Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009

John Hughes

Teen comedies are a not movie genre that ordinarily allows for much eloquence or emotional truth. But back in the 1980s a few of them — Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink — perfectly captured the adolescent Zeitgeist. They were the work of John Hughes, the intimate chronicler and confidante of that young generation. His death on Aug. 6, at 59, of a heart attack in Manhattan, came as a shock to those whose growing pains he had so acutely monitored. And to anyone else who appreciates the craft of movie writing.

An ordinary Midwestern kid who never forgot his roots, and who stayed married to the cheerleader he wed when he was 20, Hughes wrote humor pieces for National Lampoon before transferring his fascination with family life to the big screen. His Vacation comedies starred Chevy Chase as a doofus dad leading his brood on some disastrous trip. He launched two other hit franchises: the Home Alone series about an abandoned kid, and the Beethoven quintet of St. Bernard family farces. Some Hughes movies were clever, some not so. But all showed an intense empathy with the people he wrote about. Especially in his teen films, he seemed so close to his sweet, mixed-up kids that he might have been inside them. They saw his movies and asked, "How did he know that?"

Ben Stein, the writer and commentator who played the frustrated teacher in Hughes's Ferris Bueller's Day Off ("Anyone? Anyone?"), called him "the Wordsworth of the suburban America post-war generation." Others might see Hughes as a sunnier Salinger, a hipper Norman Rockwell. But today's thirtysomethings, who grew up on his movies, don't need a label to remember Hughes. Their tribute is the hole in the yearning hearts he spoke to, and filled with acute humor, when they were teens.

—Richard Corliss