Thirty years ago his first movie hit the theaters; for millions of us, it was love at first sight

By Anthony Breznican
November 07, 2014 at 05:00 AM EST

”You couldn’t ignore me if you tried.” Those immortal words sneered by Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club sum up the legacy of the man who wrote them, John Hughes. The writer-director-producer (who died of a heart attack five years ago at age 59) is best remembered for his movies about teenagers, a genre that doesn’t typically age well. But his films endure because he tapped into the truths that stay the same from one generation to the next, even if the fashions and hairstyles may not.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Hughes’ directing debut, Sixteen Candles, the story of a lovelorn high schooler whose birthday turns into a train wreck. It made Molly Ringwald a star and established Hughes, already the hot-property screenwriter of National Lampoon’s Vacation and Mr. Mom, as a filmmaker in his own right. Through his clear-eyed view of the tear-streaked younger years, he found the humor and the heart.

Eventually Hughes moved beyond coming-of-age films, but he never strayed far from family life. Planes, Trains & Automobiles, She’s Having a Baby, Uncle Buck, and even Home Alone always aimed to hit us where we live. Not all were classics (although maybe somebody out there loves Dutch), but that’s a side effect of being so prolific.

Following the 1994 death of his friend and frequent collaborator John Candy, a devastated Hughes retired from Hollywood and moved his family back to his hometown of Chicago. After two decades of prodigious output, Hughes finally heeded the themes of his movies: Don’t live for work, prioritize the people you love, and make the most of the moment.

Now the teenagers of the teenagers who flocked to his films in the ’80s are discovering Hughes and falling in love with him themselves. His work feels as vital as ever. We just can’t ignore John Hughes. Not that we’re trying.

John Hughes, Author
Hughes based his script for National Lampoon’s Vacation on ”Vacation ’58,” a short story he wrote for National Lampoon magazine in 1979. Some of the movie’s most memorable elements — the hick cousins, the dog tied to the bumper, the deceased aunt strapped to the roof — originated in his story. The main differences? ”Vacation ’58” takes place in the Eisenhower era, and the family isn’t heading to fictional Walley World. They’re bound for Disneyland. The first line: ”If Dad hadn’t shot Walt Disney in the leg, it would have been our best vacation ever!”

The Essential John Hughes

National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
In this road-trip saga, a bumbling dad (Chevy Chase) is willing to go through hell for a decent holiday with his family. His fatal mistake? Trying way too hard. ”Moose out front shoulda toldja.”

Pretty in Pink (1986)
Writer, Producer
A girl (Ringwald) from the wrong side of the tracks is wooed by a richie (Andrew McCarthy) and adored by her eccentric BFF (Jon Cryer). James Spader is brilliantly skeevy as a villain in Sonny Crockett suits.

Mr. Mom (1983)
Another classic fatherhood tale. The Michael Keaton comedy taught us never to feed chili to a baby. It also took on a reversal of traditional household gender roles, which was still a pretty novel concept then.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)
Writer, Director, Producer
On Thanksgiving, Steve Martin’s uptight dad endures a cross-country nightmare with a lovable lunk (John Candy). Few movies make you cry so hard after making you laugh so much.

Sixteen Candles (1984)
Writer, Director
A Reagan-era Cinderella story, except instead of wicked stepsisters and a fairy godmother, Molly Ringwald’s awkward birthday girl has to contend with a cringeworthy, clueless family and Long Duk Dong.

Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)
Writer, Producer
Another earnest romance through the prism of class struggle. A sensitive art nerd (Eric Stoltz) pines for the popular hottie (Lea Thompson) while his tomboy best friend (Mary Stuart Masterson) drums away her pain.

The Breakfast Club (1985)
Writer, Director, Producer
One of the best movies about friendship ever made. Hughes took a group of high school stereotypes — the jock, the geek, the rich girl, the weirdo, and the delinquent — and revealed the idiosyncratic soul in each.

She’s Having A Baby (1988)
Writer, Director, Producer
As his audience matured, Hughes shifted his attention away from being a kid to having one with this touching Elizabeth McGovern/Kevin Bacon dramedy. Perfect use of Kate Bush’s ”This Woman’s Work.”

Weird Science (1985)
Writer, Director
Two dweebs (Ilan Mitchell-Smith and Anthony Michael Hall) create the ideal woman (Kelly LeBrock) with magic, computers, and hormonal fantasy. Her attraction to them? ”It’s purely sexual,” she purrs.

Uncle Buck (1989)
Writer, Director, Producer
The comedy about a slovenly, crass uncle (Candy, genius as always) pressed into service as a long-term babysitter counts as another of Hughes’ coming-of-age stories — only this time it’s an adult man who never grew up.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
Writer, Director, Producer
Ferris is selfish, scheming, and so charismatic we wish Matthew Broderick’s hooky-playing hero would take us along for the ride. Let’s face it, most of us are Camerons: inert and scared.

Home Alone (1990)
Writer, Producer
Love it or loathe it, the slapsticky, kid-friendly comedy is Hughes’ biggest commercial hit. It transformed Macaulay Culkin (who’d appeared in Uncle Buck) into a nationwide phenom via his one-man Tom and Jerry routine.

The Quotable Hughes
Few filmmakers were as adept at crafting lines that became instant classics.

”His name is Blane? Oh! That’s a major appliance, that’s not a name!” —Jon Cryer, Pretty in Pink

”So it’s sorta social. Demented and sad, but social.” —Judd Nelson, The Breakfast Club

”I’m Buck Melanoma, Moley Russell’s wart.” —John Candy, Uncle Buck

”Can I borrow your underpants for 10 minutes?” —Anthony Michael Hall, Sixteen Candles

”Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” —Matthew Broderick, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

”Those aren’t pillows!” —Steve Martin, Planes, Trains & Automobiles

”I just want them to know that they didn’t break me.” —Molly Ringwald, Pretty in Pink

The Hughes Universe
The guy liked to play favorites, working with his go-to muses (including Molly Ringwald and John Candy) again and again.

Anthony Michael Hall
National Lampoon’s Vacation, 1983
Sixteen Candles, 1984
Weird Science, 1985
The Breakfast Club, 1985

Molly Ringwald
The Breakfast Club, 1985
Pretty in Pink, 1986
Sixteen Candles, 1984

John Candy

Planes, Trains & Automobiles, 1987
The Great Outdoors, 1988
Uncle Buck, 1989

Macaulay Culkin
Uncle Buck, 1989
Home Alone 1 and 2, 1990, 1992

Chevy Chase
National Lampoon’s Vacation, 1983
European Vacation, 1985
Christmas Vacation, 1989

Meet Edmond Dantès
Edmond Dantès is the hero of Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 novel The Count of Monte Cristo, but it was also Hughes’ latter-career pen name. The press-averse Hughes never explained why, but considering he debuted the moniker with 1992’s dog of a comedy Beethoven, we’d wager he used it for moments that were perhaps not his proudest. See also: 2002’s Maid in Manhattan and 2008’s Drillbit Taylor.

Soundtrack Master
A passionate music fan, Hughes meticulously curated his soundtracks with tunes from new-wave and indie-rock bands including the Psychedelic Furs and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, both featured in Pretty in Pink. Hughes helped these lesser-known groups gain exposure, none more so than Simple Minds, whose ”Don’t You (Forget About Me)” from The Breakfast Club became a generational anthem — and a No. 1 hit. ”That’s probably the coolest thing for me,” Hughes once said. ”I would rather have been a musician than anything else, so I sort of had a vicarious hit.”