John Hughes was that very American paradox: the subversive sentimentalist. In the mid 1980s, while most of Hollywood was fetishising big guns, fighter planes and Wall Street, Hughes made films about the geeks, the underdogs, the lost. While the box office quailed beneath the muscular might of Schwarzeneggar, Bruce Willis and Stallone, Hughes cast the odd, endearing Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall (he also, let’s remember, made Joe Pesci, of all things, a comedy star). His films were not subtle: in Pretty In Pink we realise that Molly Ringwald is from the wrong side of the tracks when we see her … crossing the railway. But they were special, because there’s an emotional honesty that underpins them, and sharpens the sugar on top. The loneliness of John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the alienation of Sheedy in The Breakfast Club, the awkwardness of Ringwald in Sixteen Candles, all told a truth more heartfelt than the bombastic fantasies of Simpson and Bruckheimer. In the era of so-called “trickledown economics” (it didn’t), Hughes shone his gentle light into the shadows, and showed Americans that it was normal to feel left out, and left behind.
All of which does not exactly make John Hughes America’s Ken Loach. His films have happy endings, soppy soundtracks and soft focus. Ugly is relative in Hollywood. But his best work has a restive, questioning humanity that connected deeply with his audience. In Hughes’s world, authority figures are pompous and foolish, money can’t buy happiness (although it does make for a great day out) and love is scary and complicated, and doesn’t always work out. The music may have dated, but it’s fair to say the spirit won’t.
Hughes retired from directing after 1991’s Curly Sue (actually, anyone should have been banned from directing after 1991’s Curly Sue), occasionally writing under the name Edmond Dantes, after the title character in The Count of Monte Cristo. After writing some of the most financially successful movies of all time, had he simply burnt out? Did he feel that he had nothing more to say? Or was Hollywood less open to his picture of the world? Half of me likes to believe that he was working on a shocking and disturbing horror epic about America’s dark side; the other half is just sorry that we never saw his long-planned comic sequel Jaws 3: People 0.
And let’s not get too serious about Hughes. His death comes shockingly early for a man who achieved so much so young, but we should remember, above all, how much he made us laugh. All together now … “Those aren’t pillows!”
UPDATE The mystery of Hughes’s departure from Hollywood partially solved, in an extraordinary pen-friend relationship here.