Does any current teen out there know who John Hughes was? Anyone? Anyone? Adolescent fancies wax and wane at warp speed, but just for historical purposes, kids, you should know that in the 1980s Hughes was the intimate chronicler, confidant and cheerleader of a generation of young people. Writing scripts that could have come from inside their muddled hearts, monitoring their rampaging hormones, he built a smart shelf of adolescent zeitgeist films: Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the movie etched in immortality by teacher Ben Stein's plaintive, froggy "Bueller? Anyone? Anyone?" (See TIME's list of top 10 Hughes' movie moments.)
To hear that the writer, producer and sometimes director had died today, in Manhattan of a heart attack at 59, was a shock, and not just because he was taken at a relatively young age. Hughes was so close to the characters he created and to the young actors whose careers he established that he seemed a perpetual arrested adolescent. He would have to grow up before he could grow old. And as a film writer, that never happened — for which movie fans of all ages will always be grateful.
Born in Michigan and raised in Northbrook, Ill., Hughes never went Hollywood; the industry came to him. His signature movies were written and filmed where he grew up. As a copywriter and then as a contributor to National Lampoon magazine, where his "Vacation '58" humor piece led him into movies, he learned to deliver work that was fast and good and never slowed the pace. If his name didn't appear on recent films, that's because he wrote the Beethoven movies, Maid in Manhattan and last year's Drillbit Taylor under the pseudonym Edmond Dantes (taken from The Count of Monte Cristo). In his prime he was known for writing 74 script pages in a night and rarely taking more than five days to complete a first draft. (Read a 1986 TIME cover story on Molly Ringwald.)
Hughes generated successful movie-comedy franchises as fast as other people wrote postcards. First the National Lampoon Vacation films, with Chevy Chase as the harried nincompoop dad on some disastrous trip with his family. Then the teen movies, not strictly a series but with more or less the same rep company of kids. And then the blockbuster Home Alone, about an 8-year-old boy (played by Macaulay Culkin) stranded solo at Christmas, and its two sequels. Note that the protagonists of these films kept getting younger; Hughes was writing his emotional autobiography backward, like a sitcom Benjamin Button. "Oh, why can't we start old and get younger?" 30-something Annie Potts cries in Pretty in Pink. That was Hughes' writing plan. And when he had exhausted the human family, from dad to teen to little kid, he moved down to canines: a bunch of slapdash farces about Beethoven the slobbering St. Bernard — climaxing, naturally, with Beethoven's Fifth.
Ned Tanen, a Paramount production boss in the '80s, called Hughes "the Steven Spielberg of youth comedy." Well, his movies were popular, with big grosses on spare budgets, but it's better to find literary analogues. In his facility for spinning the fullest comedy out of the frailest situation, he was the movies' version of playwright Alan Ayckbourn. "The stay-at-home dad" morphed into Mr. Mom; "the annoying guy next to you" became the Steve Martin–John Candy hit Planes, Trains and Automobiles. And as a portraitist of teen angst, he was a sunnier Salinger, a comedic S.E. Hinton. Anyway, Hughes was just what Hollywood needed and rarely got: somebody whose films weren't about teenagers but inside them. Almost never before had kids looking for wish fulfillment in the dark found movies that shed a little light on their own lives.
Hughes showed teenagers that light, with a rose-tinted glow. His Molly trilogy — Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink, all starring actual teen Molly Ringwald — mined the emotional convulsions that make every kid feel he or she is the first lonely explorer on the dark side of the moon. In his mid-30s, Hughes got spookily in sync with the swooning narcissism of adolescence: that teachers are torturers; that parents are sweet but don't quite understand; that friends and lovers are two distinct species, one domestic, one alien; that I feel all these things I can never express; that there must be someone out there who will love me to pieces. Hughes gave the young what they wanted in life and movies: romance, passion, pleasure, commitment and a little sex. His pictures were like teen psychotherapy with a guaranteed happy ending. (See pictures of movie costumes.)
Sixteen Candles set the mold: Sam (Ringwald) is a sophomore, in strangulated love with a dishy senior (Michael Schoeffling) and shadowed by a crypto-hip freshman called the Geek (Anthony Michael Hall), who, in one of his more winsome moments, asks Sam if he can borrow her underpants. The plot meanders in predictable directions, but for teens in search of tips on language, behavior and all the right moves, Sixteen Candles functions as a therapeutic documentary, a sort of survival kit of '80s cool and a lexicon of their secret language. Listen to Sam and her girlfriend Randy (Liane Curtis) wax ironic on every girl's dream for the day she turns sweet 16...
Randy: There'd be a big party, and a band and tons of people, and a pink Trans Am in the driveway with a ribbon around it, and some incredibly gorgeous guy that you meet, like in France, and you do it on a cloud without getting pregnant or herpes.
Sam: I don't need a cloud.
Randy: Just a pink Trans Am and the guy!
Sam: A black one.
Randy: A black guy?
Sam: A black Trans Am. A pink guy.
For Ringwald's Andie Walsh in Pretty in Pink, high school is the the Fountain of Youth is laced with citric acid. Teenhood is the pits. Faces are constantly aflush with anger, ardor, embarrassment. Anguish over dates and grades streaks the first application of mascara. Emotions newly discovered are unique and convulsive. He loves me! Life hates me! How anyone endures this seven-year manic-depressive itch is a mystery even to those who have survived it. All this misery in a movie whose big dramatic question is whether the rich boy will invite the poor girl to the senior prom. Though it is at pains to present high school as a class society in which the rich, in their preppy Miami Vice linens, already know how to use the tyranny of style to ostracize a working-class girl in her junk-punk-funk hand-mades, at base the picture is Love Finds Andie Walsh. Bless Hughes, he managed to make innocent ardor as poignant as high school's class warfare.
For a 1986 TIME cover story on Ringwald and the Hughes films, his actors all spoke of the writer's lock on, and in, the Age of Teen. "He has an incredible memory — visual, audio, emotional — of his own high school years," noted James Spader, who, before he put on a few pounds and decades and played a Boston Legal lawyer, was the deliciously haughty preppie Steff in Pretty in Pink. "He's very much in touch with the adolescent part of himself," said Sheedy. It's a golden touch. Who wouldn't grab the chance to remake one's adolescence, in which the geek in one's closet now has the swagger of fearless charm, and a rock symphony swells in the parking lot on prom night? "I think he's still trying to be popular at school," said Jon Cryer, then Duckie in Pretty in Pink, now two-fifths of Two and a Half Men. "And more power to him. I mean, he wound up marrying a cheerleader."
That would be Nancy, his wife of 39 years, who survives him. A homebody, not a party animal, Hughes poured all his iconoclastic energy into his writing, whether crafting remakes of old favorites (Miracle on 34th Street, 101 Dalmatians, Flubber) or finding the perfect comic concoction for analyzing and curing the teenage blues. Those sweet, acute movies seemed like Dr. Pepper then; now they have the savor of a Dom Perignon vintage, because for 90 minutes they made every viewer of any age a teenager, stoked and wracked with passions that will never again be so intense. We wish John Hughes were around to make more of them.