“Variety says I have more starts than MGM,” said John Hughes on the phone, a little baffled by Hollywood’s reflexive embrace of him as the next great director.
Being the Next Big Thing in Hollywood was not necessarily his plan.
But things weren’t zipping at the National Lampoon where some of the editors resented him shuttling from the north Chicago suburbs where he lived to New York City—like Goldman’s Hank Paulson would famously do a decade latter.
Wasn’t the Lamp supposed to skewer pretension not bestow it in the form of two residences?
He had resentments at the Lamp too: one editor who would “stink bomb” staff meetings with “deliberate b.o.” [body odor] in Belushi-style offense-as-wit. (See: “I’m a zit”)
“I mean, grow up,” Hughes said.
And another who published his “diary excerpts,” instead of satire and humor, Hughes complained–long before blogging made navel gazing popular.
Of course Hughes contributed his share of frat-boy sex jokes to the satirical magazine which served as a sacrilegious outlet for Baby Boomer rage over the Vietnam war, the establishment, racism and Tricky, Rocky and Kissy in the 1960 and 1970s.
There was his “kiddie porn” cartoon–stick figures seemingly drawn by kids, proclaiming “I Like Sex,” to make the mom and teacher mad (not that the kids knew what sex was yet.)
There was his sexist critique of women’s bodies which included description of the “all night salute,” “low slung butt” and observation–for both men and women–that “everything gets bigger, harrier and closer to the ground,” as we age.
(He also blamed Republicans’ inferiority feelings on their small “pee pees.”)
But Hughes was more proud of his nuanced and researched pieces like a categorization of politicians as different species of bird with their legislative excesses put in Audubon terminology.
“I spent hours in the library to get this accurate,” he told me.
Hughes “going script” in the 1980’s while other Lampoon editors were still thinking long form magazine article and book contract was as prescient as writers going online in the 1990s. His secret, he told me, was a…computer (!) which let him write scenes and try them out in different sequences. Quite a concept for Wite-Out/correction tape-ridden writers of the 1980s.
Chronicling the inner life of teenagers in the 1980’s while the “F” machine–Fame, Footloose and Flashdance–documented the outer, was not John Hughes’ only first.
Who can remember a movie about stay-at-home dads before Mr. Mom with Michael Keaton defensively answering the door with a chainsaw to offset the apron? Teri Garr, his working spouse, pitching a mom-concocted tuna fish campaign to ad executives while Martin Mull, her boss, rolls his eyes?
Hughes is credited with promoting soundtrack to storyline and having such a recognizable imprimatur he was the first writer to be promoted to an adjective as in “a John Hughes film.”
But he was also early to acknowledge the dysfunctional, one-parent and alcoholic families that have only grown since the 1980s.
And who had heard of email before Molly Ringwald sent her electronic gambit to her crush in school in one of his movies?
Though Hughes’ career began with Animal House-leavened movies like National Lampoon’s Class Reunion and National Lampoon’s Vacation, he was diffident and contemplative in person and not likely to use the F word.
Nor would he talk about himself.
The only thing Hughes loved more than asking you questions–and follow-up questions! and getting material for stories–was helping you.
While still a gleam in Hollywood’s eye and shuttling between New York and Chicago on the Red Eye, he told me how he was setting the young man who mowed his lawn up with his own landscaping business.
Over a toast and marmalade breakfast at Walker Bros Original Pancake House–the Wilmette, IL setting of the famous Timothy Hutton/Elizabeth McGovern date scene in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People–Hughes told me he was going to be spending a lot of time in Los Angeles.
But rather than talking about Breakfast Club and the fact that he was getting more famous than God, Hughes wanted my husband to explain to him…how to back up an 18 wheeler truck. “What do you do then?” he kept asking.
Who knows–maybe it ended up in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
MARTHA ROSENBERG can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org