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John Hughes: He made weird normal

One of the charms of the late director's signature films is that their teen characters could eccentric and that was OK.

August 13, 2009|MEGHAN DAUM

When I heard director John Hughes had died, a week ago today, I found myself feeling preemptively protective of his legacy. He directed only eight movies, though he wrote and produced dozens more (including the iconically Hughesian Molly Ringwald picture, "Pretty in Pink"), and just four of them were about adolescents. But with his debut, 1984's "Sixteen Candles," he secured his role as chief agent and apostle of Generation X -- a term that wouldn't be coined for several more years.

Hughes' films were among the first many of us identified by director. Among my generation -- people now in their 30s and 40s -- even if you didn't know what "auteur" meant, you got the idea that Hughes was just that, and was ours alone. (No one referred to "Porky's II" as "another Bob Clark film.")

Yet even as the tributes rolled out and the song "Don't You Forget About Me," from "The Breakfast Club," was played again and again, I began to wonder if Hughes' films stand up to the test of time.

Hughes, born in 1950, was a baby boomer. Photographs of him with his actors show a thirtysomething with preppy clothes and oversized glasses, a yuppie among his disaffected youthful flock. And though many of the pleasures of Hughes' films came from his unwillingness to reduce his subjects to generational stereotypes (the Gen X slacker concept had not yet taken hold), they're still films about a certain cohort, marked by a certain time and a certain place. Namely leafy, upper-middle-class U.S. suburbia in the age of Reagan and "just say no." Whatever his own generation, Hughes was an 1980s guy making movies about the 1980s.

Of course, for all their time-capsule qualities, Hughes' movies also carry a faint whiff of romanticization, even naivete. Compared with teen films of just a year or two earlier, like "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Risky Business," not to mention the "Porky's" movies, Hughes' adolescents have a nuanced but undeniable innocence. The main characters indulge in a lot of hand-wringing about popularity and prom dates and virginity, but they rarely do anything more than kiss.

In "Sixteen Candles" and "The Breakfast Club," Ringwald plays a girl who is deeply embarrassed that she's a virgin. As for Ferris Bueller, playing hooky from school is a major transgression. And, the 1980s being the overdressed, big-haired decade that it was, everyone is buried under not only elaborate, gelled-to-perfection tresses but also layer upon layer of clothing (often paisley). No wonder these kids weren't having sex; it would have taken them the entire movie to get undressed.

On the face of it, one might imagine that the tameness of Hughes' movies would be grating -- even a little laughable -- in 2009 and especially to the ostensibly savvier and more sexually precocious YouTube generation. But in following the coverage and remembrances since his death, I can see that the whole gestalt holds up remarkably well for a number of age groups. According to a survey of the teenagers in my immediate orbit, "Sixteen Candles" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" are often invoked as "the best" and "one of my all-time favorites."

So what was Hughes' secret? Is it merely that his films offer an appealing timeout from the "Porky's"- and "American Pie"-style raciness that has since become the norm? In part, but I would venture yet another theory about their staying power and their innocence. Not only do Hughes' movies imply that teens can care as much about romance as about sex, they remind us of a time when you could be odd and be mostly left alone to deal with it. No extreme interventions or psychiatric diagnoses.

If the brooding, solitary Andie played by Ringwald in "Pretty in Pink" were in high school in 2009, it's hard to imagine she wouldn't be a candidate for anti-depression therapy. Likewise, if "The Breakfast Club," which is about five teens serving time in Saturday detention, took place in a post-Prozac, post-Columbine America, Ally Sheedy's mostly mute, kleptomaniac misfit would have undoubtedly been medicated, and Anthony Michael Hall's character would have received a lot more than detention for bringing a flare gun to school. As for Ferris Bueller, the kid obviously needed Ritalin.

I'm not suggesting that any of us were better off when legitimate disorders went unrecognized and untreated. But in a culture in which diagnoses sometimes seem to get handed out like conservation-awareness fliers in front of the supermarket, it's worth asking ourselves if old-fashioned eccentricity -- of the teen or adult variety -- can too easily be supplanted by the ease of assigning a code from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Hughes, who left the movie business in the early 1990s because he feared the impact Hollywood would have on his children, should be remembered not just for the way he appreciated weirdness but for the way he normalized it -- not with pills but with paisley.

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