John Hughes: A Life in Film
Review by Dale Sherman
Written by: Kirk Honeycutt
Released by: Race Point Publishing
Released on: March 25th, 2015.
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Years ago I went with my wife and friends to see a movie at a multiplex that was also showing what turned out to be the last film John Hughes directed, Curly Sue (1991). Halfway through the movie we were watching, there was a bomb scare and we had to clear out of the theater.
As we waited outside for the all-clear, I turned to my friends and said, “The police have found the bomb, and it’s Curly Sue.”
I had mixed feelings when I got a review copy of Kirk Honeycutt’s new book, John Hughes: A Life in Film (Race Point Publishing, 216 pages, $40), which is a 10” x 11” hardback on the life and career of John Hughes. I was and still remain a fan of his work at the National Lampoon – the newspaper parody he created for NL with P.J. O’Rourke is brilliant and a crime that it has never been re-issued – and I’m glad that Honeycutt devotes several pages in his book discussing Hughes’ contributions to the magazine. Yet, something in his films always felt to me as if he were holding back the promises of creativity he showed in his ‘Poon years. As if he felt he had to make films a certain way not because the studios demanded it, but because the audience demanded it. Sometimes I think it may simply have been a matter of my edging out the age-group Hughes was aiming for in his films, being just a little college-bound to find much in common with his tales.
Yet, even with that hesitation, I can deny that John Hughes had an impact on movie-making. As it stands, getting the book was rather timely in a way, as I had just had a book published about Quentin Tarantino (Quentin Tarantino FAQ from Applause Books) and there were some interesting parallels between the two. Both were writers who became directors in order to make sure their work appeared as written. Both were known as being favorable to input by the actors. Most importantly, both took age-old genres – in Tarantino’s case, that of the action film; for Hughes, the teenage comedy – and turned them around to the point where they became genres on to themselves. Don’t believe this? How many times have you read or heard about a movie that was described as being like “a Tarantino movie” or a “a John Hughes film”? What both achieved revolutionized the formats, even if some of it looked a bit familiar at the same time. No matter how I feel about Hughes, as with Tarantino, to ignore his work is to ignore Filmmaking History 101.
Fortunately, Honeycutt is not ready to simply give us a sanitized “feel good” review of John Hughes films, and it is this that makes his book an informative one for readers. Honeycutt is not above pointing out the inconsistency in Hughes’ work, detailing earlier drafts of films that ended in much darker ways (such as National Lampoon’s Vacation ending with shooting the equivalent of Walt Disney, or Mr. Mom featuring the mother character being a nasty woman who gladly commits adultery when given a chance), as well as how Hughes admitted that he had no intention of ever ending a movie on “a negative note.” The man who many saw as having all this freedom in a restrictive creative world as Hollywood held himself back just as much, if not worse, than many others. For this reason, as well as his tendency to play to his niche as the guy who writes about younger and younger kids in trouble (leading to such excruciating sugar-coated films as Curly Sue and Baby’s Day Out), while there may be an abundance of film work by the man before his death in 2009, a lot of it is forgotten save for a handful of his earliest films.
Honeycutt is also surprisingly frank about the dark side of Hughes’ success in an attempt to balance out a lot of the high notes that many readers and most fans of the writer/director will instantly recognize. Although John Hughes may have been known for this sweet little films about teenage life and happenings that can change people’s lives, he could be a hard man to work under, with many making mention of moments where they had fallen out of his grace (and in some cases repeatedly over the years). Hughes can also be seen as both willing to make adjustments in the script to benefit the actors, while at the same time, refusing to rewrite material if he felt what he had on the page was perfect.
This is not to say that Honeycutt has leaned on the negative for the book. Much of the book deals with the creation of the films Hughes was involved (it may surprise people to find how relatively few movies he actually directed, passing off that duty to others and even trying to groom some to become him in a sense), and the book stays positive much of the time. Oddly though, the “coffee table” design of the book may deter some from reading it. The big size hardback with plenty of pictures from a variety of projects Hughes was involved and not involved unfortunately suggests to potential buyers that the interior writing will be glossy and without the in-depth study of Hughes’ work that Honeycutt bring to readers inside. Thus, while the packaging is splendid, it may unfortunately send the wrong message to potential buyers.
I do have some minor quibbles with some of Honeycutt’s writing. Although heavily researched, Honeycutt tends to give Hughes too much credit as to what he accomplished with films like The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, suggesting that darker topics and ironic staging of character developments (where the “dorks” don’t always win and “bad guys” aren’t always so bad) had never been done before in films aimed at younger audiences. This wasn’t really the case by the 1980s, where films catering to teenagers were already doing such elements on a regular bases even back in the 1970s. Hughes only explored it with a greater sense of honest reactions to situations by the characters than perhaps in earlier films. Honeycutt also leapfrogs over Molly Ringwald’s appearance in Spacehunter, a silly science fiction film in 3-D that had already drawn public attention to the actress before she was seen in Sixteen Candles in 1984, thus paying too much importance into her appearance in the John Hughes film than may have actually been there.
Yet, these are nitpicking issues. Overall, Honeycutt has produced a solid piece of work that examines both Hughes’ films as well as his personal life. Fans may be surprised at some of the revelations mentioned in the text, but Honeycutt’s ability to play fair with this iconic writer/director will attract readers who may not be completely under Hughes’ spell. This is an important element that allows readers to see Hughes as a man who took an existing genre – that of the teenager film – and reshaped it so that he has become the genre itself. Honeycutt delivers a solid review of how John Hughes shaped and was transformed by his career.