Take it away, Ms. Ringwald.
IN life, there is always that special person who shapes who you are, who helps to determine the person you become. Very often it’s a teacher, a mentor of some kind. For me, that person was John Hughes. Along with the rest of the world, I was stunned when I learned that he had died of a heart attack last week at 59.
Not long after hearing the horrible news, I found myself talking on the phone to Anthony Michael Hall, my friend and co-star in several of the movies John directed. His experiences mirror mine to a large extent. Both of us were catapulted from obscurity and planted in the American consciousness through the films that we did with John. Michael, as he prefers to be called, will be forever associated with “geekdom” just as I will always be the girl whose 16th birthday is forgotten. But for both of us, what really matters is less the mark that these films left on the world than the experience of making them with John, the mark it made on us.
We stayed on the phone for a while reminiscing about our old friend and mentor. Since the days of John’s death, we have both been inundated with missives from friends and acquaintances, sending us their condolences the way you would for a close family member. Yet the strange thing is, neither of us had talked to John in more than 20 years.
Most everyone knows that John retreated from Hollywood and became a sort of J.D. Salinger for Generation X. But really, sometime before then, he had retreated from us and from the kinds of movies that he had made with us. I still believe that the Hughes films of which both Michael and I were a part (specifically “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club”) were the most deeply personal expressions of John’s. In retrospect, I feel that we were sort of avatars for him, acting out the different parts of his life — improving upon it, perhaps. In those movies, he always got the last word. He always got the girl.
None of the films that he made subsequently had the same kind of personal feeling to me. They were funny, yes, wildly successful, to be sure, but I recognized very little of the John I knew in them, of his youthful, urgent, unmistakable vulnerability. It was like his heart had closed, or at least was no longer open for public view. A darker spin can be gleaned from the words John put into the mouth of Allison in “The Breakfast Club”: “When you grow up … your heart dies.”
I’m speaking metaphorically, of course. Though it does seem sadly poignant that physically, at least, John’s heart really did die. It also seems undeniably meaningful: His was a heavy heart, deeply sensitive, prone to injury — easily broken.
Most people who knew John knew that he was able to hold a grudge longer than anyone — his grudges were almost supernatural things, enduring for years, even decades. Michael suspects that he was never forgiven for turning down parts in “Pretty in Pink” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” I turned down later films as well. Not because I didn’t want to work with John anymore — I loved working with him, more than anyone before or since.
John saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself. He had complete confidence in me as an actor, which was an extraordinary and heady sensation for anyone, let alone a 16-year-old girl. I did some of my best work with him. How could I not? He continually told me that I was the best, and because of my undying respect for him and his judgment, how could I have not believed him?
Eventually, though, I felt that I needed to work with other people as well. I wanted to grow up, something I felt (rightly or wrongly) I couldn’t do while working with John. Sometimes I wonder if that was what he found so unforgivable. We were like the Darling children when they made the decision to leave Neverland. And John was Peter Pan, warning us that if we left we could never come back. And, true to his word, not only were we unable to return, but he went one step further. He did away with Neverland itself.
“I just remember how fun it all was,” Michael said on the phone.
It was: the concerts he took us to (the blues great Junior Wells at Kingston Mines in Chicago), the endless mixed tapes he made for us and, most of all, the work itself. It doesn’t even seem like you should be able to call it “work” because we enjoyed it so much.
There’s a scene in “Sixteen Candles” where my character, Samantha, and Michael’s character, “the geek,” have a heart-to-heart talk. The scene lasts all of six minutes, but it took us days to film because we were all laughing too hard. John, too. He sat under the camera — his permanent place before directors retreated to the video monitor — while the assistant directors stood around rolling their eyes waiting for him to stop laughing and reprimand “the kids.” But how could he? He was one of us.
About 15 years ago, I wrote John from Paris, where I was living, to tell him how important he was to me. I had been on a François Truffaut kick and had just watched the series of “Antoine Doinel” films that he had made with the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud. There was something in the connection of actor and director that I recognized in us, particularly in the first film of the series, “400 Blows.”
After Truffaut died, I heard that Jean-Pierre Léaud had suffered a kind of breakdown, going so far as to drop flower pots on people from high-storied buildings. This is most likely a rumor, French film lore, but I think I now understand how painful it is to lose someone like that. John was my Truffaut. A week after I sent my letter, I received a bouquet of flowers as big as my apartment from John, thanking me for writing. I was so relieved to know that I had gotten through to him, and I feel grateful now for that sense of closure.
Toward the end of my phone call with Michael, we spent a little time catching up on mutual friends and family. I told him that my 5-year-old daughter, Mathilda, had just secured the part that she wanted in her theater camp — Tiger Lily, the Indian princess in “Peter Pan.” Michael made me promise to invite him to Mathilda’s debut as a fellow thespian. So in a few weeks we’ll drive to the theater and spend a couple of hours with Tiger Lily, Peter, Wendy and the Lost Boys.
Turns out, you can return to Neverland. At least for a little while.