Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Christmas List Without the Pressure

I know. Already you’re behind. Back in July, you made a list of all the things you’d do for the holidays, back when you thought you’d suddenly turn super-human. You bought a glue gun, for heaven’s sake, because you just knew you’d have time to make wreaths and centerpieces and hand-made cards. You’d have plenty of time to clean; heck, you’d refinish the floors. You’d find a very special new side dish that would become a family classic. You'd be worshiped. Your holiday table would look like a magazine and you wouldn’t say one harsh word to your sister even though her idea of helping is standing in the kitchen door with a dish towel.

Okay. Put down that list and back away. Nobody has to get hurt here.

You need a new list, that’s all. Just like when you have to exchange a gift because, while your mom is a dear sweet soul, she still tries to dress you in pink argyle.

Here’s what you’re going to do. Find a movie and watch it. And you’re only going to be interrupted if you want to be, maybe by trips to the kitchen for a snack reload. You’re going to turn off the phone and the tablet, and throw a tree skirt over them; then send the kids to their friends’ houses. I’m sure their parents would love visitors this time of year. Tell everybody you’re going to spend an evening watching something that doesn’t have a promo creeping onto your screen telling you to watch something later, instead of enjoying what you’re watching now.

But what to watch? 
Here’s where the new list comes in. 

There are plenty of classic Christmas tales that show up over the holidays, and show up and show up and show up: A Christmas Story; It’s a Wonderful Life; Miracle on 34th Street; Home Alone; White Christmas (described by a friend as “the whitest musical ever made”); and umpteen versions of Christmas Carol.

But, while I was not thinking about whether I can spatchcock a 14-pound turkey or bake five sides at five temperatures in two ovens, I went back through dozens of films set during the holidays and made a list of some of the ones I’d like to spend time and calories on.

See if there’s anything on it for you.

My final list is eclectic, but then I love all kinds of films. It might be tilted a bit toward period movies, because that’s where I live most of my creative life, with my heroine screenwriter. In addition, my picks were influenced by availability. I would have recommended Remember the Night (Barbara Stanwyck & Fred MacMurray), but it’s not easy to get hold of. You can catch it, however, December 17 on Turner Movie Classics.

Here we go. A few picks, in reverse order of preference, for your consideration.

5. The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)
Bette Davis, Monty Wooley
Written by Julius and Philip Epstein, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart; Directed by William Keighley

Sheridan Whiteside, famous wit, radio host and literary critic, takes over the small-town Ohio home of local leading citizens when he’s temporarily confined to a wheelchair after falling on their icy steps during a speaking tour. Gloriously spoiled and self-centered, he commands the household, manipulates lives without a second thought, and entertains an eccentric parade of visitors, many of whom were based on real life celebrities such as Noel Coward, Harpo Marx and Gertrude Lawrence. [Alexander Woollcott was the real-life inspiration for Whiteside.] 

Played by Monty Wooley without pulling punches, Whiteside is a tyrant used to adoration and obedience. But when he goes too far and threatens the happiness of his secretary, who’s fallen for a local Joe, he — for Christmas Day at least — is forced to consider the consequences of his behavior. 

While Bette Davis is pitch-perfect as his uptown-girl secretary, it is not a perfect film. The staging is, well, stagey. And the local Joe is out of his league. (Many otherwise entertaining period films are marred by a weak performance from someone the studio had under contract for their looks.)

Still, it’s a spirited, highly diverting time-capsule glimpse of Broadway legends Kaufman & Hart sending up their celebrity friends and the people who take abuse to be around them.

Try something tart with it, like a tall glass of holiday-red Campari and soda.

If you’re not drinking, something salty, like peanut brittle.

4. Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan
Written by Lionel Houser and Adele Comandini; Directed by Peter Godfrey

Leave your logic out in the cold, make yourself a hot buttered rum, curl up and enjoy Barbara Stanwyck in this screwball tale of a popular homemaking & food writer who enraptures readers with magazine articles full of blissful details about her perfect life on a Connecticut farm — all of which is a total fraud. Elizabeth Lane, the envy of millions of American women, lives is a New York apartment and can’t boil an egg. Because she loaned him money to buy his restaurant, a local chef has been dishing her recipes while she invents the rest.

