It is perhaps unfortunate that John Hughes is most recognized for his teen comedies, because it was his relatively “adult” films, namely Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Uncle Buck, that were his greatest achievements as both writer and director. Of course, this is not to undermine his progression — and revolution — of the teen genre, but he was more than just the guy who founded the Brat Pack and saved Ferris. Since his passing earlier today, the press has made much of his “J.D. Salinger of the Teen Genre” reputation, but it is a decidedly false one. He was not quite the hermetic character trapped by arrested development that some have described. He did, of course, feel a great connection to — and affinity for — teenagers, and recognized that they were being disgraced and marginalized by most Hollywood motion pictures, but to ignore his other work, and the facts of his life, in favour of an easy story is lazy and dishonest.
It must be said that Hughes was not the easiest person to work with — he reportedly had something of a breakdown on the set of Planes…, in 1987, which resulted in an unhappy shoot for most involved (it doesn’t help that the movie was running well over budget, and Hughes shot so much film that he had more than three times the industry standard).
There was also an unpublicized falling out with his best and most reliable star, John Candy. Candy, himself no stranger to personal demons, had a massive argument with Hughes after what he perceived to have been a role snub. Hughes, he alleged to close friends in the early 1990s, had promised to write a new film for him — and then either never delivered on his promise or offered the role to someone else (without alerting Candy first or even offering a friendly apology.) A few years ago, I was told by an acquaintance of Candy’s son that the snubbed role was actually a return of the Gus Polinski character for Home Alone 2, and not a feature length film, but I have never read anything more about this so I am unsure of its legitimacy.
Candy, a sensitive man who struggled with alcoholism and apparent depression, took this as a personal affront; when he died in 1994, he hadn’t spoken to Hughes in years, and Hughes reportedly turned up to Candy’s funeral incognito; he didn’t speak to anyone, and left before it ended. I have always found this to be one of the saddest stories affiliated with either Hughes or Candy, and maybe even quite telling of Hughes’ decision to gradually withdraw from filmmaking.
I write of these things not because I am attempting to cast a more depressing light upon Hughes’ death, but because it sheds a bit more light, in fact, upon the sort of man he was: troubled, perhaps, but very human after all. When we read reports, now, of his reclusive nature, and his occasionally bullheaded antics on set, these ideas can be taken out of context to form a misleading picture. It’s a perpetuation of myth which was founded upon fallacy to begin with.
I could be perfectly wrong, but it has always been my own gut feeling that Hughes was deeply hurt by the fact that he didn’t have a chance to repair his relationship with Candy before he passed away. I know for a fact that he was writing a full-length screenplay for Candy at the time of his death — a gesture he had expected would repair their soured friendship — which Candy never knew about. Hughes either never finished or never sold the script to any studios after Candy was laid to rest. I don’t think it is coincidence that he stopped directing films after this point, and I think after the critical failures of Flubber and Home Alone 3, Hughes realized he had grown disconnected from the current generation and essentially retired. (Most of the recent movies listed to his credit on IMDb, such as Beethoven’s 5th or Drillbit Taylor, are merely story or character credits.)
What we have lost with the passing of John Hughes is not just one of the icons of the 1980s, but also a deeply identifiable man whose movies connected with audiences on a level that many others in the 1980s did not: in a very emotional, direct, human manner. The ’80s were known for their gloss and superficiality, but Hughes was one of the few whose movies represented a kinder soul. Hughes was capable of taking cliched ideas — for example, the Odd Couple pairing in Planes, Trains… — and spinning them to show us the other side: when Steve Martin lashes out against John Candy in that motel scene, we laugh, but then he shows us the victim’s reaction — something we aren’t usually shown in crueller and more simplistic comedies — and it forces us to re-evaluate what we’ve just taken part in mocking. We realize that this apparent caricature is, in fact, a man. And it is this same approach that Hughes applied to his teen films: a unique insight into human interaction.
He wasn’t a brilliant director and he certainly produced his fair share of turkeys, but at his best, he was the rarest of sentimental directors: a realist. His movies made us laugh because they made us believe and they made us feel, and his passing will make many of us feel once more, though we might not want to believe this time.