Don’t You Forget About Me: The Genius of John Hughes

For a certain generation, the films of John Hughes were a perfect pop-culture mirror of what it meant to be a teenager. Or at least they seemed like reflections. If your own high school wasn’t quite so easily divided into castes, if your town didn’t have a record store that stocked British imports, if your parents weren’t cluelessly out of touch … well, that was a problem with your experience, not with the onscreen depiction.

In Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, Hughes essentially introduced the modern teenage hero: wise beyond one’s years, artistically inclined, hyper-articulate, romantic and hopelessly misunderstood. These characters weren’t so much role models—they were far too flawed—as they were imaginary friends for the audience, who empathized with every pang of adolescent longing. Within a couple of years, it seemed, every teen-movie protagonist had an Elvis Costello poster on his wall, and every real-life teen had a crush on Molly Ringwald.

And then, after launching the careers of a half-dozen young actors (and a half-dozen New Romantic bands), after introducing “neo-maxi-zoom-dweebie” and “poozer” and “eat my shorts” into the lexicon, John Hughes decided to leave the kids behind. While he prepared to direct Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Matthew Broderick’s nearly superhuman Ferris a fitting culmination of the steadily increasing confidence held by Mr. Hughes’ characters), he hammered out the script for Pretty in Pink and turned it over to rookie director Howard Deutch. Judging by Mr. Deutch’s commentary on Paramount’s new DVD edition, he was simply Mr. Hughes’ proxy and conceded in nearly every disagreement.

The result was the first in what would be a series of films written and produced, but not directed, by Mr. Hughes and superficially bearing his marks. But despite the familiar sans serif titles and NME-approved soundtracks, these films lacked his sharp visual sense and, most tragically, a handle on the rhythms of his dialogue.

Pretty in Pink is a hodgepodge of teen-romance archetypes. Working-class Andie (Molly Ringwald) falls for rich kid Blane (Andrew McCarthy). Super-rich slimeball Steff (James Spader), having been rejected by Andie, tries to convince Blane that she’s “trash.” Meanwhile, Andie’s best friend Duckie (Jon Cryer) pines for her, but she has no romantic feelings for him. Gee, maybe it’s the logorrhea? Or the mirrored round sunglasses? Or the way he practically stalks her?

If it’s hard to imagine dating Duckie, it’s even harder to swoon for the craven Blane, who reneges on taking Andie to the prom, then unconvincingly drops the L-bomb. The script originally called for Andie to wind up with Duckie, but test audiences balked and Mr. Deutch, to Mr. Hughes’ chagrin, reshot the ending. (The footage of the original ending promised on the DVD packaging is nowhere to be found.)

Everything that doesn’t hinge on the main plot works. Mr. Spader, with his Mitchum-heavy lids and dangling cigarettes, is the most magnetic—and, in fact, it’s the characters on the margins who are most interesting. Harry Dean Stanton lends weight to the role of Andie’s layabout single dad, while Annie Potts as Iona, the manager of the record store that Andie works at, fits the moody music she plays. And despite Duckie’s insufferability, Mr. Cryer gives a wonderful, brave performance, especially in his hold-nothing-back lip-synching of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.”

A year after Pretty in Pink, Mr. Hughes got the ending he wanted with Some Kind of Wonderful. Enter gender reversal: Eric Stoltz played the lower-class Keith (once again, the opening sequences reveal the poor kid to literally live on the other side of the tracks), with Mary Stuart Masterson as Watts, the best friend who’s in love with him, and Lea Thompson as Amanda, the girl for whom he pines. But Hardy (Craig Sheffer), Amanda’s rich ex-boyfriend, wants to quash it.

Mr. Hughes and Mr. Deutch wisely lay the groundwork of a first kiss between Keith and Watts, and their outcast friendship is less one-sided than that of Andie and Duckie, all of which points to an ending that improves on Pretty in Pink’s. But a bizarre third act has Keith unloading his college fund on a mega-date with Amanda, which includes squandering his savings on a pair of diamond earrings, a move that’s supposed to symbolize—well, it’s not really clear. And so John Ashton, as Keith’s apoplectic father, is the sole voice of reason in the final 20 minutes (presumably not the intent of the maniacally antiauthoritarian Mr. Hughes, who in interviews has scoffed about a college education); then the credits roll, and the Hughes teen oeuvre comes to an unsatisfying close. (The defeated filmmakers would soon collaborate on The Great Outdoors.)

And yet even these second-tier films, treating adolescence with gravity and sensitivity, mesmerized a nation of kids. The emotional moments in teenage life in which the heart races fastest—a first kiss, the seconds before a confession, the nausea of jealousy—should seem overblown to an adult viewer, but the films’ openheartedness is powerful enough to recall painful buried memories.

Ironically, it might be teens today who would scoff at such fumbling intensity. Fifteen minutes into Pretty in Pink, Blane predicts the future of teenage social life. From across the high-school library, he hijacks Andie’s computer screen with a simple message: “Do you want to talk?” Decades later, millions would follow in his footsteps with MySpace and instant-messaging, and a generation would know diaries as something to be shared.

What Pretty in Pink doesn’t predict so well is the future of the teen film. Though Mr. Hughes’ influence is apparent in commercial failures like My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks, the lure of today’s dramas has quickly moved from identification toward purely aspiration. The O.C. (tag line: “It’s nothing like where you live. And nothing like you imagine”) abandoned class issues early on in favor of debating the niceties of Chrismukkah; then Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County dispensed with authority figures altogether; while the Duff sisters play the Hilton sisters in Material Girls.

How can anyone possibly see his or her own life reflected in this? It’s only natural that we’d be flummoxed. The Pretty in Pink fans of 1986 are long past the teenage experience, decades older but not yet raising teenagers of their own. Better to just let it go. As Andie warns the 32-year-old Iona in Pretty in Pink, “You’re gonna OD on nostalgia.”