Xmas Flix

24 Dec

Besides the likes of Oscar winners such as Olympia Dukakis, Sally Field, and Shirley MacLaine, as well as future Oscar winner Julia Roberts, Steel Magnolias also features a delightful performance by Daryl Hannah, gamely playing against type as Dolly Parton's initially timid assistant, Annelle.

Well, we just had our annual Xmas screening of Steel Magnolias (1989) down at the youth center where I volunteer every week. What’s that, you say? Steel Magnolias? Is that really a Xmas movie? Well, maybe not in the traditional sense although a key sequence takes place during the annual December festivities. Indeed, the play is structured so that every act coincides with a holiday of some kind, beginning with Easter, followed by Xmas, then Independence Day (more than a year later), and onto Halloween before coming back around to Easter.

I like Steel Magnolias, and it’s not the same old-same old Xmas feel good flick. The young people love the mix of campy humor and gut wrenching emotion, or to paraphrase one of the film’s most quotable lines, laughter through tears is one of the audience’s favorite emotions. That noted, I’ve always had a few problems with it–mainly the character Shelby, played by Julia Roberts, the tragic heart of the story that playwright Robert Harling based on his sister.  Sorry, Rob. I just don’t see her as the saint that you clearly intend for audiences. To me, the problem is that at best Shelby is stupid; at worst, she’s selfish and ungrateful. When she tells her mom (M’lynn played by Sally Field) that she “would rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special,” I feel like I’ve been bitch-slapped. After all, haven’t we just seen this young woman have the wedding of her dreams? Isn’t it obvious that her parents absolutely adore her? Her husband doesn’t seem especially bright, maybe even a dolt, but he is clearly smitten with her (in his own way), and it certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s a rich good looking lawyer, yet for some reason, Shelby sees all of that as nothing special and is willing to jeopardize her health and bring emotional turmoil into the lives of her loved ones, so she can have her way–even if for only a half hour. What the bl*%p? Why should  I care about what happens to this uppity twit?

Roberts’s Oscar nominated Shelby aside, there’s still much to recommend in Steel Magnolias, including some howlingly good one-liners delivered with deliciously delectable verve by such showbiz pros as Olympia Dukakis (as Clairee, the well-heeled gossipy widow), Shirley MacLaine (Ouiser, the eccentric rich curmudgeon), and Dolly Parton (Truvy, the glamorous, romance deprived beauty salon owner). Though these actresses are ostensibly playing women, their bitchy repartee renders them something akin to drag queens. To whit:

  • Truvy – There is no such thing as natural beauty…Well, just look at me Annelle. It takes some effort to look like this.
  • Annelle – Oh, I can see that.
  • Clairee – The older you get, the sillier you get.
  • Ouiser –  And the older you get, the uglier you get.
  • Clairee – I’ve just been to the dedication of the new children’s park.
  • Truvy – Yeah? How did that go?
  • Clairee – Beautifully, except Janice Van Meter got hit with a baseball. It was fabulous.
  • Truvy – Was she hurt?
  • Clairee – I doubt it. She got hit in the head.
  • Clairee – The only thing that separates us from the animals is the ability to accessorize.
  • Ouiser – You are too twisted for color TV.

Coming from the mouths of less skilled actresses, these lines would seem bewilderingly mean spirited, but somehow they manage to hit just the right notes to coax audiences into playing along. Of course, female characters that evoke the camp sensibility of drag queens rather than actual women might hold little appeal for a lot of viewers, especially actual women. On the other hand, there has to be a reason that the movie is so beloved more than 20 years after its release, and that Harling’s play is still popular with community theater companies all across the country.

