“You see, George, you really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?” [Henry Travers to James Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)]
Ah! Thanksgiving! Christmas! New Year! That happy time of the year where we all get together with our loving families to celebrate the holidays and enjoy being with each other 24-7 for maybe days on end! Rightttt! Anybody want to either slit their wrists or strangle a family member with a Christmas sweater yet? You know what the holiday season too often feels like don’t you! The stress is sort of like being a blindfolded Luke Skywalker diving towards the Death Star firing blanks at the Damned thing. Worse, you immediately start seeing advertisements and promotions (usually starting, a little early, like maybe around May) to buy stacks of gifts higher than Mount Everest for, what seems like, a stadium full of people even if you bankrupt yourself and, if you do not, are mentally guilted into the seventh ring of Hell because you did not!
Movies, TV, theater productions, etc. help promote this myth with about the subtlety of a Brinks truck being dropped on your head from Outer Space. As a result, too often there is more Holiday garbage entertainment than you can humanely stand. However, at times, there are some exceptions to this tidal wave of Holiday dreck or, at least, something unusual or different to peak your interest even if it too isn’t anything more than barely watchable. That is what I will be discussing this month, namely, unusual holiday films or TV.
The first film, and the 800 pound Gorilla in the room, is “It’s a Wonderful Life” (of course). Unless you have been in a coma for seventy years we all know what this one is all about. Director Frank Capra did movies that could be deeply sentimental (critics used to label them Capra Corn). In his career, Capra won three Oscars for best Director for his movies in the 1930s. “Life” was his last Oscar nominated film and it was a box office failure upon release. However, over the years it has basically been the archetypal Christmas/Holiday movie and shown more times everywhere than maybe anything other than “The Wizard of Oz”. I list it, not because of it’s sentimentally, but because of it’s dark and terrifying final third of the movie when George Bailey (James Stewart) is shown by Clarence, his guardian angel (Henry Travers), what life for his loved ones and his home town of Bedford Falls would have been like if George was never born. Capra presents a nightmare vision of broken lives in an economically depressed town full of cheap bars, pawn shops, poverty, and hopelessness. Sentimentally be Damned, the movie is a masterpiece and deserves the recognition it has received over all of these years.
Domestic dramas are also a common holiday theme and a few of them are worth watching. Two of the better ones are “Home for the Holidays” (1995) and “Pieces of April” (2003). Both films pertain to disfunctional families getting together during Thanksgiving with all of their differences and past grievances. “Home” has Holly Hunter as a single mom losing her job and going to her parents home for Thanksgiving. Her gay brother (Robert Downey, Jr.) joins her along with her resentful conservative sister (Cynthia Stevensen) and her Aunt (Geraldine Chaplin) who has beginning dementia. The story is redeemed by Director Jodie Foster’s fine direction of the actors and their interaction with each other which makes, an otherwise unexceptional storyline worth watching. In “April,” the family Thanksgiving gathering is reversed. April (Katie Holmes) invites her dysfunctional family to her Thanksgiving dinner as a means to reconnect to them while also seeing her mother (Patricia Clarkson) one last time before she dies from breast cancer. This movie, which was made on the cost of a shoe string, is also saved by the interactions and the realistic performances of all of the principal actors.
Comedy is another element of holiday movies. Unfortunately, they usually involve children in danger outsmarting adults like “Home Alone” (1990) or stupid family gross out stuff like “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (1989). Oh, and as an aside, every time I see Chevy Chase making another piece of junk in a movie or on TV I wish someone would just duck tape him from head to toe, tie a cinder block sized Christmas fruitcake to each foot and drop him into the nearest deep lake so the world is safe from more of his garbage. However, there are exceptions to the rule especially when the holiday comedy efforts involve “black” comedy. Two examples and with both starring Billy Bob Thornton are “Bad Santa” (2003) and “The Ice Harvest” (2005).
“Santa” has Billy Bob as Willy T. Stoke, a sex addict alcoholic thief who, along with his dwarf assistant Marcus (Tony Cox) and Marcus’s wife Lois (Lauren Tom), rob shopping malls every Christmas after getting hired as a department store Santa and his elf. Billy Bob is wonderfully obscene, vulgar, and hilarious while being comically matched shot for shot by Cox’s building frustration with his partner’s unreliability. The pair are also ably assisted by comic veterans Cloris Leachman and Bernie Mac along with Lauren (“Gilmore Girls”) Graham as Thornton’s Santa Claus “fetish” girlfriend. Besides the actors, the movie also works because it was an idea originally conceived by the Cohen Brothers who were well known for their wildly off the wall original storylines in just about all of their film projects.
