While I may be a day late on this (after all, it does take an extra 24 hours for news to reach us up here in Canada), I’m no less saddened. John Hughes is dead at 59. I’ve never really considered myself the type to mourn celebrities. I remember being bummed when my mom called me in my first year of University to tell me that Rodney Dangerfield had passed, but the recent hubbub over Jacko’s shuffling off has left me more-or-less insensitive and annoyed, probably because the whole glut of media coverage seem baldly opportunistic. But this one got to me. To paraphrase Aykroyd’s opening line in The Great Outdoors, I shit a solid gold brick of sadness. What an awful surprise.
Honestly, as someone born in 1986 (under the bad sign of Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet), I’m not really in a position to testify to Hughes’ ability to capture the zeitgeist of ‘80s youth culture in films like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But as a guy who likes to laugh, I can confidently assert that John Hughes was one of the most gifted and prolific writers in the history of American comedy. Sure, he’s as well known for his numerous stints behind the camera (and for middling crap like Curly Sue and Beethoven), but his ability to not only write lively and hilarious comic dialogue, but develop real, three-dimensional characters to deliver these lines, as opposed to the flat, undeveloped mouthpieces that people a lot of comedy films, is what distinguished him. It’s also what made him such a pronounced influence on filmmakers of my generation, from Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, Terry Zwigoff and Kevin Smith to the heavyweight champ of contemporary American comedy, Judd Apatow, who once told the L.A. Times, “Basically, my stuff is just John Hughes films with four letter words.”
Again, though his ‘80s period pieces may have articulated the varied concerns of the American high school’s cross-section of stereotypes, Hughes himself has always excelled at being really, really funny. As the guy who wrote National Lampoon’s Vacation, Hughes wrote the best lines for Chevy Chase this side of Fletch. Chase may have made a name for himself on SNL in the late-70s, coasting on the fumes of his “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not” dickhead charm, but in channelling his smarmy, schizophrenic energy in Hughes’ Clark Griswold character, Chase transformed into the picture of the Reagan-era American dad: a tragic middle-classer whose frantic attempts to reinvigorate the conservative values of the nuclear family are punctuated by outbursts into baldfaced sociopathy.
Hughes’ films were also formative family films. Of course Home Alone is one of the great kids’ movies of all time, but even before this, when his scripts were more liberally peppered with expletives, Hughes was able to make films that spanned the generational divide. I have fond memories of watching The Great Outdoors and Planes, Trains and Automobiles with my family, laughing at John Candy’s goofball waterskiing stunts in the former and being ordered to plug my ears when Steve Martin swears a blue streak at a rental car agent in the latter. I mean, it’s not like I look back at them with some quixotic, "Christmas With the Semleys" weepiness. But I remember them. And that's more than I can say about most of my childhood. That and being spooked sleepless by Viggo the Carpathian in Ghostbusters 2.
It’s not just that these films had something for everybody. It’s that Hughes loved rubbing characters who exhibited a sort of naive childishness against more self-serious foils in a way that naturally resonates with children and adults alike. This is probably seen most pointedly in the Bueller v. Rooney dynamic. While Jeffrey Jones pursues the incurably tardy Matthew Broderick with an intensity that recalls another high water mark of 1980s American cinema, Cameron’s The Terminator, it always seems less about his professional obligation and more about his maddening envy of Bueller’s effortless cool. Hughes also used John Candy as the perfect vector for this sort of perceived irresponsibility/bungling innocence, be it versus Steve Martin in Planes, Trains, versus Dan Aykroyd in The Great Outdoors, or versus the whole institution of adulthood as understood by the big house and 2.5 kids in Uncle Buck. To my mind, the Hughes/Candy pairing is the kind of relationship between writer/director and performer that is so rare in cinema, the kind that gives a character a shared sense of authorship that speaks to cinema’s inherently collaborative nature. I’m probably only being a little bit glib when I say that it’s on par with Fellini/Mastroianni, Lynch/McLachlan, Raimi/Campbell and Allen/Allen.
Downed by a heart attack at 59, Hughes’ death eerily dovetails with Candy’s passing from cardiac arrhythmia in 1994. But like the Canuck comic he helped make a star, John Hughes leaves an unparalleled comedic legacy. If I ever do decide to stop living like Uncle Buck and settle down with a family, I look forward to sharing Planes, Trains and Automobiles, The Great Outdoors, Weird Science and the Vacation movies with them. But no cross-country treks to Wally World. We all saw how that turned out.