Friday, August 7, 2009

A Hell of a Run

Most aspiring screenwriters hope someday to just sell a script. A screen credit is a career-changer. Sole screenwriting credit on a bona fide hit is the Holy Grail. How then do you evaluate the legacy of John Hughes?

Try this on for size: Mr. Mom; National Lampoon’s Vacation; Sixteen Candles; The Breakfast Club; Weird Science; Pretty in Pink; Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; Planes, Trains & Automobiles; and Home Alone.

And I left out the not-so-good ones that still made tons of money and entertained a lot of people, just maybe not all of us.

Most of the tributes on the day after Hughes’ death start out with something like: “If you grew up in the ‘80s”. Well, forget that. If you were ALIVE in the ‘80s or anytime thereafter, you had to have been influenced by and probably greatly amused and entertained by something that John Hughes wrote and probably directed.

Three of Hughes’ films have a place on my shelf and my ticker. Every year on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, my family and I watch Planes, Trains. It is a simple but deceptively meaty story about the illusion of success and happiness in modern life. If you don’t get a lump in your throat at the end when Steve Martin’s Neal Page takes John Candy’s Del Griffith home for Thanksgiving upon realizing that he is essentially homeless, well then, you’re a robot.

Home Alone is not It’s a Wonderful Life, but it is in the rotation of Christmas movies that we watch every Yule season at our house. And not a semester goes by when I don’t have some student in a writing seminar drop a line from that film (“Keep the change you filthy animal”). And like Planes, Trains, when Kevin’s mother returns on Christmas morning and apologizes to Kevin for leaving him behind, I always have to pretend I got something in my contact lens.

Lastly, I have written about and continue to teach The Breakfast Club as one of the definitive multi-protagonist films of modern commercial times. I slipped the word commercial in there because there was a time when Hollywood didn’t think multi-protagonist films could make any money. Go back and read about the difficulty Lawrence Kasdan had trying to get The Big Chill made if you weren’t aware of that. The Breakfast Club ranks right up there with Chill and Diner as a multi-protagonist gem. And if you don't think they're hard as hell to write, just give it a try sometime. Once again, the ending is pitch perfect.

Now I’m not suggesting that Hughes is Billy Wilder. But he’s not that far behind either. They’re probably up there sharing story ideas as we speak. Personally, I think of Hughes as the Roger Maris of screenwriters. He’s not Babe Ruth. But he had one hell of a run there for a time.

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