Don’t Mess With the Bull Young Man, You’ll Get the Horns


Mark Simpson on John Hughes’ leg­acy

(Arena Hommes Plus, Winter 2009)

So here’s the pitch:  A Hollywood teen movie in which noth­ing hap­pens.  All day. In a school lib­rary. Introduced by a pre­ten­tious quote from David Bowie’s ‘Changes’.

Or how about this: A boy bunks off High School to take his friends to mooch around an art gal­lery, to the strains of some­thing espe­cially del­ic­ate by The Smiths.

What do you mean you’ll call me? Don’t you want to invest your mil­lions in these sure-fire hits??

When the dir­ector John Hughes died this August, aged 59. much was made of how ‘influ­en­tial’ he has been for today’s gen­er­a­tion of movie-makers. But it’s dif­fi­cult to con­ceive of almost any of his clas­sic mid-80s teen films, which included Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off being made in Hollywood today. Unless you re-wrote them to include slo-mo amputations.

John Hughes movies had great scripts, they had great char­ac­ters, win­some, quirky act­ors: all these years later young Molly Ringwald with her red hair and ang­sty com­plex­ion still looks to me like the pret­ti­est, love­li­est girl­friend I never had (while Emilio Estevez looks a lot like a lot of the boys I have had — at least in my mind’s eye). Hughes movies had feel­ings, they had intel­li­gence, they had heart – all of which tend to get in the way of films being made today. They also had a view of the world that, while often-times wise-crackingly cyn­ical — ‘Does Barry Manilow know you raid his ward­robe?’ — wasn’t afraid to be lyr­ical: ‘Life moves pretty fast.  You don’t stop to look around, you could miss it.’

Just like, in other words, the best British pop music, with which Hughes peppered his films lib­er­ally. In fact his work, although cel­eb­rated now, often by a forty-something crowd cry­ing over their spilt youth, looks like frag­ments of a lost America. A much bet­ter one than the one we ended up with – with much super­ior taste in pop music.

Precisely because of their human­ity and wit, Many of Hughes’ movies are as start­ling twenty years on as the Union Jack on the back of Ferris Bueller’s bed­room door, the posters on his walls for Blancmange and Cabaret Voltaire – and a glam Bryan Ferry puck­er­ing up over his bed. Matthew Broderick’s intox­ic­at­ing mix­ture of all-American, unblink­ing, huck­ster­ing con­fid­ence and very Anglo, coquet­tish flam­boy­ance is incon­ceiv­able in a lead Hollywood actor in a teen movie today. It would be loudly dis­missed as ‘TOO GAY!’.

The fam­ous parade scene where he jumps on a parade float and mimes to a 1961 record­ing of fey Wayne Newton croon­ing ‘Danke Schoen’ like a Vegas Marlene Dietrich, and then to the Beatles’ deli­ri­ously, aden­oid­ally sexy ‘Twist and Shout’ (from the pre­vi­ous Britpop inva­sion of John Hughes’ own youth) and every­one in Hughes’ homet­own of Chicago, black and white, male and female, young and old, falls in love with him, is noth­ing less than a dreamy pop cul­tural epiphany.

It was a false one, how­ever. The future, as we now know, belonged not to sen­ti­mental, art-loving, anglo­phile, andro­gyn­ous Ferris in a stolen red 1961 250GT Ferrari Spyder (which appar­ently, and quite appro­pri­ately, was actu­ally a glass fibre fake with a British MG sports car under­neath), but to ruth­less career-planner and Reaganite Republican Maverick in an all-American F-14 Grumman Tomcat. Top Gun and Tom Cruise were launched into the stra­to­sphere by steam cata­pult the pre­vi­ous year, in 1985 – the  same year as The Breakfast Club were chew­ing their fin­ger­nails and won­der­ing, oh-so-deliciously, what they were going to do with their fucked-up lives.

Despite suc­cess with the warm adult com­edy Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), which once again spoke of a bet­ter, kinder America than the one that actu­ally happened — one full of belly-laughs rather than today’s com­edy cringe, snob­bery and sad­ism — Hughes Hollywood career didn’t quite make it into the 90s, never recov­er­ing from the fright­en­ing suc­cess of annoy­ing kid­die com­edy Home Alone in 1990, for which he wrote the script. He later left Hollywood and became a farmer. Growing things for people to eat was the per­fect riposte to today’s ter­min­ally toxic movie business.

As Ferris in his dress­ing gown put it, rais­ing a quiz­zical eye­brow at us: ‘You’re still here??  It’s over!  Go home!

© Mark Simpson 2009