He reinvented the teen movie for an entire generation.
John Hughes movies—the good ones, those five or six gems he wrote and directed in the mid-to-late '80s, before he stopped directing altogether and became a producer and writer of hack comedies—persist in the collective memory of a certain demographic (say, anyone born between the Kennedy assassination and the Watergate hearings) as foundational texts of adolescence. Ferris Bueller's Day Off and The Breakfast Club were to the 1980s what Rebel Without a Cause or Catcher in the Rye were to the '50s. If that sounds grandiose, well, grandiosity has long been essential to the representation of teenagerhood: James Dean's lovingly cultivated sneer, Holden Caulfield's self-defeating purism, Judd Nelson's raised fist in freeze-frame at the end of The Breakfast Club. Each generation learns to express its alienation in the fashionable pose of its time. That the pose is an imitation doesn't make the need to strike it any less real.
John Hughes, who died yesterday of a heart attack at age 59, understood this. His vision of American middle-class adolescence was ironic in the best sense: never cynical or detached but perched on the line between identifying with high-school joy and suffering and being wryly amused at the whole thing. Laughing at his movies as a teenager, you sort of knew you were laughing at yourself. The tragic scale of Molly Ringwald's self-pity in Sixteen Candles ("They fucking forgot my birthday!") is meant to be ridiculous, and yet the audience is right there with Molly's character, Samantha, as she slogs through that awful day. Sam's birthday reaches its humiliating nadir when she ducks out of the school dance and winds up in the deserted auto shop, confiding her troubles to a freshman geek mysteriously nicknamed Farmer Ted (Hughes regular and comic eminence Anthony Michael Hall). The scene that takes place between the two (culminating in an exchange of information for underwear) is as emotionally truthful as it is timelessly funny. The scene is Hughes dialogue at its best and a glimpse of where American romantic comedies might have gone if he had stuck around to make more of them.
In The Wild One, another '50s youth icon, Marlon Brando, answered the question "What are you rebelling against?" with "Whaddya got?" As the sheltered children of boomers at the height of the Reagan revolution, Hughes' characters didn't have to ask what their rebellion options were. They had shopping malls full of different rebellions to choose from: punk, Goth, thug, geeky misfit. (Just look at the kids in The Breakfast Club, a taxonomy of suburban social types.) But the mass commodification of adolescent angst (set in motion, in part, by Brando and Dean a generation before) only leaves Hughes' heroes all the lonelier. Shermer, Ill., the fictional Chicago suburb where Hughes set many of his early films, feels like a place firmly ensconced at the end of history: It's pleasantly neutral, affluent, safe, and stultifying. And unlike the square adult worlds that Dean and Brando reject, Shermer, Ill., doesn't appear to have an outside. When the Breakfast Clubbers graduate and go their separate ways, they'll likely retain the class affiliations and cultural milieu of their parents (a likelihood that's sneeringly foreseen by Judd Nelson's working-class character). High school, with its seemingly oppressive hierarchy, may actually represent these kids' greatest moment of social mobility and freedom.
That Hughesian moment—the moment of self-transformation in which it's suddenly possible to dance in the library with your avowed enemies or, in a flash of ill-advised empathy, to give your panties to a geek—finds its perfect metaphor in the moments of lip-syncing that abound in his movies. Of course, cinematic lip-syncing in the '80s was de rigueur. Think of Tom Cruise channeling Bob Seger in Risky Business and Dean Stockwell's disquieting Roy Orbison impression in Blue Velvet. But the lip-syncing scenes in John Hughes movies were different, since they were about communication, not solipsism, and they always advanced the plot. When Duckie (Jon Cryer) mimes Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" to Andie (Molly Ringwald) in Pretty in Pink (which was scripted but not directed by Hughes), it's evident that in this moment of taking on another's voice, the insecure Duckie is able to express his love completely. (It's also obvious that, as Hughes fans have been loudly shouting in unison for a generation, Andie should totally have ended up with Duckie and not that bland guy Andrew McCarthy played.) And even though Ferris Bueller's Day Off is all about the inimitable power of Ferris' personality, his day of adventure nonetheless culminates in an extended bout of impersonation as he leaps atop a parade float and lip-syncs, first to Wayne Newton ("Danke Schön"), then to John Lennon ("Twist and Shout").
At last year's Halloween Parade in New York City, a surprisingly large group of young people put in a lot of work to re-create the parade-float scene from Ferris Bueller, dancing crowds and all. And if you search for "Breakfast Club dance scene" on YouTube, you'll find more homemade re-creations than clips from the original. Imitating John Hughes movies is a very John Hughesian gesture. The fact that kids who weren't yet born when Hughes last directed a movie are now looking to his films for instruction on how to be a teenager makes it clear that his best work will last for many sophomore years to come.