When her publisher (unaware of her deception — I told you, leave the logic outside) decides it would be great publicity for her to entertain a naval war hero for the holidays, she has to scramble to find what she needs, beginning with a farm in Connecticut, someone to pass as her husband, and a baby.

Dennis Morgan, popular as both a singer and actor in his career, in thoroughly winning as the sailor she falls for, and their forbidden attraction (remember, she’s supposed to be perfectly married) gives this light entertainment some heart. Sidney Greenstreet as her publisher, determined to get off his doctor-mandated diet and get some of her famous cooking, and SZ Sakall, as the anxious chef trying to derail the heroine’s pending marriage to the wrong man, add fine decorative touches to this holiday package.

3. Die Hard (1988)
Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, Alan Rickman
Written by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, based on a novel by Roderick Thorp; Directed by John McTiernan

McTiernan’s shatter-the-glass spectacle is over the top in so many ways. But most of them work, thanks to the confluence of McTiernan’s taut direction, the source material from Roderick Thorp, and the lead performances — Bruce Willis at his wise-acre best; Bonnie Bedelia, who makes a complete character out of a mostly reactive role; and Alan Rickman as the masterfully smooth villain. [Don’t tell me J.K. Rowling didn’t change the nature of Severus Snape after seeing Rickman’s performance in the first Harry Potter film.]

You probably know the plot. You’ve seen variations of it tried dozens of times since: supposed terrorists hijack an entire building in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve and demand a fortune to release their hostages. Only a New York detective, accidentally there while visiting his estranged wife, stands in their way. 

After a long day of holiday shopping, set out a good bottle of whiskey and a big bowl of caramel corn, and remind yourself — even when the stubborn stupidity of upper-echelon law enforcement reps and the trite portrayal of journalists begin to grate — why action film makers have been trying and failing for decades to match Die Hard’s impact.

To this day when a building blows up on screen, David and I say (often in unison): “We’re gonna need a shitload of screen doors.”

2. We’re No Angels (1955)
Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, Aldo Ray
Written by Ranald MacDougall, based on a play by Albert Husson; Directed by Michael Curtiz

It’s not often you get light-hearted and Devil’s Island in the same sentence, let alone in a holiday film.

Three convicts escape the Devil’s Island prison and insinuate themselves into the lives of a sweet, but bumbling local shop-keeper, his wife and their daughter, with robbery in mind to fund their trip off the island. While perfecting their plan, they discover their intended victims are facing ruin at the hands of an officious, but respectable relative who considers it just good business to throw them out and break the daughter’s heart by forbidding her to marry his son.

What are criminals to do? With a blithe disregard for traditional morality, they dispense their own justice, and disarm you completely while they’re doing it.

Bogart holds his own, toe to toe, with Ustinov in snappy patter and droll asides. And Aldo Ray as their young, amoral pal is a grand foil for them both. [You should catch Ray’s brilliant performance as the dim-witted boxer in the Tracy & Hepburn vehicle Pat and Mike. The man didn’t get to make enough good movies.]

I think you need to munch on some old fashioned sugar cookies for this one, and open a bottle of something sparkling.

Now we get to my #1s. Yes, two of them.

Your choice here depends on whether you’d like a holiday story about love or a really dysfunctional family.

1. The Lion in Winter
Peter O’Toole, Katherine Hepburn
Written by James Goldman, based on his play; Directed by Anthony Harvey

First, big thanks to Annamaria, who reminded me about this classic film. We were chatting about our holiday favorites, and she said, “Lion in Winter.” I laughed out loud. Then immediately realized how brilliant a choice that was and decided to steal (uh, homage) the idea.

Acting doesn’t get much better than O’Toole and Hepburn as King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Once passionate for each other, his affairs and her conspiracies have turned love’s flame into a relentless desire to immolate the other. After years confined by the king for her attempts to overthrow him, Eleanor is invited to spend Christmas 1183 at court and together as a family — and what a family. Two parents and three sons feasting on treachery, all plotting to manipulate the others and control who will be named Henry’s heir.

