Years ago, one of my friends pitched me on a documentary called Finding Jake Ryan. It would’ve been a humorous and heartfelt search for the actor, Michael Schoeffling, who played the rich, emotionally vacant stud muffin of Molly Ringwald’s dreams in Sixteen Candles. When I suggested that maybe Schoeffling would prefer to go un-found, that perhaps he’d retreated from marginal celebrity because he’d grown tired of being every young girl’s Prince Charming in a Porsche, that her proposed feature was probably a most unwelcome invasion of his sedulously maintained privacy, she seemed unmoved. Schoeffling wasn’t a married father of two who, if the IMDb is to be trusted, runs “a successful business building fine hand-crafted furniture”; he was the unattainable Jake Ryan, yuppie spawn and vapid deflowerer of awkward teenage girls.
If Schoeffling could inspire such feats of documentary-style stalking (thanks, Michael Moore!), the man who created his alter-ego, John Hughes, must be under siege. Though Hughes was often described as the private type back when he was a filmmaking industry unto himself, his subsequent, unexplained retirement to the North Shore suburbs of Chicago has given him the reputation of a latter-day J.D. Salinger. In other words, once the legion of kids he entranced with The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off got old enough to get wistful about his absence (and selective enough to ignore his “creative” output from 1990 on), he went from being one of the least objectionable mainstream directors of the 1980s to “The Bard of Northbrook, Illinois”. And every time someone dusts off one of his old, unpublished screenplays (as recently occurred with Team Apatow’s Drillbit Taylor), the “Where Is He Now” profiles come a-floodin’.
To be fair, the fifty-eight-year-old Hughes cultivates this air of mysteriousness by not granting interviews. He won’t even take cordial, sycophantic meetings with the many filmmakers he’s inspired (though the L.A. Times‘ Patrick Goldstein claims Vince Vaughn finagled a chat during the shooting of The Break-Up). That said, I’ve heard that he’s far from hermitic. Natives of the North Shore inform me that he’s often seen out in public doing the most mundane things: shopping, going to movies, writing full, never-to-be-produced screenplays in Starbucks whilst cackling to himself, “If only they knew I’m doing my best work!” Apparently, he’s not that unapproachable, though most folks seem to leave him alone because they know he knows he spoke to their various insecurities and hopes and longings and whatnot, and they just want to say, “Thanks.” They’ve moved on, he’s moved on, and the universe is, as ever, impassive to all of it.
But there is this need, especially in Hollywood, to wonder why Hughes gave up on directing after the artistic and commercial failure of Curly Sue. To a very limited degree, I get this. Hughes was a gifted filmmaker. His movies were often marvels of pacing (particularly Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Planes, Trains and Automobiles), and he coaxed winningly natural performances out of young, self-conscious actors. Also (and this is discussed in Goldstein’s piece), while Hughes encouraged improvisation, he never let scenes descend into undisciplined riffing. If he were really a soulless bastard manufacturing product, he wouldn’t waste the film on his actors’ precious discoveries. For all the awful imitations Hughes inspired (many of which he produced himself), he connected because some part of him desperately needed to get these stories out there. You can’t be a bullshit artist and make a film as painfully earnest as The Breakfast Club.
With the exception of the frivolous Weird Science (a mess) and Uncle Buck (a serviceable John Candy showcase), Hughes kept trying to connect with the films he personally directed. He also tried to grow up with the flawed She’s Having a Baby and the mostly wonderful Planes, Trains and Automobiles (that closing cue of Blue Room’s “Everytime You Go Away” is sentimental overload), but his formula was getting so telegraphed that you could sense the end was near. Hughes may have been courting a wider audience, but his storytelling rhythm was as predictable as a basic blues progression; ergo, if he wanted to remain relevant, it was time to go from being a tunesmith to an artist. I don’t know what Curly Sue was, but it definitely wasn’t his Empire of the Sun; hell, it wasn’t even his Forrest Gump.
This is, at best, third-hand stuff, but there’s a version of this story that has Hughes handing Home Alone over to Chris Columbus because he believed that Curly Sue was the bigger blockbuster of the two. When audiences rejected the latter, his confidence was allegedly shaken, and he never directed a movie again. I don’t know if this is true, but I have seen Curly Sue, and anyone who thought that shameless heart-tugger would somehow make more coin than a live-action cartoon about a kid employing the Acme method of home security must’ve been completely out of touch with their commercial instincts. God forbid if Curly Sue was actually a “personal” movie for Hughes; that’d be the filmmaking equivalent of Chuck Knoblauch forgetting how to throw to first base.
Even if that’s not what ultimately drove Hughes back to Illinois, his writing and producing efforts throughout the 1990s were so consistently uninspired and, well, awful that we had ample time to not only get used to his absence, but to desire it. His time had passed. But where was the shame in that? Any director would consider themselves lucky to nail the zeitgeist as firmly and completely as Hughes did during the Reagan era. And for those journalists or fans selfish enough to violate the man’s privacy just to ask “Why?”, allow me to answer for him. “When I have something more to say… if I have something more to say… I’ll say it through the medium that brought you here. Now get the fuck out of my way; I’ve got to pay for these groceries.”