” and “Pretty in Pink” into box-office gold, but also for smash-hit family films such as “Home Alone” and “Uncle Buck.” His comi-tragic vision of working-class and middle-class life in 1980’s America created some of the most memorable film characters of the decade.
Hughes worked in familiar themes that merged autobiography with absurd comedy. A loyalist to location, many of his movies were filmed and set in the Chicago area where he lived, though he originally hails from Lansing, Michigan. He cast his favorite leads over and over: Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, and Anthony Michael Hall were infamous “Brat Pack” regulars who got their start in Hughes’ movies. Using the pseudonym Edmond Dantès (a reference to one of his favorite books, The Count of Monte Cristo), Hughes wrote about cross-country vacations gone awry and parents who just didn’t understand their teenage kid’s fashion sense or high school woes.
His stories pulsed with the familiar rhythms of a certain subculture in America: the distinct hilarity and angst of his fictional Midwest American characters, teenagers who were locked in libraries on a Saturday or adults on vacation, trapped in a seemingly endless litany of transportation fiascos. They danced merrily on top of parade floats while lip-synching Beatles songs, or splashed after-shave on their cheeks and howled afterward from the stinging pain. His characters never really took themselves too seriously and their happy endings, though sometimes a bit too tidy, brought audiences again and again into crowded theaters, all searching for a good laugh and the lightest touch of catharsis.
In real life, Hughes appeared to be equal parts Ferris Bueller and Samantha Baker. His physical comedy scenes and quick punch-lines were undoubtedly influenced by his years of working with the legendary comic franchise National Lampoon: his archetype characters live on today in the series less memorable, but still distinct, remakes. His marriage to high school sweetheart Nancy Ludwig may not have garnered much public attention, yet the innocence of his teen romances lacked gratuitous nudity or sex scenes and spoke to the truth of first love. We hope our friendships and romantic relationships in high school might last forever, even as we know that it’s unlikely we’ll see much of one another other after graduation (I maintain that we’re all just as likely to make-out in a parking lot after prom as we are to work in a record store while harboring a crush on our unknowing best friend).
He never would have known it, but John Hughes also played a big hand in naming me.
In the winter of 1986, my parents were torn as to what to name their first daughter. Mom wanted me to be Elizabeth McCarthy, but Dad had other ideas. That’s where “The Breakfast Club” comes into play. There are two female leads in the movie – the sheltered princess cheerleader (Molly Ringwald) and the compulsive liar, kleptomaniac, self-described “basket case” (Ally Sheedy). The latter squeaks and shakes her head rather than speak in the first half of the movie, yet she’s the one who relays the movie’s most tragically sincere lines: “When you grow up, your heart dies.” Her ending scene shows her kissing the school jock soon after he tells her, “We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.”
Though her name isn’t mentioned in the film until the ending credits roll, somehow, Dad was inspired enough by the craziest girl in the movie to impart her name onto his oldest daughter. A good friend comforts me by saying that it could have been worse. She reminds me of the scene where Bender (Judd Nelson) taunts the cheerleader. “Remember what Bender said? ‘Claire’s a fat girl’s name.’ You got off lucky with Allison.”
So maybe I wasn’t destined to play the bubbly cheerleader. Who knows what happened to Allison the Monday after weekend detention – just because she shared a kiss with the captain of the wrestling team didn’t make it any more likely that her reputation as the odd girl out would die down. In real life, I did end up dying my hair dark red before prom and wore a shimmery pink dress, just for kicks, because I saw it in one of Hughes’ movies (“Pretty in Pink”) and identified with the lead. What can I say? I’m a child of the 80’s and John Hughes envisioned my life in suburbia with enough clarity and humor to keep things interesting.