Beyond the two leads, there’s the treat of seeing Anthony Hopkins long before the fava beans and nice Chianti as son Richard; a naughty, deceitful turn by Timothy Dalton as the king of France; and the frustration of John Castle as son Geoffrey, who is every bit as conniving as the others, but can’t figure out why no one wants him on the throne. You might find the characterization of son John a bit off-putting, to put it mildly. Henry’s determination to name this filthy and not-too-bright scoundrel his heir is only explicable because Richard is a bit too close to mommy, who encouraged him to lead rebellions.

But oh my, when O’Toole and Hepburn parry and thrust with Goldman’s bright, bracing dialog, the sky lights up.

You’ll need something to keep you warm though. Lion in Winter also does a terrific job of showing that winter in a medieval castle was, figuratively and literally, not for the thin-skinned. So maybe a throw rug and big mug of mulled wine.

Of course the heat of the constant family friction might help a little.

Outside of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, no film couple has been so dysfunctional and so riveting.

1. While You Were Sleeping (1995)
Sandra Bullock, Bill Pullman, Jack Warden
Written by Daniel G. Sullivan and Fredric LeBow; Directed by Jon Turteltaub

This film is first-line proof of the adage that 90% of directing is casting.

Lucy is a lonely young woman (and a bit of a recluse) who longs for love while selling tokens in a Chicago transit booth. She fantasizes about a future with a handsome lawyer (Peter Gallagher) she sees every day on the platform, and when he’s accidentally shoved off it and knocked unconscious by thieves on Christmas Day, she jumps onto the tracks to save him. At the hospital, where he remains in a coma, a nurse overhears her musing “I was going to marry him,” and, quickly, not only has Lucy been ushered to the man’s side but also embraced by his family as his fiancée. Then she meets his bother.

It’s a credit to the director Turteltaub, Bullock and Warden (as the family’s longtime friend who knows her secret) that you’ll buy why she can’t tell them the truth, over and over. And the actors playing the wacky members of the family pull real people out of what on the page would look hokey and jokey. The cast even manages to beat back the efforts of the musical score to tip your insulin balance.

Bullock and Pullman are at the top of their game, and love unfolds quietly and naturally. The scene between the two ought-to-be lovers on the slippery pavement in front of her apartment is a classic.

You have to have chocolate for this one, maybe a whole chocolate cake. And in honor of that scene, how about a little ice wine to go with it?

Do you have your own holiday-film favorites? Let’s hear them.

Sheila York

Copyright 2013, Sheila York


  1. So one of my favorite Christmas movies was made for TV. It's " Christmas Without Snow" starring John Houseman and Michael Learned. It's about a community performace of "Messiah." I don't remember much about the plot but I saw it a lot because my mom loved it. I don't think I've watched it since my mom died some years ago. I think every good Christmas film needs music and Handel wrote some of the best. Everyone needs to move past "Messiah" at some point and listen to all the other glorious stuff But I digress. . .
    Oh, and a few words about "White Christmas." This is what I've learned about the various stars of the film over the years. Let me first say that all of these things may or may not be true:

    Bing Crosby was a miserable human being and a terrible father.
    Rosemary Clooney took amphetamines to remain thin.
    Vera Ellen suffered from anorexia.
    Danny Kaye dated Laurence Olivier.
    I don't know anything the least bit salacious about Mary Wickes or Dean Jagger (and I'm always ready to sing "We'll Follow the Old Man.")
    Gosh, Sheila, this was fun. I've gotten a lot off my chest.
    P.S. I loathe "It's a Wonderful Life."

    1. Every few years, I'll catch White Christmas, which is about as sterilized a love story as one can get, so completely the 1950s stereotype of good, clean fun. There isn't a genuine emotion in it, though Jagger comes as close as anyone. And yes, I will sing "We'll Follow the Old Man" for days after. What a terrific song that is!

  2. Dear Sheila, I'm really impressed by your extraordinary knowledge of the film world! I can't give you my faves, as I'm just not savvy re many movies. I never connected the holidays with movies! So, I'm just writing this to say I admire YOUR expertise - and wish YOU the best holiday for 2013 EVER! Thelma

    1. Thanks. I'm a movie addict. And thank you for your kind wishes. May I return the favor with a greeting my friend Mariann Moery sent me. It's a quote from Mary Ann Radmacher, and while I'm not at all into 'inspirational' books, I like the sentiment:
      may your walls know joy,
      may every room hold laughter,
      and every window open to great possibility!

