John Hughes: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
“Voice of a generation” is a term that gets thrown around too often, but when it comes to 80s teens, you can make a good argument for hyperadolescent John Hughes. Movies like Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and The Breakfast Club defined a decade’s young people -- or at least its white, middle-class young people. Heck, Hughes even pretty much provided the decade’s soundtrack. But the writer/director, like most of us, was a complicated dude. Let’s break down the comedy career of John Hughes, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
John Hughes: The Good
He gave a voice to the unpopular kids.
Hughes himself was an outsider, claims Howard Deutch, director of Hughes flicks like Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful. “He wrote from that. He never felt like an insider or like he was in the popular club. That wasn’t who he felt he was.”
And his characters reflected that, from Breakfast Club’s Allison to Pretty in Pink’s Ducky to Ferris Bueller’s Cameron. These weren’t the happy-go-lucky teens of a previous generation’s beach blanket flicks -- they weren’t popular or traditionally good-looking, and they often weren’t happy. Outsider Hughes created his own onscreen stand-ins, including Anthony Michael Hall’s Brian from Breakfast Club.
Brian was Hughes as an adolescent, writerly, insightful, and (in his mind anyway) ostracized from the rich and popular crowd. To cement the notion that Brian descended from Hughes, the director played Brian’s father in a brief cameo at the end of the movie. Brian’s pain was his own.
“John wanted people to take teens seriously,” says Molly Ringwald. “The films are still taught in schools because good teachers want their students to know that what they feel and say is important; that if they talk, adults and peers will listen.”
He wrote female protagonists when virtually no one else did.
In a (mostly critical) essay for The New Yorker, Ringwald cites a study claiming that in popular movies, boy characters outnumbered girl characters by a 3-1 margin. Girl lead characters? Virtually none.
Films like Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles, then, were anomalies, movies that “examined these young women’s feelings about the fairly ordinary things that were happening to them, while also managing to have instant cred that translated into success at the box office.”
Those female characters resonated with young women in the 1980s, argues Susanna Gora, author of You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation. “They helped us figure out what to look for in our love lives, our friendships, our careers.”
Not all of those characters have aged well (and we’re getting to that). But Hughes not only wrote credible female characters--he put them center stage.
John Hughes: The Bad
He had a … weird relationship with Molly Ringwald.
Let’s be clear -- no one has ever accused Hughes of anything inappropriate in regards to his relationship with Ringwald. But still.
Let’s start with the fact that he wrote Sixteen Candles while staring at a publicity picture of Ringwald before he’d ever been introduced to her. “He wanted,” says Molly, “to meet the girl who was in the picture.” Mission accomplished.
Hughes saw the character of Samantha Baker as “really a portrait of myself.” Maybe that’s why Gora describes the filming relationship between Hughes and Ringwald as “strikingly intense.” The two shared a birthday, and multiple people commented on how the two would finish each other’s sentences. “John and I really had a special connection,” says Ringwald.
“He adored her and she adored him,” says the film’s producer, Michelle Manning. “A part of it was older brother/younger sister, sometimes father/daughter.” All this while Ringwald admitted to having “a mad crush” on Hughes.
Let’s call it mostly innocent? But like two adults in an actual relationship, Hughes was crushed when the two “broke up.” Understandably, Ringwald eventually reached an age where she wanted to stretch her acting wings with new collaborators--and Hughes didn’t take it well.
“John felt really, um, hurt by things and by people,” says Ringwald. "He always seemed to be incredibly, incredibly sensitive. Overly sensitive. There were a couple of times where he got upset with me because he just completely, like, misunderstood.”
And with Anthony Michael Hall, for that matter.
Like Ringwald, Hall claims that it’s “fair to say that I was a muse of sorts for him.” The feeling was mutual--the young actor once told a reporter about Hughes, “he was my best friend.”
But like Ringwald, Hughes acted like a scorned lover when Hall was ready to move on from high school pictures. Hall wasn’t interested in the playing the lead in Ferris Bueller, but according to Hall’s mother, “John Hughes didn’t want to hear it.”
As for Hall’s desire to move on to more adult roles? “(Hughes) could not give him his blessings,” she says. “Michael tried reaching out to him, calling him, and Hughes never once responded to Michael. Hughes discarded him.”
John Hughes: The Ugly
His movies could be “racist, misogynistic, and homophobic,” says Ringwald
Racist? We’ll offer up Long Duk Dong as Exhibit A. What can you say about an Asian character whose every entrance is announced with a gong?
Misogynistic? How about Sixteen Candles dreamboat Jake Ryan trading his drunken girlfriend to the Geek in exchange for Samantha Baker’s underwear? Gary and Wyatt in Weird Science? If they can’t get a sexy girl, they’ll just create one on a computer. And then there’s The Breakfast Club’s John Bender crawling between Claire’s legs and peeking at her underwear. We don’t see it onscreen, but it’s implied that there’s some unwanted touching there as well.
As for homophobic? Ringwald laments Hughes's films in which f-slurs are tossed around with abandon.
His writing for National Lampoon was even worse.
Movie executives would never have let Hughes get away with the offensive comedy he served up in National Lampoon. To be fair, the counterculture magazine built its reputation on shock humor--the more outrageous the better. One gets the sense that writers were trying to one-up one another with each subsequent issue. How far could they push the envelope before it went off the edge of a cliff?
Several of Hughes’s short stories for the Lampoon became movies themselves, including Vacation and Christmas Vacation. But as Ringwald discovered after some cursory skims through back issues, other tales were uglier:
“Against His Will features an ‘ugly fat’ woman who tries to rape a man at gunpoint in front of the man’s wife and parents because she can’t have sex any other way. My Penis and My Vagina are quasi-magical-realist stories written from the points of view of teenagers who wake up in the morning with different genitalia than they were assigned at birth; the protagonist of My Penis literally forces her boyfriend’s mouth open to penetrate him, and the male in My Vagina is gang-raped by his friends once they discover he has one. (The latter story ends with him having to use the money he saved for new skis on getting an abortion.)”
There are a lot more, including one article with tips on making sure your prospective spouse doesn’t have any Asian or Black ancestry, and another with advice on how to sexually harass someone. Tongue-in-cheek? Satirical? The best we can do is to say very charitably “maybe,” but much of Hughes’ early humor looks pretty ugly today.
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Top image: American Film Institute