What I like most about Steel Magnolias is Sally Field’s performance as Shelby’s loving, no-nonsense mother. I’ll be frank, I sometimes think that Field has been guilty of trying too hard to prove she’s capable of being a respected dramatic actress in order to break from the light comedies that propelled her to stardom as a teenager in the 1960’s.  Granted, she was brilliant as a woman suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder in the landmark TV adaptation of the fact-based Sybil back in the 1970s–but by the time she got around to winning Oscars for the likes of Norma Rae (1979) and Places in the Heart (1984), she had become insufferable. You like me, indeed. That’s why I was so surprised by how truly masterful her performance in Steel Magnolias is. There are two scenes that are particularly strong, The first occurs during the Xmas portion when Shelby breaks the news about her potentially problematic pregnancy to M’Lynn as the latter busies herself with some holiday baking. M’Lynn worries that Shelby is acting rashly, foolishly, and tries to talk some sense into the young woman while respecting a strained boundary. Every thing Field does in this scene–every inflection, gesture, hesitation, and reaction–reeks of truth, simple and unadorned. There’s absolutely nothing flashy or self-conscious to be found. It’s not that she’s underplaying the scene, exactly, but that she’s playing it exactly right so that it doesn’t look like acting, but look at her hands, her stance, and the sense of exasperation and resignation in her voice. She knows she’s fighting a losing battle from the beginning.  Field’s second great scene requires a bit of a spoiler alert though I think that no such alert should be necessary 22 years later. At any rate, Field is simply amazing as she delivers a graveside monologue late in the movie. In this one, M’Lynn zigzags through extreme emotional terrain: trembling restraint here; full throttle wailing there, and a heck of a lot of other stuff in between. On the DVD commentary, director Herbert Ross marvels at how even though the scene was shot multiple times (in order to capture the reactions of other cast members), Field rose to the performance challenge take after take. That’s pretty impressive.  Good for her. Field was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance in Steel Magnolias, well deserved, as was Roberts, but I guess the Academy thought that Field, who’d earlier won two Best Actress Oscars in the span of five years, had been honored enough.  Of course, it is indeed possible that members of the Academy simply preferred 5 other performances to Field’s, and that’s no doubt true on some level, but my point is that had she not already won two Oscars, her performance might have been given greater weight, greater consideration, when it came time for voters to mark their ballots. The 1989/90 race for the Best Actress Oscar was in itself too twisted for color TV, so I’ll let that go for now.

Snippets of Thomas Newman's Oscar nominated score have been heard in scads of movie trailers in the ensuing years. Robin Swicord, the film's screenwriter and co-producer, was snubbed by the Academy though she was nominated by her peers in the Writers Guild of America for their annual award.

One of my other favorite non-Xmas Xmas movies is Little Women, the 1994 version of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel directed by Gillian Armstrong, featuring Oscar nominee Winona Ryder as aspiring writer Jo.  In this case, the opening scenes are set during the Xmas holiday,  but before the viewer ever sees a single shot of wintry picturesque Concord, Mass. (via Deerfield, Mass.), the filmmakers have already presented a Victorian influenced title sequence accompanied by Thomas Newman’s thrillingly majestic score with lots of trumpet flourishes. Right from the outset, the movie just feels like Xmas, but not today’s sick, commercialized variation with daily reminders about Black Friday sales and the ensuing violence, but the magical sort of Xmas born of childhood imagination. Yes, Virginia, it’s true: this was actually my pick for the best film of 1994, and Michael and I still watch it every year on Xmas morning.

The same year that Sturges made The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, he made Hail the Conquering Hero which also starred Eddie Bracken. Sturges earned Best Original Screenplay nominations for both films; The Miracle of Morgan's Creek was subsequently honored by the American Film Institute in its retrospective of the 100 funniest comedies. It is also included in the Library of Congress's National Film Registry.

Another seasonal favorite around our household in Preston Sturges’s comedy classic The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek starring the incomparable blonde dynamo Betty Hutton and Eddie Bracken. I’d heard about this movie for years, decades, before I sat down and watched it. I knew very little of the particulars other than Hutton played, or plays, a woman who parties a little too hard and marries a young man on his way to fight in WWII; she has no memory of getting married though she conceives a child on her wedding night. Oh yeah. Can you imagine? I mean, this was Hollywood circa 1944, after all. To this day, I think the real miracle is that Sturges was ever able to get the movie made. I once saw Hutton in an interview with Robert Osborne on Turner Classic Movies, and the actress opined that Sturges was able to get away with as much as did in that era because he played everything for laughs. At any rate, I had no idea that this movie was in any way shape or form a Xmas flick when I first viewed it, but I suppose the title’s key work is “miracle.” Hmmm…a young woman has no almost recollection of how she got pregnant, and the story’s climax occurs at Xmas time. Go figure.  This is one hilarious tale, and Hutton, as always, is a marvel though she’s matched every bit of the way by Bracken as an unlikely suitor.

