As of Wednesday morning — the morning before Thanksgiving — I had yet to visit the market. For those of you unfamiliar with this family- and food-oriented American holiday, let me explain that the shopping for food alongside other, crazed shoppers is only one part of the anxiety. Thanksgiving stresses people out because it brings families together.

All our baggage of years gone by. All the ways we’ve disappointed each other — and let’s be frank, the ways we sometimes don’t even like each other — or perhaps just the way we think our families are disappointed in us, which is the same thing. The fact that Home for the Holidays manages to package all that up into a warm film that gets better on re-viewing is a small miracle … and let me say that I’ve seen this movie at least ten times, I love it so much.

This wasn’t Jodie Foster’s first directing job, but it was her last for more than 15 years (until she made last year’s The Beaver, a film I still haven’t seen) — perhaps because it received mixed reviews. I remain baffled by the large numbers of critics who haven’t rediscovered its virtues, for it’s truly one of those overlooked gems.

Start with the cast. Holly Hunter is our protagonist, Claudia, a down-on-her-luck fine art restorer and single mother who has flown home to Baltimore to see her family for Thanksgiving. Everything is going wrong — from the fact that she’s getting a cold to having just lost her job to the disturbing fact that her teenage daughter (Claire Danes), who’s staying in Chicago for the holiday, has pronounced that she’s going to have sex with her boyfriend while mom’s away. Claudia makes a piteous call to her young brother, Tommy (Robert Downey, Jr.) begging him to come home too, and arrives in Baltimore to find that she has lost her winter coat somewhere along the way. No worries, because like clockwork, her mother (Anne Bancroft) has brought an extra, one of those awful, oversized, pink Michelin Man numbers that only moms seem to own.

You might think, at first, that Home for the Holidays might simply be about a bedraggled, 30-something woman surviving a holiday with her wacky family. Not that there’s anything wrong with the dysfunctional family narrative; it’s one of my favorites. But Foster and screenwriter W. D. Richter have no interest in writing simple screwball. Every single bit of this movie starts to feel real.

Take a small sequence of scenes at the airport. Claudia walks past the bank of public phones and overhears each one of the harried travelers having exasperated conversations with family members. When she gets into the car only to sit in a traffic jam with her chain-smoking, rambling mother, Claudia glances over at the next car to see a similarly middle-aged man looking desperately at her while listening to his parents in the front seat:

Claudia gives him a look over the top of her enormous coat to convey the identical emotion:

And then her mother leans over from the back seat and says, “I can see your roots, Claudia.”

Claudia is saved by the surprise appearance of brother Tommy in the middle of the night along with a handsome friend named Leo Fish (Dylan McDermott), adding depth to the story. Who is Leo, and why hasn’t Tommy’s longtime boyfriend come? Deeply unserious and an inveterate practical joker, Tommy offers no answers.

Maybe this sounds like a series of easy stereotypes, from wacky parents to gay brother. But the story keeps changing up, subverting your expectations. For example, when her mother phones a still-single acquaintance from high school, Russell (David Strathairn in a brilliant bit part) to “take a look at the boiler,” the ensuing conversation starts out awkward and becomes bittersweet:

Russell: I’m just lettin’ the guys have the day off, you know, so they can visit their families, since I’m all alone this year. 
Tommy, whispering to Leo as they watch from the next room: This is the saddest sack in the universe. 
Russell: Yeah, I don’t have anybody anymore, my brother and sister got canned and they left town, and then my parents went and died on me. 
Claudia, softening to Russell’s situation: I’m so sorry. I had no idea. 
Russell: Yeah, well, you know — it was a car wreck, last summer, drunk driver, cut right across the, uh, what was it, you know — meridian, and, pow! pow! Head on. So, y’know, I don’t have anybody anymore, nowhere to go today, no family or nothin’ …

Eventually he pauses and says, “You still look so beautiful, Claudia.” It’s a wonderful little scene, as she’s both flattered and ashamed of her behavior toward him and says, almost flirtatiously, “Oh, god, I do not.”

