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Director John Hughes Was 'Philosopher Of Puberty'

John Hughes, shown above in 1990, was the director of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. His work matched heartfelt explorations of teen angst with truly memorable comedy. (Getty Images)

Filmmaker John Hughes was called the Philosopher of Puberty, the Auteur of Adolescent Angst. He died unexpectedly Thursday at the age of 59. The cause was a heart attack.

Hughes made his reputation in the 1980s with a quintet of teenage comedies: Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Some Kind of Wonderful. An entire generation of filmgoers came of age watching Hughes' movies.

I was one of them. I saw Sixteen Candles back in 1984 with my best friend the day she didn't make the cheerleading squad. What happened to actress Molly Ringwald in the movie put everything in perspective. Her family forgot her birthday; she has an embarrassing encounter with the school geek; she can't handle her crush on the school stud.

The suburban high school heroes of Hughes' films were in many ways deeply conventional, but for Hughes they were archetypes. The dweebs, jocks and prom queens of his films share one defining trait: insecurity.

"You could drive yourself crazy because you think you are the only one," Hughes said on NPR in 1988. "You're the only person that feels ugly or stupid or left out or hopeless."

Another theme underpinning Hughes' comedies was the issue of class. In Pretty in Pink, Ringwald's character pines for a rich boy, though she lives on the wrong side of the tracks and sews her own prom dress. Hughes wrote the Chevy Chase film Vacation partly out of long-held simmering resentment over never having visited Disneyland as a child.

Vacation was directed by Harold Ramis, who fondly recalls working with Hughes.

"John was a lightning-fast writer," Ramis says. "Legendarily, he could write a script in a couple of weeks."

Even though those scripts were geared toward teens and families, Ramis says they're a little subversive. Hughes was a former editor of National Lampoon magazine, and Ramis says he connected with teenagers because he understood their humor — and their rebellion.

"All teenagers are countercultural by nature," he says. "It's their obligation to be in a state of rebellion. ... John understood that." As a prime example of rebellion in Hughes' movies, Ramis points to the 1986 movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Bueller is an insouciant teenager who turns a day of skipping school into a series of madcap adventures, including converting a Chicago parade into a gleeful downtown dance party.

The idea of a kid somehow almost magically empowered to do whatever he wants seemed to resonate with Hughes. In 1990, he wrote and produced a little film about a small boy abandoned by his family who fends off robbers on Christmas Eve: Home Alone. It went on to gross almost $500 million dollars.

Even though Hughes was a star for his triple-threat talents of producing, directing and scripting, he told NPR he was still thrilled to direct comedic giants such as Steve Martin and John Candy in the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles. "I just had to wipe the drool off my chin," he recalled. "[I wanted to say] 'Excuse me, you're just a couple of actors and I'm just a guy with a script. Let's go make a movie.' "

Hughes stopped directing in the early '90s. He retreated to the Midwest and stopped doing interviews. His more recent movies lacked the wit and realism of his early work. But his loving depictions of middle-class suburban white-bread youth found a following with younger filmmakers such as Kevin Smith. Director Judd Apatow once said Hughes taught him to trust oddball kids as his leads.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

He was called the Philosopher of Puberty, the Auteur of Adolescence - filmmaker John Hughes died yesterday of a heart attack at age 59. Hughes made his reputation in the 1980s with teenage comedies that included "The Breakfast Club," "Pretty in Pink," and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." An entire generation of filmgoers came of age watching John Hughes movies, including NPR's Neda Ulaby.

NEDA ULABY: I saw "Sixteen Candles" back in 1984 with my best friend - the day she didn't make the cheerleading squad. What happened to actress Molly Ringwald in the movie put everything in perspective.

(Soundbite of movie, "Sixteen Candles")

Ms. MOLLY RINGWALD (As Samantha Baker): I can't believe this. They (bleep) forgot my birthday.

ULABY: Plus she has an embarrassing encounter with the school geek, and she cannot handle her crush on the school stud.

(Soundbite of movie, "Sixteen Candles")

Ms. RINGWALD (As Samantha Baker): Oh my god. What should I do? Should I go up to him and should I say, hi, Jake, I'm Samantha - or no, maybe I should let him come to me.

ULABY: These suburban high school heroes were in many ways deeply conventional, but for Hughes they were archetypes. The dweeb, the jock, the prom queen still share one defining trait: insecurity. Here's Hughes on NPR in 1988.

Mr. JOHN HUGHES (Director): You know, you drive yourself crazy because you think you're the only person that feels ugly or stupid or left out or hopeless, whatever. And I've dealt with that theme a lot. We're all from the same family.

ULABY: Another theme underpinning John Hughes comedies was the issue of class. He wrote the script for the Chevy Chase film "Vacation" in part out of long-held, simmering resentment over never having visited Disneyland as a child.

(Soundbite of movie, "National Lampoon's Vacation")

Mr. CHEVY CHASE (As Clark Griswold): I've got to be crazy. I'm on a pilgrimage to see a moose. Praise Marty Moose.

ULABY: "Vacation," from 1983 was directed by Harold Ramis, who remembered working with Hughes in a conversation yesterday.

Mr. HAROLD RAMIS (Director): John was a lightning fast writer. He could write -legendarily, he could write a script in a couple of weeks.

ULABY: And even though those scripts were geared to teens and families, Ramis says they're a little subversive. Hughes was a former editor of the National Lampoon, and Ramis says Hughes connected with teenagers because he understood their humor and their rebellion.

Mr. RAMIS: All teenagers are countercultural by nature. It's their obligation to be in a state of rebellion against their parents and whatever established authority there is. And John kind of understood that. "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," for instance.

ULABY: "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" concerns an insouciant teenager who turns a day of skipping school into a series of madcap adventures, including converting a Chicago parade into a gleeful, downtown dance party.

(Soundbite of movie, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off")

(Soundbite of song, "Twist and Shout")

Mr. JOHN LENNON (Singer/musician, The Beatles): (Singing) Well, shake it up baby now. Shake it up, baby.

ULABY: The idea of the kid somehow almost magically empowered to do whatever he wants seemed to resonate with Hughes. A few years later he wrote and produced a little film about a small boy, abandoned by his family, who fends off robbers on Christmas Eve.

(Soundbite of movie, "Home Alone")

Mr. MACAULAY CULKIN (As Kevin McCallister): This is my house. I have to defend it.

ULABY: Since it opened in 1990, "Home Alone" has grossed almost $500 million. Even though Hughes was by then a star for his triple-threat talents of producing, directing and scripting, he told NPR he was still thrilled to work with comedic giants like Steve Martin and John Candy in the movie "Planes, Trains and Automobiles."

Mr. HUGHES: You know, I just had to get - I had to, you know, wipe the drool off my chin and just say excuse me, you know. You're just a couple of actors and I'm just a guy with a script, and let's go make a movie.

ULABY: Hughes stopped directing. He retreated to the Midwest. He stopped doing interviews. His more recent movies lacked the wit and realism of his early work. But his loving depictions of middle-class, suburban, white-bread youth found a following with younger filmmakers like Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow, who once said from Hughes, he learned how to trust oddball kids as his leads.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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