Of the holy trinity of old school Xmas flix, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and White Christmas (1954), I have to admit I’m predisposed to the latter, which I had the pleasure and privilege of seeing in a special big screen presentation at the Lakewood theatre a few years ago.  Of course, no one sings the title tune better than Der Bingle, but it’s not a one man show, not with the likes of Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera Ellen on board–and “White Christmas” isn’t the only worthwhile song in the movie. The tune originally appeared as part of the soundtrack to 1942’s Holiday Inn, starring Crosby and Astaire, and it did indeed win that year’s Oscar for Best Song and eventually set all kinds of records for worldwide sales, per those folks at Guinness. For the lavish Technicolor remake, Berlin wrote a few new tunes, including the Oscar nominated “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” and the camp classic, “Sisters.”  Also in the movie’s favor is splendiferous Technicolor and the wide screen VistaVision presentation, the first film shot in Paramount’s unique process. Backing up to Miracle on 34th Street, let me say that as a child I was thrilled to learn that Edmund Gwen won an Oscar for playing Kris Kringle. Good to know, and well deserved. His performance is the only one we ever really need at this time of year though I do get a bit of kick out of Tim Allen in 1994’s The Santa Clause.

Those are the biggies, but there are a few others: I was working at the movies back in 1990 when Home Alone premiered, and I liked the movie so much that I saw it about a billion times, eventually becoming sick at the very mention of it and avoiding it at all costs for years afterward; however, I recently watched it on TV one day, and I’m glad I was able to find it adorable all over again. Likewise, I manage to watch some or all of A Christmas Story (1983) at least once during the annual TBS marathon. We also make time every year to watch Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) in order to see and hear Judy Garland sing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Garland owns this song in the same way that Bing Crosby owns his. I’m getting the shivers just thinking about it as I write this.

What about all those classic made for TV specials? Give me the original versions of A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)  over How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) and Frosty the Snowman (1969) almost any day. I don’t dislike either of the latter pair, per se, but I don’t love them either.  On the other hand, I thought Jim Carrey was genius in the 2000 live reworking of The Grinch directed by Ron Howard though I was not a huge fan of the production as a whole; it reeked too much of big studio madness. Also, am I the only one who still remembers the Mr. Magoo’s A Christmas Carol (1962)? This was my first exposure to Dickens’s classic, and I’m good with that. Oh, and I have fond memories of watching, and rewatching,  the live-action, Emmy winning The House without a Christmas Tree starring Jason Robards and Lisa Lucas back in the 70s (beginning in 1972)–as well as The Homecoming: A Christmas Story (1971),  the rather bleak but compelling pilot for the popular The Waltons TV show.  The initial telefilm starred the late great Patricia Neal as Olivia Walton, replaced by Michael Learned in the series, and helped send Richard Thomas, who’d been acting almost his whole young life at that point, to the next level of his career in television.

Finally, my sister and I used to regularly watch a made for TV movie entitled Always Remember I Love You (1990) starring Patty Duke and Stephen Dorff that Lifetime used to run during the holiday season, but I haven’t seen it lately. The story involves a young man (Dorff) who finds out that besides being adopted by his wealthy parents, said adoption was not entirely above board, so he runs away to find his biological mom (Duke). This probably sounds just awful, and it’s not too hard to figure out how it will end, but Duke invests it with so much feeling that it’s hard not to get swept up in the emotion of its bittersweet ending. Kudos to Vivienne Radkoff for figuring out a way to end a story on just the right note. What a gift.

Thanks for your consideration…


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