“Maybe next year will be better for you,” she offers at the end. “Yeah,” he says with affected lightness. “Or worse.” Finally he says, “You have a nice life, Claudia.”

That’s the way of this movie: it doesn’t let you laugh at human foolishness without poking you and pointing out the ways you’re implicated in it.

And so it continues through the arrival of sister Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson) and her self-described “normal” family, allowing the director to open up the complicated relationships amongst the siblings. These scenes are played as much for laughs as for the genuinely toxic moments amongst people who don’t like each other. “We don’t have to like each other, Jo,” Claudia tells her. “We’re family.”

But perhaps the one thing that always gets me about this film is its quiet little theme about the disconnect between memories and commemoration. Each of the characters have special moments, treasured memories that were never captured in photographs — tiny little moments that crystallized something perfect. Some regret not taking those photos, but for others the memory is all the sweeter that it is theirs alone.

And then, by the very end, as many of the harsh edges have gotten chipped and the characters have voiced things that needed to be said, the film shows us a few of those memories: a father watching his little girl stare fearlessly up at a plane taking off; a mother and daughter snorkeling with fish; a gay marriage on a beach in Massachusetts, surrounded only by friends.

Those layers upon layers of memories, with piles of Thanksgiving flavors and family fights on top … isn’t that what the holidays are all about? Take care and enjoy your weekend, friends.

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Holly Hunter

18 April 2010

She’s appeared in film and TV for almost thirty years and has received the Academy Award for Best Actress, two Emmys, and a pile of other awards and nominations for many of her roles — yet I was surprised to find David Thomson give Hunter only a cursory, uninspired treatment in his otherwise invaluable New Biographical Dictionary of Film (2002).  This is my attempt to make up for it.  

One might be tempted to refer to her as “the thinking man’s [fill in blank with name of less talented starlet],” but it’s too easy.  I think Hunter is so distinctive because she has a perverse desire to be dissonant — she doesn’t play her beauty for the thinking man’s benefit (or anyone else’s); she’s wary but not fragile; she’s unexpected but not quirky.  Her characters can suddenly become sharp-edged and mean.  Holly Hunter is eminently watchable — one of the most watchable women of her generation.

Except for her intelligent beauty, nothing about Holly Hunter’s profile seems to have designed her for a career in Hollywood.  She grew up on a farm in rural Georgia (her hen won a national 4-H prize when Hunter was in high school), and to the best of my knowledge, she’s never performed without her trademark accent on display.  She graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 1980 before launching her professional acting career.  She’s relatively tiny (5’2″); and is so good a pianist that she performed all the music for her acclaimed role in Jane Campion’s “The Piano.” 

She appears almost disingenuously modest about her career.  “Actors are beggars and gypsies, that’s just the way it is,” she said, according to IMDB.com.  “And in many ways, I take what I can get.  But I do search high and low for stuff that interests me.”  Looking at the long list of her films and TV work (from which I compiled this short list), I’m struck by her consistent talent in choosing interesting parts and making them more interesting:

  • Raising Arizona (1987)
  • Broadcast News (1987)
  • Roe vs. Wade (1989)
  • The Piano (1993)
  • Copycat (1993)
  • The Firm (1993)
  • Home for the Holidays (1995)
  • Jesus’ Son (1999)
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000)
  • Thirteen (2003)
  • The Incredibles (2004)
  • Nine Lives (2005)
  • Saving Grace (TV show, 2007-2010)
  • Hunter’s characters often inhabit that weird place between comedy and pathos, but you know immediately it’s not a recognizable pathos but something more real, awful.  In “Raising Arizona” her comically inconsolable weeping contrasted nicely with her otherwise drill-sergeant relationship to mouth-breathing H. I. McDonough (Nicholas Cage).  But in “Broadcast News” it was something more:  she paused every morning in the midst of her breakneck routine, sat on the edge of her bed, and indulged in a private crying jag.  Audiences laughed, but they weren’t sure they were supposed to.  In “Home for the Holidays” (a wonderful and much-overlooked film, in my opinion), she headed home to Baltimore in a terrible state — lonely, confused, worried about her daughter, dreading a family visit.  “Hey, little brother,” she breathes into the phone early in the film, beginning a mortifyingly desperate message for the Robert Downey, Jr. character (a message that comes back to haunt her).  Her eyes are huge, she’s a wreck.  Each time, the viewer can’t see her character’s fragility as pure comedy, even when it’s funny.  She’s not playing to type.  She’s fantastic.

