Friday, August 7, 2009

Friday Fantasies: John Hughes and Willie Nelson

Unless you live in an underground cave, with no access to radios, televisions, newspapers, and the Internet, you’ve probably already heard that the legendary filmmaker John Hughes passed away unexpectedly yesterday morning at the tender age of 59. Since the tragic news surfaced, there has been an outpouring of support, gratitude, and grief for the man who literally cornered the “teen angst” market in the 1980s and launched the careers of many familiar faces, from Matthew Broderick to Molly Ringwald. Bloggers the wide world over have been paying tribute to Hughes, and many of his former colleagues have expressed their fondness for the once-prolific writer, director, and producer.

As with many of his fans, I’ve seen several of his films – namely, Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), Weird Science (1985), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), Planes, Trains, & Automobiles (1987), and She’s Having a Baby (1988) – so many times that I’ve lost count. Even Mr. Mom (1983) and Pretty in Pink (1986), both of which he wrote but didn’t direct, have a special nook in my heart – despite the fact that I always wish Andie had chosen Duckie at the end of Pretty in Pink.

One reason that Hughes’ untimely death has affected so many people is that he seemed to be a genuinely nice, down-to-earth guy (which, no doubt, influenced his decision to leave image-conscious Hollywood so many years ago). Another reason we loved Hughes so much is that, through his movies, he seemed to understand an entire generation – and all the confusion, resentment, loneliness, vulnerability, and melodrama that went with being a teenager. Although his films made us laugh, there was always an undercurrent of something else in his stories, whether it was learning to accept who we are (as in The Breakfast Club), to live in the moment (as in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), or to open our hearts to those in need (as in Planes, Trains, & Automobiles). For that – if for no other reason – we will always be grateful to John Hughes.

At times, our collective mourning can drive me crazy. When Walter Cronkite died a few weeks ago, I was unnerved by the outpouring of praise – not because I thought he didn’t deserve it (for he certainly should’ve been applauded for striving to be an unbiased journalist in a world filled with opinions), but because we’d heard little or nothing about him for years. It was as if people had prepared their speeches, their videos, and the like and ignored him until the inevitable day of his death, when he was no longer around to see the positive impact that his life had made on others. Perhaps that sounds cynical, but I believe in letting people know directly (if you can and it doesn’t seem stalker-like) what they’ve meant to you.

To be fair, though, it’s not always possible to connect one-on-one with our role models and the celebrities we respect, and although I was disgusted by the weeping aftermath of Michael Jackson’s death, I do understand why the passing of certain celebrities touches us deeply. Through their work, we feel that we know them, that we are connected to them somehow, and that it matters when they pass from our lives forever. And while I’m passing judgment here, I can understand why John Hughes’ death – more than Michael Jackson’s – has affected the masses in such a way. After all, we feel as though we’ve lost a friend, a neighbor, someone who didn’t lord over us, as so many celebrities seem to do, but who actually “got” us.

Hughes’ death, however, hasn’t just forced me to remember him – and his cinematic legacy. It’s reminded me (yet again) how fragile and precious life is... that none of us has a guarantee of anything and that, as Ferris Bueller so wisely states, “Life moves pretty fast. You don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Of course, Hughes’ death also makes me lament the fact that I’ll never have the chance to tell him how much he meant to me, and it prods me to consider all the other creative heroes that have died in my lifetime – actors like Paul Newman, writers like Kurt Vonnegut, musicians like George Harrison – people who, through their movies, books, and songs, helped to shape the person I am today.

Luckily, though, my biggest hero is still with us. Willie Nelson, controversial as he might be, has always been my favorite famous person. For me, there’s just no contest. I’ve been listening to his music for as long as I can remember, and I’ve loved every damn song I’ve ever heard, from “Heartland” to “On the Road Again.” Whenever I’m feeling blue, it’s Willie Nelson that helps me through my funk. There’s just something indescribable about his soft, weathered voice, those ubiquitous braids, that unabashed grin. Every time I’ve seen him in concert, I’ve left feeling elated. And it will break my heart when he passes from this world.

But, when he does, I’ll have his music to soothe me, inspire me, and remind me to live life as he has – fully and seemingly without regret. Because, despite tax troubles and misguided love affairs and everything else of which you might not approve, you can't deny that the man’s got heart. And, just as John Hughes was, he’s always been generous with his fans.

When I was fifteen, my mother and I took a trip to Branson, Missouri, and naturally, of all the concerts we saw that week, his was my favorite. I sat in the front row, and given that I was probably the youngest female in a sea of retirees, he actually made eye contact with me during the concert. Afterwards, when he was signing autographs and joking with his fans about his recent IRS dilemma, there was a flicker of recognition when I stepped up for my photo opportunity, told him how much I admired his music and his message, and stood beside my hero for an instant – a moment I’ll never forget.

Years later, when I was going to college in Chicago, I attended a Willie Nelson concert at the House of Blues. After the show, he stepped forward to sign his fans’ programs, T-shirts, and whatever else they wanted autographed. Heedless of his post-concert routine, the HOB staff, which apparently had a strict policy against such fraternizing between musicians and their fans, closed the curtains on Willie. With a sly grin, he stepped from behind the curtains, clearly ignoring the wishes of the house, and I took my chance. I pushed to the front and held up my photo from several years earlier. Willie looked at the picture, smiled at me, and signed the back of the photograph – just before security officials dragged him from the stage. Of course, I have no illusions that he remembered me from the first concert, but it’s still a memory that I will forever treasure. If only because, for an instant, I was able to tell him (without words this time) how much he and his music have meant to me – and always will.


Marian said...

Love this put words to what was in my heart. Thank you for posting this. Beautifully written and expressed.

Laura Martone said...

Thanks, Marian. I'm glad that you enjoyed this post - it was heartfelt, for sure. It's hard to "lose" our heroes - even when they don't know us at all.

Stephanie Faris said...

I was worried for a second Willie Nelson had died and I'd missed it!

Laura Martone said...

Nope, Steph, no need to worry. Willie's still alive and well. Perhaps it was a poorly chosen title for this post... I intended for it to show how Hughes and Nelson have BOTH meant a lot to me, but given Hughes' recent death, I realize now that the title seems to relate them in a much more dire way. My apologies for misleading you.

Steph Damore said...

That is such an awesome story! I love little moments like that between us and our heroes. It reminds me that we're all human, and on the flip side, it also reminds me that you don't have to be famous to touch someone's life.

Laura Martone said...

I agree, Steph. It's the little moments that matter - and we do all have the power to touch someone else positively, whether we're famous or not. A nice sentiment to remember.