  3. Sheila, I am honored that you included my favorite: The Lion in Winter. The holidays are karma carnivals for all families and can show even legendary English royals as dysfunctional. Compared to H2 and his wife and kids, we can all feel apple-pie wholesome.

    I am going to get the others. Except maybe While You Were Sleeping. I cannot bear Sandra Bullock. The only movie of hers that I have seen all the way through is the recent Gravity. I wanted to see the special effects and of course the very special George Clooney (nephew of the fabulous Rosemary--who was actually quite fat whenever I saw her). Luckily, Bullock spent a lot of Gravity behind a space walk mask, so we were spared that I-am-a-movie-star-because-I-am-so-damn-cute smirk she always sports.

    1. I'm a fan of Ms. Bullock. I think she does fine work in While You Were Sleeping, making a character that on the page seems wimpy and unbelievable into a charmer. Much of what actors rely on throughout their careers can hinge on what their 'advisors' tell them works for them. And the projects that they get offered. Most actors have very little control over what films they get to do, contrary to, I think, public perception. Yeah, she's relied on that cute thing a bit too much. But I'll give about anything she does a chance.

  4. I'd forgotten that The Man Who Came to Dinner happened at Christmas. It's a great one. Here's my three favorite Christmas movies: A Christmas Carol, the version with Alistair Sim, which was the first thing I ever saw on television, at Bill O'Neil's house in Crystal Lake, Illinois, before anybody else in town had a TV. Another Christmas Carol done by the Disney studio, with Scrooge McDuck as Scrooge, Mickey as Bob Cratchit, and Goofy playing the ghost of Marley. We used to watch it when John was a little boy. The third is A Christmas Story, because of Jean Shepherd, whose worldview informed my own ever since the time I saw him give a talk at the Rutgers Student Center in 1958. In those days he had a radio show and was worshiped by beatniks. How I loved that man. Those riveting blue eyes. You could drown in them. I always hoped we would meet sometime; he only lived right over in Princeton; I was crushed when I heard he had died.

    1. What wonderful stories. You always give such context! I am determined to get my hands on that Disney film. I recall loving that so much. I must have been, like, 8, and I'm thinking what brilliant casting it was to put Scrooge McDuck into the role. I could judge casting, but apparently the brain was insufficiently developed to realize these were, uh, cartoon characters.

  5. I also love the Alistair Sim "A Christmas Carol" which also stars a young Patrick McNee.

  6. Indeed, as the young Marley. The Sim version is my favorite version. I thought it was a nice (as in inspired, not as in pleasant) touch by the screenwriter to have Scrooge and Marley later buy out Fezziwig's business cheap. How concisely that demonstrates their descent into slavish following of the free market. They take over the business rather than help their beloved old master when he falls on hard times. That isn't in the Dickens story.

  7. You've inspired me to watch Lion in Winter which I enjoyed many ( many!) years ago when it first came out. And While You Were Sleeping is a charmer, IMHO. I'm confessing to a corny streak that comes out this time of year. I like Love, Actually, the way it weaves together multiple stories and the way they range from ridiculous to hilarious to heartbreaking. ( I defy even Scrooge to not have his heart hurt by the Laura Linney story) And I like The Holiday, with Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet. Not even a little believable but who cares? It's a movie. It's fun to watch. And there are moments that charm, including every one with that old pro Eli Wallach.

  8. Didn't make you want to see Die Hard again?? hahaha

  9. Hey! We forgot The Shop Around the Corner!

    1. I LOVE The Shop Around the Corner. Too bad they never made a good movie of She Loves Me.

  10. It would have made my top 10, but I'd gone that far, the blog would have been a novella. Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as store clerks (in Hungary) who hate each other, but are falling in love as anonymous pen pals. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, who also directed Carole Lombard's last film, the hilarious To Be or Not to Be, which is not a holiday film, but wowsa, do I recommend it!