It's been a tough summer to be a celebrity. For the past several months, it seems as though they've been dropping like flies. This summer, we've lost Walter Cronkite, Karl Malden, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Billy Mays, Ed McMahon, and Gidget, the Taco Bell chihuahua. Today, though, as I was checking Twitter, I stumbled across a loss that hit me pretty hard. For those of you who haven't heard yet, director John Hughes died today of a heart attack at the age of 59.
I can't imagine my teen years without the films of John Hughes. Within a two year period (1984-1986), Hughes directed four teen classics -- Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Add to that the fact that he also wrote the scripts for Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful, and John Hughes undoubtedly becomes the king of 1980's teendom.
For a girl my age, his films were more than just movies -- they were manna, a guide, a reassurance that we weren't alone. His movies featured seeming outcasts -- nerds, art geeks, or just normal kids who weren't popular or glamorous or part of the cool crowd at school. In other words, they were films about kids just like me. We could see John Hughes's movies and feel that we were not alone, that were we not only part of a larger fabric but that we were interestng people worthy of having our stories told. He gave us modern day fairy tales where the normal girl gets the cool dreamboat to notice her, where kids from different cliques can come together and build a friendship over the course of an afternoon, that geeks could indeed rule the world, and that with a little ingenuity, intelligence, and the help from a computer and keyboard, we could rise above our oppressors and have a really cool day with our friends.
Yes, John Hughes gave us fairy tales, but they were often bittersweet ones that kept reality right there. His happy endings are left open. Can Samantha Baker and Jake Ryan really make it? We'll never know, but I can't be the only person who left the theatre thinking they were probably doomed at some point. Will Andrew, Brian, Bender, Claire, and Allison still be friends come Monday morning? I've always kind of figured they wouldn't, and yet I still left The Breakfast Club uplifted. What does the future hold for Ferris, Cameron, and Sloan? We'll never know, but even Ferris seems to recognize that his upcoming graduation means changes -- and that maybe not all of them are good ones.
There was something about his movies, though, that felt like an arm thrown around our shoulder as a voice said, "You know what, kid? You're okay." Girls like me had our queen in Molly Ringwald whose awkwardness belied great beauty and strength, who was like the best friend/sister we always dreamed of and provided us with a template of the kind of girl we could be -- comfortable in our fragility and worthy of great things. Boys had their king in Ferris Bueller and their jester in Anthony Michael Hall, guys who proved that you didn't have to be handsome and built to be cool and that intelligence could be a source of strength and power. We all yearned to live in the John Hughes world and hang out with Sam and Farmer Ted and Duckie and Ferris -- and so many of us went into our own high schools and found those people amongst us (or became them ourselves).
John Hughes's later career never came close to the height of his 80's heyday. He hadn't directed a movie since 1991's Curly Sue, and many of the recent movies he'd written were released under his pen name Edmond Dantes (I would assume since he realized that his good name could be sullied by being associated with classics such as Beethoven's 5th and Drillbit Taylor). Like many, I always held out hope that Hughes had one more great film in him, maybe a film that would speak to my generation the same way now as his older films did back then. I dreamed of a Molly Ringwald reunion and one more chance to spend time with those friends who made our high school years so much more bearable. Unfortunately, that is not to be. Instead, why don't we all break out our Sixteen Candles videos (or your Hughes film of choice) and spend a little time remembering our old friend the way he should be remembered -- laughing, shedding a tear or two, and wondering in the comic genius that is Long Duk Dong.
UPDATE: The following concluded a lovely appraisal of John Hughes's work in today's New York Times by AO Scott, and I thought I'd share:
"Their deaths [Hughes and Michael Jackson] make me feel old, but more than that, they make me aware of belonging to a generation that has yet to figure out adulthood, for whom life can feel like a long John Hughes movie. You know the one. That Spandau Ballet song is playing at the big dance. You remember the lyrics, even if it’s been years since you heard them last. This is the sound of my soul. I bought a ticket to the world, but now I’ve come back again. Why do I find it hard to write the next line?"