Sunday, August 09, 2009

Passings: Budd Schulberg and John Hughes

It’s facile to compare the lives of two people who die within days of each other. Individuals whose names would ordinarily never be spoken in the same sentence are irrevocably joined. They’re linked only through quirks of fate and the calendar, yet the mind can’t help making connections, drawing parallels.

Budd Schulberg died on Wednesday after a full life at the age of 95. His legacy includes What Makes Sammy Run, one of the essential Hollywood novels. On the Waterfront, which he wrote, remains both a gripping drama and a maddening artifact of a troubled American era. (Schulberg testified voluntarily before HUAC and named others working in Hollywood who had been members of the Communist party in the 1930s.) A Face in the Crowd, with its homespun media demagogue, has lost none of its prophetic power. Schulberg’s long tenure as a boxing correspondent yielded the novel (and eventually the film) The Harder They Fall.

John Hughes died on Thursday, too young at age 59. He had largely retreated from filmmaking. Every few years there would be a swirl of rumors that he’d return to directing, and I always hoped he would.

I was a teenager during Hughes’s glory years in the 1980s, so you’d think that his movies meant the world to me. You’d be wrong. I still haven’t seen Sixteen Candles in its entirety. My first exposure to The Breakfast Club was on VHS at a friend’s “movie party.” I didn’t succumb to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off until late in its run. I actively resisted the Hughes oeuvre at the time. I didn’t need movies about adolescent misery by some pandering adult; I was living it. (I was a pretentious little ass in those days. I’m a pretentious big ass now.) It’s a tribute to Hughes’ particular genius that my blind impulse for self-preservation is one he would have readily understood.

The Breakfast Club may be glib, but its depiction of high school is unerring. We cling to our labels even as we long to shed them. Bueller is Hughes’ greatest achievement, a daft charmer about the porous boundary between youth and adulthood. You can worry to excess as a kid – it will surprise no one to learn that Alan Ruck’s Cameron was the first movie character I ever truly identified with – and you can forget as a grown-up that taking time for yourself is easy and vital. The Vacation movies, or the first and third ones at any rate, expose the truth that parents are slaves to expectation as much as their offspring are. They’re also funny as hell.

It’s unfair to knock Hughes for the narrow focus of his films. Life got small before the pictures did. Schulberg wrote about the wider world, about the complex systems of institutions and the demands they make on individuals, because he could. Hughes took as his subject the everyday woes of white suburban teenagers and the white suburban parents they became, because by the 1980s that was all audiences cared about. (I warned you upfront that these comparisons would be facile.) Each man engaged with the issues of his day and thus helped to define his era. I bow my head to mourn them, as well as a time when movies were more interesting.

Read Schulberg’s essay on his experience of working with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Thanks to Ed Gorman. Also read about Hughes’ uncommon generosity to a young fan.