    She has the same complicated relationship to her sexiness.  For a long time, she seemed resigned to cutie pie status; her diminutive frame, distinctive accent, and heavy bangs distracted from her sex appeal — she was smart, not a beauty.  In “Broadcast News” her character’s brief affair with William Hurt’s dim-witted anchorman made so much sense because she lacked all the conventional beauties he possessed — how could she not want to be wanted by him, no matter how smart she was otherwise?  Likewise, her mixed views of herself made it impossible for her to fall in love with the shlubby Albert Brooks, her best friend.  In all those early parts, her resolute jaw lent daggers to her voice.  Over time, though, she used her big, dark eyes to terrific effect — most strikingly in “The Piano,” in a face starker than Emily Dickinson’s, with heavy eyebrows and that fiercely black, parted-in-the-middle hair that granted her face little prettiness.

    At some point in her mid-30s she grew into her beauty as she grew out her hair.  Don’t get me wrong: she never tried to be a Julia Roberts or appear in rom coms.  Rather, she developed a lithe way of using her body — moving slowly and with a slightly wicked, self-conscious, rolling gait that (in my mother’s phrasing) told you she was looking for trouble.  Not that it made her sexiness conventional.  Her tongue remained just as sharp, her characters idiosyncratic and generally disinterested in pleasing anyone. 

    By the time she appeared in “Saving Grace” she was nearly 50.  In its pilot she appeared in a few nearly-nude scenes in which her tiny, skinny frame is covered with alarmingly blueish pale skin.  Being willing to appear in such a shot — on television, no less, and in a Hollywood that rejects actresses when they cease to be youthfully sexy — impressed me yet again with Hunter’s determination to be her own woman, to display her character’s troubles on her very body.  I didn’t latch onto that show (the religious angle never worked for me), but it wasn’t because of her, it wasn’t for lack of trying, and it didn’t change my overall respect for her skill in finding great parts.  She seemed all the sexier in “Saving Grace” for downing shots of whiskey, sleeping with younger men, and pulling hard on all those cigarettes — cigarettes now coded for TV viewers as “bad” — and letting her natural smarts get a bit fuzzy in the haze.

    It’s also been interesting to see Hunter’s long list of characters whose complicated maternal status, marital status, and career make them more interesting.  Whether she gets her husband to kidnap a baby for her (“Raising Arizona”), chooses abortion (“Roe v. Wade,” which reflected Hunter’s own firm pro-choice views), struggles as a single mother or young widow (“The Piano,” “Home For the Holidays,” “Thirteen,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou”), or wrestles with her career (“Broadcast News,” “Saving Grace”), taken together her characters exemplify the struggles of a whole generation of women in a “post-feminist” age.  I find it striking that, with the recent cancellation of “Saving Grace,” Hunter has apparently determined to take a break from acting to be with her family — her domestic partner and her twin 4-year-old boys, whom she bore at age 47.  I hope it’s not a decision that came from a lack of roles.  I want to keep watching Holly Hunter in roles that expand our understanding of complex human emotions — and not least because right now, Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren seem to be the only women over 50 getting parts that allow them to be interesting and have sex lives. 

    David Thomson: I think we shouldn’t be surprised if Holly Hunter has more awards awaiting her — and if your next edition of the Biographical Dictionary of Film requires a serious revision of your earlier entry.