Most of my formative weekends were spent in a darkened movie theater.
And, one of the most influential filmmakers during those years was the late John Hughes.
John Wilden Hughes, Jr. (February 18, 1950 – August 6, 2009) was an American film director, producer, and screenwriter. He directed or scripted some of the most successful films of the 1980s and 1990s, including National Lampoon’s Vacation, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Weird Science, The Breakfast Club, Some Kind of Wonderful, Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Uncle Buck, Home Alone, and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.
He is known as the king of teen movies as well as helping launch the careers of actors including Michael Keaton, Bill Paxton, Matthew Broderick, Macaulay Culkin, John Candy, Molly Ringwald, and the up-and-coming actors collectively nicknamed the Brat Pack.
Hughes was born in Lansing, Michigan, to a mother who volunteered in charity work and John Hughes, Sr., who worked in sales. He spent the first twelve years of his life in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Hughes described himself as “kind of quiet” as a kid.
“I grew up in a neighborhood that was mostly girls and old people. There weren’t any boys my age, so I spent a lot of time by myself, imagining things. And every time we would get established somewhere, we would move. Life just started to get good in seventh grade, and then we moved to Chicago. I ended up in a really big high school, and I didn’t know anybody. But then The Beatles came along (and) changed my whole life. And then Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home came out and really changed me. Thursday I was one person, and Friday I was another. My heroes were Dylan, John Lennon and Picasso, because they each moved their particular medium forward, and when they got to the point where they were comfortable, they always moved on.”
In 1963, Hughes’s family moved to Northbrook, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, where Hughes’s father found work selling roofing materials. It was there that Hughes attended Glenbrook North High School, the school that would provide inspiration for the films that would make his reputation in later years.
After dropping out of the Arizona State University, Hughes began selling jokes to well-established performers such as Rodney Dangerfield and Joan Rivers. Hughes used his jokes to get an entry-level job at Needham, Harper & Steers as an advertising copywriter in Chicago in 1970 and later in 1974 at Leo Burnett Worldwide. During this time, he created what became the famous Edge “Credit Card Shaving Test” ad campaign.
Hughes’s work on the Virginia Slims account frequently took him to the Philip Morris headquarters in New York City. This gave him the opportunity to hang around the offices of the National Lampoon magazine. Hughes subsequently penned a story, inspired by his family trips as a child, that was to become his calling card and entry onto the staff of the magazine. That piece, “Vacation ’58”, later became the basis for the film National Lampoon’s Vacation. Among his other contributions to the Lampoon, the April Fools’ Day stories “My Penis” and “My Vagina” gave an early indication of Hughes’s ear for the particular rhythm of teen speak, as well as the various indignities of teen life in general.
His first credited screenplay, Class Reunion, was written while still on staff at the magazine. The resulting film became the second disastrous attempt by the flagship to duplicate the runaway success of Animal House. It was Hughes’s next screenplay for the imprint, National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), that would prove to be a major hit, putting the Lampoon back on the map.
Hughes’s directorial debut, Sixteen Candles, won almost unanimous praise when it was released in 1984, due in no small part to its more honest depiction of upper middle class high school life, in stark contrast to the Porky’s-inspired comedies made at the time. It was the first in a string of efforts set in or around high school, including The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (see also Brat Pack) and Some Kind Of Wonderful.
To avoid being pigeonholed as a maker of teen comedies, Hughes branched out in 1987, directing the smash hit Planes, Trains and Automobiles starring Steve Martin and John Candy. His later output would not be so critically well received, though films like Uncle Buck proved popular. Hughes’s greatest commercial success came with Home Alone, a film he wrote and produced about a child accidentally left behind when his family goes away for Christmas, forcing him to protect himself and his house from a pair of inept burglars. Home Alone was the top grossing film of 1990, and remains the most successful live-action comedy of all time. His last film as a director was 1991’s Curly Sue.
He also wrote screenplays under the pseudonym Edmond Dantes, after the protagonist of Alexandre Dumas’s novel The Count of Monte Cristo. Screenplays submitted under this pseudonym include Maid in Manhattan and Drillbit Taylor.
In 1994, Hughes retired from the public eye and moved back to the Chicago area. Hughes was considerably shaken by John Candy’s sudden death of a heart attack that same year. “He talked a lot about how much he loved Candy—if Candy had lived longer, I think John would have made more films as a director,” says Vince Vaughn, a friend of Hughes. In the years following, Hughes rarely granted interviews to the media save a select few in 1999 to promote the soundtrack album to Reach the Rock, an independent film he wrote. The album was compiled by Hughes’s son, John Hughes III, and released on his son’s Chicago-based record label, Hefty Records. He also recorded an audio commentary for the 1999 DVD release of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.