A man of heart

It's hard to overstate the impact that the director John Hughes had on a generation of teenagers in the 1980s.

Hughes, shown here in 1984, wrote and directed films including Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Weird Science.
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It's hard to overstate the impact that the director John Hughes had on a generation of teenagers in the 1980s. The fact that The Breakfast Club director's death last week at the age of 59 overshadowed that of the On the Waterfront writer Budd Schulberg is evidence of the hold that Hughes, once the doyen of the high school movie, still has on people's minds.

Growing up, I waited impatiently for the latest Hughes movie in the same way that the previous generation anticipated a Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese film. When people think of the material that sums up the essence of the Eighties, Hughes and his films will always be among the first things that come to mind. Hughes was the Judd Apatow of his day. Famous as a director, he also worked as a screenwriter and a producer. In 1984, at the age of 34, Hughes entered the public consciousness when he directed Sixteen Candles. He had already penned successful films, including two National Lampoon movies and Mr Mom. But Sixteen Candles, a coming-of-age tale starring Molly Ringwald, was different because of Hughes's sensitive depiction of a teenager struggling to come to terms with her place in the world.

In his review of Sixteen Candles, the legendary American film critic Roger Ebert got to the heart of why the film was different from anything that had come before and why it would change the way teenagers were depicted in movies from that moment forward: "This is a fresh and cheerful movie with a goofy sense of humour and a good ear for how teenagers talk. It doesn't hate its characters or condescend to them the way a lot of teenage movies do: instead, it goes for human comedy and finds it in the everyday lives of the kids in the story."

In a golden period between 1985 and 1987, Hughes wrote and produced The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off (both of which he also directed), Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful (both directed by Howard Deutch). He also wrote and directed Weird Science, in which two boys attempt to create the perfect woman. In many ways, it became the prototype for the gross-out movie. Everything you need to know about a John Hughes film - and indeed virtually any high school film made since - can be gathered from The Breakfast Club. In the setting of a Saturday morning detention, Hughes presented a classic breakdown of the genre's archetypes. In the words of the students themselves, there was a brain (Anthony Michael Hall, who was also in Sixteen Candles), a jock (Emilio Estevez), a basket case (Ally Sheedy), a princess (Ringwald, the star of Sixteen Candles) and a criminal (Judd Nelson). Over the course of detention, the students realise that they have more in common than they first thought, despite the interests, class and social status that divide them.

But it wasn't just kids that made Hughes's movie so effective. The adult characters were more than caricatures of authority and ineptitude. Paul Gleason's disciplinarian teacher and his counterbalance, the cool janitor played by John Kapelos (who also starred in Sixteen Candles and Weird Science), really did try to counsel and educate the youngsters. In Hughes's world, children struggled to understand their parents and parents made gross errors of judgement trying to protect their children. Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful were both lessons in how difficult the notion of love is for teenagers.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off, however, made the greatest cultural impact of any film Hughes wrote. Matthew Broderick's performance as Bueller made the character a favourite for a generation. The story of three school-skipping characters spending a day in Chicago made the locations they visited - the Sears Tower, the Art Institute of Chicago and Wrigley Field - famous with movie fans far and wide. On a recent trip to Chicago, I was disturbed to arrive on the same day that the Sears Tower was renamed the Willis Tower. During the same trip, I also journeyed to Lansing, Michigan's capital and the place where Hughes was born on February 18, 1950. It provided an interesting insight into his influences.

In this sleepy university town, Hughes would have constantly been exposed to the whims of young people. The suburban nature of the place and its proximity to Chicago would cultivate kids who dreamt that the grass was greener on the other side and that big things happened in big cities. Hughes set a template for high school movies and his influence continues to be seen, from Wes Anderson's tale of unrequited love, Rushmore (1998), to Kirsten Dunst's princess with a heart in Bring It On (2000) to the jocks of Friday Night Lights (2004) and beyond. American Pie was a modern day Weird Science. Even Heathers in 1989, which many people saw as the antithesis of a Hughes film due to its cynical characters and dark plot, shows the hallmarks of his influence. It's no surprise that when Entertainment Weekly made a list of the most influential high school movies, The Breakfast Club came out on top.

Despite being famous for his films about young people, Hughes made movies about adults, too. His 1987 hit Planes Trains and Automobiles starred Steve Martin and John Candy. Candy became a Hughes favourite, making an uncredited appearance in She's Having a Baby, and starring in The Great Outdoors, Uncle Buck and Home Alone. By the time Curly Sue was released in 1991, audiences had got bored of Hughes's heartfelt love stories. Darker films such as Thirteen and Mean Girls would become the touchstones for a new generation of filmgoers.

When Candy died in 1994, Hughes reportedly felt it was because of Hollywood's desire to exploit actors while they are hot and discard them as soon as they stop making money. Hughes, who had seen it happen with a number of his stars, seemed to feel that Candy was driven into an early grave by the demands of work. Hughes largely turned his back on the industry, instead spending time running a farm in Illinois. But the phenomenal success of the Home Alone films and the Beethoven franchise, both of which Hughes wrote screenplays for, meant that he continued to receive movie credits. When stories he'd come up with in his heyday, such as Drillbit Taylor and Maid in Manhattan, eventually were made into films, he asked to be credited under the pseudonym Edmond Dantes.

His death from a heart attack in Manhattan has touched a nerve with a whole generation. A blog from Alison Byrne, in which she explains that Hughes was as sensitive in real life as his characters were on screen, became one of the most read items on the internet over the weekend (wellknowwhenwegetthere.blogspot.com). It's a sentiment that the numerous actors Hughes worked with over the years echoed. Macaulay Culkin, whose appearance in Home Alone turned him into a star, said: "I was a fan of both his work and a fan of him as a person. The world has lost not only a quintessential filmmaker whose influence will be felt for generations, but a great and decent man."