A Great Light has Gone Out
- I listen. Not to Hollywood. I listen to you. I make these movies for you.
- — John Hughes (letter to teenaged fan Alison Byrne Fields)
- I really don't like labeling people, you know, "teenagers." They're people. And I think that the thoughts and feelings and emotions of someone 16 are as valid as my thoughts at 35. Why should an emotion be discounted for age?
- — John Hughes (1985 interview shown in Pretty in Pink DVD bonus "Wrap up: the Epilogue")
John Hughes, who passed away August 6, 2009, was among the more important filmmakers in Hollywood history. His films, including The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Home Alone, did more than make money and launch a number of noteworthy acting careers. His films forced Hollywood to reconsider how films treat youth.
Hughes came along at a time when Hollywood was mostly feeding teenagers two types of movies: slasher films (ex. Friday the 13th) and sex-comedies (ex. Porky's). These films were generally made with low budgets and lower IQ's, built on the assumption that teenagers were too unsophisticated to appreciate character, theme, dialogue, or anything other than boobs and blood. These films were largely unimaginative, the dialogue unmemorable, and the paper-thin characters interchangeable. These films also tended to relish the victimization of youth, either through sexual humiliation or through dismemberment and death.
Hughes broke the mold. Boy, did he break it!
Hughes created movies that presented young people as human beings, deserving the same respect as others. Ageist film-critics often scathed him for it. People magazine, for example, denounced The Breakfast Club, saying, "Hughes doesn't just understand today's teenagers; he enshrines them, suggesting that their problems are more important than nuclear war or anything else in the world." (1) Variety's own review of the film seethed, "When the causes of the Decline of Western Civilization are finally writ, Hollywood will surely have to answer why it turned one of man's most significant art forms over to the self-gratification of high-schoolers." (2)
In Hughes's own words, "You make a teenager movie, and critics say, 'How dare you?' There's just a general lack of respect for young people now." (3)
But John Hughes would not bow down to middle-aged critics or even to middle-aged studio executives. By 1993, Spy magazine would quote one anonymous studio executive as saying, "He's uncontrollable. No one can talk to him. If you tell him you're not pleased with the dailies, he'll just tell you to go fµck yourself." (4)
It wasn't ego that led Hughes to disregard the input of studio suits. Hughes was perfectly willing to accept criticism from the people he cared about: his audience. When young viewers at a Pretty in Pink test screening, for example, reported disappointment with the ending, Hughes famously wrote and filmed a new ending — even though he loved his original ending so deeply that he promptly wrote Some Kind of Wonderful, a film with nearly the same plot, but with the ending Hughes had wanted for Pretty in Pink and with a carefully crafted setup that would now lead viewers to embrace this ending as much as Hughes himself did.
Hollywood failed to make John Hughes conform to their expectations. Instead, Hughes changed Hollywood.
Showing youth a little respect, his films out-grossed the cheap slasher films and sex-comedies. Hollywood had to scrap their theories about young viewers' sophistication when his character-driven The Breakfast Club, featuring no nudity, no violence, and barely even a plot, became a hit by offering young characters who were more than pieces of meat.
Hughes (center) directs Ally Sheedy and Emilio Estevez in The Breakfast Club
Hughes was right. Teenagers did respond, and not just by making his films successful. A month after The Breakfast Club hit, Hollywood rolled out Porky's Revenge, and it tanked. No longer would this generation of teenagers tolerate such schlock, not after Hughes had shown them they could have so much better. Porky's Revenge made barely half of what Porky's II had made two years earlier (before anyone had heard of Hughes). The Porky's franchise ground to a halt, and the entire teen sex-comedy genre virtually disappeared for more than a decade.
Slasher films were in less direct competition with John Hughes, yet they, too, took a hit. Friday the 13th Part V, released the same week as Porky's Revenge, fared almost as poorly, earning only 2/3rds as much as Friday the 13th Part IV (released shortly before Hughes' debut). The slasher genre kept hobbling along — even the Friday the 13th series stubbornly stuck it out — but low-quality slashers never again made the kind profits they had before Hughes raised audience standards. Each successive installment of the Friday the 13th series made even less money than Part V.
Those who run Hollywood may not have liked teenagers, but they did like making money. Gradually, movies and TV shows for youth became more respectful and offered more quality. Hughes's success opened the door for Kevin Williamson and Rob Thomas and other artists who respect youth. It was Williamson, in fact, who revived the slasher genre by writing such films as Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, quality films that owed as much to John Hughes as John Carpenter.
Yet Hughes was not content improving entertainment for teenagers alone. He gave a similar boost to children with Home Alone.
Before Home Alone, children's movies were about heroic adults or about heroic animals. If the protagonist was actually a child, that child could only challenge other children. Hollywood considered it vital that children be portrayed as utterly inferior to even the silliest adults.
Home Alone changed that. For the first time, the hero of a movie was a child who, without magical powers or anything else to distinguish him from children in the audience, managed to fend off adult villains. In the end, of course, the child is rescued from the burglars by an adult; nothing new there. But for the first time, a child was shown using his wits to fend off the adult villains until help arrives, rather than just sitting and screaming helplessly.
If middle-aged critics offered mixed reviews for Hughes' teenager films, they were unanimous in their appraisal of Home Alone: they hated it. Michael Medved denounced it as anti-family for offering children a fantasy in which a child does not cling fearfully to his parents. Siskel and Ebert urged viewers to avoid Home Alone because the film was "unrealistic." (A few years earlier, Siskel and Ebert had both strongly recommended Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which the entire Third Reich is foiled by a poorly armed archeologist; but a child holding his own against two bungling burglars, they insisted, was too implausible to tolerate.)
Ageist critics notwithstanding, Home Alone rocked the box office and became the highest grossing comedy of all time. As it turned out, children enjoyed fantasies about children solving their own problems more than they enjoyed fantasies about sitting helplessly and depending on adults. And since Hollywood enjoys making money, producers finally started offering children the same sort of empowering fantasies they had been offering adults all along.
After elevating films for two generations, Hughes gave up his successful career to become a full-time father. Some reports indicate he had become increasingly frustrated with the Hollywood establishment.
Though he retired early, John Hughes left behind an amazing legacy.
We'll miss you, John.
- Let the youth of America mourn,
Include him in their prayers.
Let his image linger on.
Repeat it everywhere.
- — Natalie Merchant ("River")