In “Ice Harvest” Billy Bob (in a secondary role) is Vic, a crooked businessman and pornographer who is in cahoots with mob lawyer Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) and plan to escape Wichita Falls, Kansas on Christmas Eve with $2 million in stolen mob money. The only problems: (1) all the roads out of town are too icy to drive on forcing the two of them to split up and hide until the roads clear; (2) Charlie gets stuck with his drunken friend Pete (Oliver Platt in a scene stealing performance), who is married to his ex-wife and who is now drawing too much attention to the both of them; and worst of all, (3) a slow realization by Charlie that Vic just might be trying a double-cross by killing him and keeping the money for himself.
Director Harold Ramis (“Caddyshack”) was originally known for only doing comedies and this movie was a big departure for him in that it was basically, the only real hard drama that he had ever done. That might have been due to the screenplay which was co-written by three time Oscar winner Robert Benton (“Kramer vs. Kramer”) and Pulitzer Prize winning writer Richard Russo (“Empire Falls”). The movie was originally and justly criticized for having too little comedy (except for Oliver Platt’s performance) and did poorly at the box office. However, I think the dark noir aspects of the film were far more significant than just using the story to generate cheap laughs. The weather is miserable. The lives of everyone in Wichita Falls are pretty miserable (sort of a larger Bedford Falls with the dark nightmare scenario realized). And most of the characters, even Charlie, to an extent, are morally and ethically miserable. However, you still find in weak-willed, passive, put upon Charlie an everyman survivor to root for and to succeed despite everything being stacked against him. John Cusack’s underplayed and sardonic performance captures this character perfectly and is one of the biggest reasons why this movie is an unexpected Holiday gem.
The supernatural is another staple of holiday films and there are far more bad ones than good ones. The many sentimental versions of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” swamp our imagination but there are others not as well known that are well worth our consideration. One of the best is the movie “Repeat Performance” (1947). The premise (in a sort of “Twilight Zone” way) concerns Sheila Page (Joan Leslie) who has just shot and killed her husband, Barney (Louis Hayward) before he can kill her just before midnight on New Year’s Eve. Distraught, she seeks help from her friends while wishing that she could relive the past year over again. Because her wish was exactly at the stroke of midnight, she is transported, as if by magic, back one year with her husband still alive. Sheila then tries to use the year to change the future so the past does not “repeat” itself. However, some things are just fated to reoccur no matter what you try to do. “Performance” was never more than just a B Movie, but the premise made for some excellent suspense as Sheila desperately keeps trying and failing to keep the prior past’s conclusion from occurring again. Leslie, an actress who never really got many good roles does not really distinguish herself here either. However, the one standout performance in the film is by Richard Basehart (an actor who also never got the recognition that his talent deserved) as her mentally fragile best friend William. This was definitely a different way to spend the New Year than in other holiday films.
An even better example of the supernatural during the holidays was for a TV episode (bet you thought I wasn’t going to include TV in my post did you) of the show, “The Outer Limits” (1995 to 2002). This show was a revival of the old “Outer Limits” S/F show of the mid-nineteen sixties and it was shown on Showtime, the Syfy channel, and in syndication. The episode I want to mention was in the first season of the show and is called “The Conversion” (06/09/95). It stars Frank Whaley as Henry, who did a 5 year stretch in prison for a scam that cost a lot of people their life savings for his former boss, who promptly forgot about him. Now, gun in hand, he is about to seek revenge on the boss during a Christmas Eve company party. A mysterious woman (Rebecca De Mornay) tries to stop him but only succeeds in deflecting his aim while in the following confusion he appears to shoot and kill 3 other people while being badly wounded himself. He escapes but while on the run seeks shelter in a small roadside tavern where, sitting at a table after covering his wound with a bathroom towel, he is approached by a man named Lucas (John Savage) who sits down at his table, pays for Henry’s meal, and begins to talk with him while giving Henry enough clues to convince him that he knows who Henry really is.
The rest of the episode consists of Lucas’ conversation with Henry where Lucas might be a sort of Guardian Angel, or might be the Devil, or might be a sort of Alien, or might even be something else as he discusses how Henry might be able to change his life to be a better person with Lucas’ knowledge of what Henry’s future might be like if he doesn’t change his view on what is most important for a person to believe in, and to do. Both Whaley (“Pulp Fiction”) and Savage (“Deer Hunter”) give some of the best performances of their careers but maybe the real revelation here is the fine direction of this episode by first time director, actress Rebecca De Mornay (“Risky Business”). She uses few gimmicks or special effects. She keeps the focus almost entirely on the two actors’ conversation where they express contradictory viewpoints with little histrionics or gaps in logic. By the end of the episode, the surprise ending is both powerful and moving which is the direct result of De Mornay’s refined and restrained directing. De Mornay has never directed anything else since then and that is truly a shame.
I guess, dear reader, whether your viewpoint is “It’s a Wonderful Life” or something smaller and more intimate, like “The Conversion” holidays really should be for reflection, for hope, for treating everyone better, and for showing care for everyone rather than just your immediate loved ones or friends. We’re really all are just people trying to get along together!