A prolific writer, director and producer in the 1980s and early 1990s, John Hughes was the guiding force behind some of the most popular teen-oriented comedies of the period, including "National Lampoon's Vacation" (1983), "Sixteen Candles" (1984), "The Breakfast Club" (1985) and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986). Though his stock in trade was broad, he had a particular gift for the speech and emotions of middle-class suburban youth, who were portrayed in his films with a complexity and respect rarely afforded to them in major Hollywood features. Hughes' popularity appeared to fall off after the blockbuster holiday hit "Home Alone" (1990), though he remained active as a screenwriter, often under his pen name of Edmond Dantes. His films were frequently cited as a major influence on writers and directors who toiled in the teen movie field.
Born John Hughes, Jr. in Lansing, MI on January 18, 1950, Hughes was raised in the suburbs of Detroit but moved to Chicago, IL in his early teens. He spent his high school years in Northbrook which would figure as both the setting and location for many of his films. After dropping out of the University of Arizona in his junior year, Hughes returned to Chicago and began penning gags for established comics like Rodney Dangerfield and Joan Rivers. He later took a job as an advertising copywriter for DDB Needham Worldwide and later the Leo Needham Company, where he contributed to several memorable campaigns for Edge shaving cream and Johnson Floor Wax. After hours, he wrote numerous short stories and magazine articles, one of which - a childhood remembrance called "Vacation '58" - gained him entry into the humor magazine National Lampoon.
In 1984, Hughes made his directorial debut with "Sixteen Candles," an enormously popular teen comedy-romance about a bright high school sophomore (Molly Ringwald) whose unrequited affections for a senior (Michael Schoeffling) are complicated by her sister's wedding and the attention of a hyperactive freshman known as "The Geek" (Anthony Michael Hall). The film demonstrated Hughes' keen understanding of teenage language and social codes, as well as the fast pace and highly animated style (which relied on classic comedy tropes like breaking the fourth wall and heavy use of musical cues for comic effect) which made it an enduring favorite for younger viewers. "Candles" also made a star of the red-headed Ringwald, who would collaborate with Hughes on three of his most successful films.
Hughes took a more serious tack with his next directorial effort, "The Breakfast Club" (1985), which brought together five disparate high schoolers in an afternoon of detention that found them breaking down preconceived notions about their social standings. At once exceptionally insightful and gratingly heavy-handed, the film was taken as gospel by teen audiences, who sent it up the box office charts and made its stars - Ringwald, Hall, Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez and Judd Nelson - major figures in Hollywood and the nucleus of a loose-knit group dubbed "The Brat Pack" by journalists. Its success also helped Hughes strike a multi-picture deal with Paramount, which would distribute pictures he wrote and produced under his own banner, Hughes Entertainment.
That same year, "Weird Science" - a broad and occasionally crass comedy about two nerds (Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith) who accidentally create a fantasy woman (Kelly Le Brock) with their computer - was favored mainly by Hughes' male fans, to the point that it spawned a modestly popular TV series. The following year found Hughes delivering two of his most popular and affecting features. "Pretty in Pink" (1986) was a drama with Ringwald as a poor girl who falls for a wealthy classmate (Andrew McCarthy) while remaining blind to the affections of her eccentric friend (Jon Cryer), while "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986) starred Matthew Broderick as a savvy high school senior who indulges in an epic day out while avoiding his manic principal (Jeffrey Jones). "Bueller" worked best when it focused on Broderick's schemes and his influence on the high school community as a whole (less interesting or believable was the subplot involving his pal Cameron's struggle to be recognized by his father), while "Pink" took a largely serious look at the effect that class and social standing could have on a high school romance. Though Hughes changed the film's original ending - which had Ringwald end up with Cryer instead of McCarthy - it remained one of his most enduring teenage fairytales. Reportedly, Hughes penned "Some Kind of Wonderful" (1987), which bore strong similarities to "Pink" in its story of unrequited romance and socially star-crossed lovers, as a response to the pressure exerted by Paramount to change the ending of "Pink." "Wonderful" also marked the end of Hughes' collaboration with Ringwald after she turned down the "rich girl" role that was eventually played by Lea Thompson in "Wonderful."
Hughes shifted his attention to adults with his 1987 comedy "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," which starred Steve Martin and John Candy as mismatched travelers forced to work together to return home for the holidays. A broad comedy with an unfortunate streak of treacle that would mark most of Hughes' subsequent films, it was nevertheless an exceptionally popular film, and later a staple of television broadcasts during the November and December holidays. His next project, "She's Having a Baby" (1987), was an unfortunate misfire, despite the presence of likable stars Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern as newlyweds who discover that they are in a family way. The film featured numerous celebrity cameos in its conclusion, each of whom weighed in to give a name to the couple's newborn child.
