I began writing this article within minutes of hearing the news that John Hughes passed away unexpectedly this afternoon, and I'm still reeling a bit, more than I had anticipated. Like most movie fans of my generation, I first heard of him in the summer of 1983, when two movies he'd written, Mr. Mom and National Lampoon's Vacation, were released within a week of each other. I saw both, smiling at Mr. Mom and laughing hard throughout Vacation. The following year, Sixteen Candles, his directorial debut, hit theaters, and he was off to the races.
Hughes was a prolific writer and a busy producer throughout the 80s and 90s, leaving his personal stamp on dozens of projects, not to mention the eight films that he personally directed. He mined his suburban Midwestern teenage territory thoroughly, leaving no awkward, class-conscious, embarrassing, financially slighted, pretty in pink, uncomfortable stone unturned. He left behind so many memorable movie moments that it would be a foolhardy project for me to try and list them all, but here are seven of his greatest, listed chronologically.
1. National Lampoon's Vacation
Hughes expanded his own short story into an epic road trip, as the Griswold family heads west from Chicago on a "quest for fun" to Walley World. Along the way, they endure annoying relatives, smelly Aunt Edna, and a dog that becomes a drag. Oh, and Dad tries skinny dipping with a supermodel. The clip that seems most emblematic of their travails comes late in the picture, as Mom and the kids start complaining again, until Dad finally loses it. Hughes was an expert at using the "f-word" (and other profanity) to great comedic effect. [Watch clip after the jump.]
2. Sixteen Candles
Molly Ringwald's plaintive, disbelieving words -- "They f***in' forgot my birthday" -- captured in a single sentence the exact mood I often felt as a middle child in my suburban family. That comes early in the movie, helping to establish Samantha, her character. Later, it's a long, quiet scene between her and the be-smitten Anthony Michael Hall (as "The Geek") that really demonstrates Hughes' talent as a writer (watch clip at YouTube). Embarrassing emotions are exchanged, an awkward pass is shot down in mid-flight, and a semi-comfortable, friendly detente is eventually achieved, ending with a request by the Geek that I could never in a thousand years imagine saying to a teenage classmate I had a crush on.
3. The Breakfast Club
The "montage set to popular music" has become such a cliche that it's hard to remember when it felt fresh and new. Yet this is where Hughes' "seven stereotypes in search of a character" script reveals its keen insight into the teenage soul: it feels good to get up and dance, and not to care what other people are thinking. As a director, Hughes was not particularly noted for his personal style; in part, that's because he kept showy camera movements to a minimum and maintained a relentless focus on simple setups. In the clip above, the music sounds very much a product of its mid-80s era, even though no one would mistake the visuals as something from one of the overly busy or garish music videos of the day.
4. Weird Science
These two short scenes show a perfect melding of Hughes' complementary skills as a writer and director. Hughes as director: Kelly LeBrock's entrance as Lisa, dressed only in a pair of boy's underwear and a midriff-baring shirt, back-lit in pink, and accompanied by puffing of fog, is straight out of a teenage boy's wet dream. Hughes as writer: the boys want to shower with her, but are too bashful to touch her, or talk to her, or even remove any of their clothing below the waist. They think they know what they want, and they thought they knew how to get it, but, really, they have no idea. Just like all adolescents.
5. Ferris Bueller's Day Off
At the risk of having two musical montages in a single article that is meant to celebrate Hughes' multifaceted talents, this scene of Matthew Broderick as Ferris getting the entire city of Chicago to sing along with him fills my heart with unreasoning joy every time I watch it. While The Breakfast Club celebrated individuality, Ferris Bueller's Day Off celebrates community, and this scene (which Erik Davis loves too) is the perfect example of that.
6. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
My two favorite scenes from the movie are the "rental car scene," which is a hilarious variation on Clark Griswold's explosion in a station wagon (see National Lampoon's Vacation), and this brief one. Unlikely traveling companions Steve Martin and John Candy have been forced to share a motel room together, a room with only one bed, and the scene begins as they wake up in the morning. If you've ever shared a bed with someone that you really didn't want to even touch, this scene strikes all the right (painfully wrong?) chords. A very simple pan sets it up, along with cheery music, and just the right amount of dialogue is exchanged.
7. Uncle Buck
What a wonderful synthesis of John Candy's deadpan brilliance and Macauley Culkin's budding stardom! Candy reached a career high as the adorable and endearing Uncle Buck, pressed into service only as a reluctant last resort after a family emergency. As brilliantly executed by Candy and Culkin, asking and answering questions with rat-a-tat lightning speed that recalls both Dragnet and His Girl Friday, the scene is very funny out of context, but it's even funnier within the context of the movie, since there's nothing to set it up or follow it up. It's a non sequitur of a scene that comes out of nowhere yet remains lodged in memory.
Just like John Hughes himself.
Please share your favorite John Hughes movie moments in the comments section below.