August 10, 2009

Don't You Forget About Him

There have been many appreciations and tributes to filmmaker John Hughes over the last few days since his death in NYC Friday. The NY Times (where I found this great pic--doesn't he look like James Spader?) ran a lengthy love letter to Hughes courtesy of reviewer A.O. Scott which was quite effective in hitting all the Hughes bases. What's most interesting is that it's easily the kindest thing the paper has ever written about him, as the TIMES reviews for his films when they were originally released were decidedly mixed. In the recent appreciation, Scott actually uses the "A" word, as in "auteur", to describe Hughes' body of directorial work. There was even a comparison to the work of Lubitsch and Sturges which is not surprising and IMHO long overdue.

As my film school friends know, I've been a champion of Hughes work for many years. I was a huge fan when the films first came out. But then, as I became a director myself, I began to see the artist lurking behind the commercial filmmaker and admired the way he was able to make smart comedies with a very broad appeal. In fact, my NYU thesis film "
Pool Days" which became part of the BOYS LIFE shorts package, was my own version of a John Hughes movie with a gay kid at the center of the action instead of a nerd. Currently, the film I'm working on now, a high school comedy called PROM QUEENS, is practically a homage to the Hughes world with a personal twist. But the main thing I've learned from his work as a filmmaker is a lesson that I hope will guide me on this project; keep it funny but make it real. I believe the reason his films resonate is that, despite all the slapstick and silliness, there are real characters with real emotions at the heart of his stories. And this is not something you see coming out of the Hollywood teen mill these days, with the possible exception of the pilot episode for GLEE.

Finally, the most curious aspect of Hughes directing career was its abrupt end. The TIMES piece doesn't discuss this at all but, oddly enough, a group of filmmakers had been tying to solve this mystery for the last year. They were making
a documentary trying to track down the elusive Hughes, interviewing actors like Justin Henry (Sams' annoying brother in SIXTEEN CANDLES) and Mia Sara (Sloane, darling, in FERRIS BUELLER) when his death gave their doc a new, unexpected ending. Their blog, dontyouforgetaboutme, has been updated with some tributes and new video over the weekend. The interview clips are very fun to watch. Mia Sara looks amazing!

Also worth checking out is a blog by a woman who was a teenage
pen pal with the reclusive director at the height of his powers in the mid-80's. Fascinating stuff....and all in John Hughes' very own penmanship! She offers her theory to the mystery of Hughes decampment from H'wood; she claims he blamed the biz on the early death of friend and star John Candy and, concurrently, didn't want to raise his kids in La La Land. Interesting theory. However, the story I'd usually heard was that Hughes was notorious for demanding control of all aspects of not just creating his films, but marketing them as well. (As a filmmaker, I understand this urge all too well!) Apparently as he became more successful, Hughes continued stamping on bigger and bigger studio toes until no one in Tinseltown wanted to play footsie anymore, as Walter Winchell might say. It certainly didn't help that his last directorial effort, the oddity CURLY SUE, was a commercial and critical flop.

Regardless of all that, John Hughes leaves us with three...maybe four classic films (if you count
WEIRD SCIENCE, which I do) that have stood the test of time. They are just as watchable today as when they were made more than two decades ago. Like Michael Jackson, he defined an era but transcended it as well and will forever live on in the cinema firmament, a bright and clever star that faded out too soon.