Hughes wrapped his 1980s heyday with two underwhelming comedies starring comic John Candy: "The Great Outdoors" (1988), penned by Hughes but directed by Howard Deutsch, was an old-fashioned personality clash comedy with Candy and Dan Aykroyd as battling vacationers at a resort in Wisconsin, while "Uncle Buck" (1989) starred Candy as an irresponsible uncle charged with caring for his brother's children. The film topped the box office charts during the month of its release and resulted in a short-lived and poorly received sitcom on CBS in 1990. Most importantly, it introduced Hughes to child actor Macauly Culkin, who would star in one of Hughes' biggest and final hits.
Hughes was impressed by Culkin's comic timing in "Uncle Buck," so began penning a broad Christmas fable about a boy who is accidentally left behind when his parents and siblings head to France for vacation, while he must contend with a pair of bumbling thieves in their absence. "Home Alone" (1990), directed by Chris Columbus and produced by Hughes, became the highest-grossing film of the year and another holiday perennial. It also generated some of the strongest negative publicity of Hughes' career, thanks to its loud and somewhat violent slapstick comedy. Regardless, it generated three sequels (two theatrical features and a 2002 TV movie), all with contributions by Hughes. After striking movie gold with teenagers and adults, he then focused his attention on pre-teens, which would yield mixed results.
Hughes would end his directorial career with his next project, the 1991 comedy "Curly Sue." An overly sentimental family comedy with Jim Belushi as a con man who uses his daughter (Alisan Porter) as the bait in his scams, it aimed for the blend of comedy and heart popularized by 1940s-era comedies, but ended up as indigestible sap. Whether the critical and audience response to the film had an impact on Hughes' decision to stop direction was never determined, but he served solely as writer and/or producer on all of his subsequent efforts.
Unfortunately, few of those projects yielded the same positive results as his iconic 1980s films. His scripts for "Career Opportunities" (1991) and "Dutch" (1991) were met with limited success, and critics noted that the sharp comic dialogue and inspired situations of his early teen films were sorely missing from the broad and often crude laughs generated by "Beethoven" (1992), "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York" (1992), "Dennis the Menace" (1993), and "Baby's Day Out" (1994). A 1994 remake of "Miracle on 34th Street" (1994) was met with some of the most derisive reviews of his career. In 1996, Hughes turned his attention to Disney, where he penned and produced two remakes of popular titles from the studio's library - "101 Dalmatians" (1996) and "Flubber" (1997), which put a high-tech spin on The Absent-Minded Professor" (1961). The results were financially positive for Hughes - save for "Baby's Day Out" - each of his 1990s-era films were wildly popular with audiences, but the spark that had marked his first films had faded.
Hughes' last major film project was "Home Alone 3" (1997), an unremarkable entry in the franchise that featured neither Culkin nor original director Chris Columbus. It suffered a quick demise at the box office, and Hughes essentially faded from sight, both publicly and professionally. He continued to yield returns from the "Home Alone" and "Beethoven" series, but his original projects earned limited releases at best. "Just Visiting" (2001) was a glum remake of the French comedy "Les Visiteurs" (1993), and the dramas "Reach the Rock" (1998) and "New Port South" (2001) tried and failed to mine the "kids vs. adults" vein he had worked so successfully in the mid-eighties. He occasionally took the name Edmond Dantes - the true identity of the main character in "The Man in the Iron Mask, which inspired the eyeroll-inducing sense that Hughes considered himself a prisoner of his own success - for his writing, including the Jennifer Lopez comedy "Maid in Manhattan" (2001), and the story basis for "Drillbit Taylor" (2008).
Meanwhile, new audiences continued to discover and fall in love with Hughes' 'eighties teen pictures. There was occasional talk of a sequel to "Sixteen Candles" and "The Breakfast Club," but none came to light. If Hughes was interested in any of these projects, there was no way to tell; he began refusing interviews in the late 1990s and thereafter maintained a reclusive existence in Chicago. His reputation as one of the best interpreters of teenage life remained unsullied, and was frequently hailed as an inspiration for the films of Kevin Smith (who favored "Some Kind of Wonderful" and frequently employed Hughes' composer of choice, Ira Newborn) and Judd Apatow, who produced "Drillbit Taylor."
(Source: Studio System)