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Irish Film Institute Honors Director John Hughes in its “Teenage Kicks” Series
Three years ago this week, on August 6, 2009, one of the most prolific, influential and commercially successful American directors of his generation passed away at the age of 59. Although not generally considered a cinematic innovator, despite his enormous output and unique style in terms of story-telling and characterization, John Hughes' legend looms large.
In the early 1980s, the name John Hughes and “teen comedy” were virtually inseparable. Between 1983-87, the young screenwriter and director scripted a string of six highly successful films, including classics such as “Sixteen Candles”, “Ferris Bueller's Day Off” and “Some Kind of Wonderful”, and in the process single-handedly redefined the genre.
Today, more than a quarter century later, the time might be nigh for a re-appraisal and re-appreciation of his work. And this month, the Irish Film Institute in Dublin is featuring two of his best loved and most successful films, “The Breakfast Club” and “Pretty in Pink” as part of its August series “Teenage Kicks: American Teens on Film” which will give Hughes fans a rare chance to see his work again on the big screen, and introduce it to a new generation.
Although he certainly didn't invent the genre, Hughes definitely refined and raised the bar for the teen movie as a whole, with his finely crafted stories and characterizations, which elevated the material from the trite fare that had preceded it in typical American teen flicks of the 1950s through the 1970s. Hughes was no hack, simply out to make a quick buck by exploiting some hackneyed plot line that had been done countless times before. On the contrary, his work is imbued with a profound sense of empathy for his characters and the dilemmas they confront. This was teen angst seen through the lens of an artist and a true craftsman who successfully took the genre to a whole new creative level.
Although he was already in his 30s when he wrote his teen comedies, Hughes never lost touch with the emotional intensity of teen life; the joy and anguish, and the risk of sudden crisis or calamity that could befall a character in the wink of an eye. And therein lies the key to the enduring popularity of his work. Hughes crafted characters with whom the audience could readily identify and root for, regardless of whether one saw traces of that character in oneself or not. Even if the character on screen wasn't a surrogate for us, we nonetheless cheered for them and shared their pain, trials and tribulations on the road to what we hoped would be ultimate triumph on their hero's journey.
Born on February 18, 1950, in Lansing, Michigan, U.S.A., Hughes spent the first twelve years of his life in nearby Grosse Point, before moving with his family to Northbrook, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, where he attended Glenbrook North High School. After dropping out of Arizona State University, Hughes worked as an advertising copywriter, which included frequent travel to New York, where he cultivated contacts with National Lampoon, one of the most popular American humor magazines at that time. Eventually, he published several stories in the magazine, which was also interested in branching out into films, and in 1978 it scored a huge popular success with “Animal House”, starring a young John Belushi.
While working as a staff writer at Lampoon, Hughes wrote the screenplay for “Class Reunion” (1982). Although it was not a critical or commercial success, his next script, National Lampoon's "Vacation” (1983) starring Chevy Chase provided the career breakthrough he needed.
On the strength of his previous successes as a screenwriter, Hughes made his directorial debut in 1984 with “Sixteen Candles” starring Molly Ringwald, which was well received and the first in his teen comedy cycle of films.
Not wanting to be relegated as merely a director of teen comedies, Hughes abandoned the genre after “Some Kind of Wonderful” in 1987. In 1990, he made the most successful work of his career, the highly acclaimed and highly profitable “Home Alone” which made Macaulay Culkin a star. It was the top grossing film of the year and remains to this day the most successful live action comedy of all time.
In one of his rare interviews Hughes once said: “My heroes were Dylan, John Lennon and Picasso, because they each moved their particular medium forward, and when they got to the point where they were comfortable, they always moved on."
Other highly successful films included “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” which paired Steve Martin and John Candy, the latter of whom also played the title role in “Uncle Buck”. Following Candy's untimely death in 1994, Hughes moved back to the Chicago area, having apparently grown weary of the Hollywood lifestyle.
Despite his enormous success, Hughes maintained a low-key profile. He rarely attended industry events and awards shows, and although millions of Americans had enjoyed his films and knew his name, few knew what he actually looked like, unlike directors such as Steven Spielberg, Francis Coppola or Martin Scorsese, who wouldn't stand a chance of not being instantly recognized in public. In contrast, Hughes was able to walk the streets anywhere, with almost no chance of being mobbed by fans, making him literally one of the most successful, yet unrecognizable film makers in the world, and he probably liked it that way.
Although few knew his face, that generation of teens who came of age in the 1980s loved John Hughes work, not just in the United States, but everywhere. It was only following his death in 2009, due to a sudden heart attack while walking along West 55th Street in Manhattan, that it became clear just how popular his movies were, and continue to be, among fans of all ages all over the world.
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