Better Watch Out: Best, Worst, Most Deranged Holiday Films
Sure, we've all curled up on the sofa to watch Jimmy Stewart find redemption in It's a Wonderful Life and Natalie Wood become a believer in Miracle on 34th Street each holiday season, but Tom Cruise at an orgy in Eyes Wide Shut? In his book Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas, film critic (and former Advocate A&E editor) Alonso Duralde explains why Stanley Kubrick's dark drama is perennial viewing for some this time of year. The author, whose 101 Must-See Movies For Gay Men should also be required reading, says he's still waiting for the great queer holiday film but notes that plenty of LGBT people enjoy a variety of Christmas-set movies, from Die Hard to Meet Me In St. Louis. Duralde tells the Advocate which holiday films are nice, naughty, and just plain nutty.
The Advocate: What would you say is considered the most quintessential holiday film?
Alonso Duralde: I think the answer differs from generation to generation — I grew up in the 1970s, when It’s a Wonderful Life was in the public domain and just blanketed television for the entire month of December, so I think of it as the ultimate Christmas movie. But for people younger than I am, they might say A Christmas Story or even Home Alone.
Which do you consider the best holiday film?
Depends on what mood you catch me in; if I want something sentimental, I might go with It’s a Wonderful Life or the 1970 musical Scrooge with Albert Finney, but then if I want some laughs, I might go for The Ref or a French film called La Bûche. One of the great things about writing the book was finding so many different movies that fall under the Christmas umbrella, so no matter what kind of movie you like — musicals, horror, Western — you’ll find a holiday film that suits you.
OK, which do you consider the worst holiday film?
If you mean “worst” as in “I can’t believe this was made and I can’t stop watching it,” I’d have to go with the 1959 Santa Claus, an unhinged Mexican import in which St. Nick and Merlin team up to fight the devil. It’s become an annual tradition in my house — and they just put it out on Blu-ray! But for “worst” as in “this thing is wretched and it hurts my eyes and we must turn it off right now and never watch it again,” my vote goes to The Nutcracker in 3-D, which just came out on DVD as The Nutcracker: The Untold Story. Hip-hop arrangements of Tchaikovsky, awful new lyrics by Tim Rice, and Nathan Lane plays Albert Einstein. Trust me, this one’s not even fun-bad.
Which holiday film would you say resonates most strongly with LGBT viewers?
In the book I make the case that we’re still waiting for the great queer Christmas movie. I have a fondness for the terrible 1970s drama Some of My Best Friends Are…, which is set in a gay bar on Christmas Eve, but it’s notable only for a level of despair that makes The Boys in the Band look like a Pride parade. There are things I like about 24 Nights and Make the Yuletide Gay, but I think there’s definitely an opening for a talented LGBT filmmaker to make a holiday movie that really knocks our stockings off.
In researching and promoting your book, did you find that gay people have different ideas of favorite holiday films than straight people?
I’m sure there’s a clichéd perception that gay men are more likely to want to watch Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis, but I know plenty of gay dudes and lesbians who happily curl up to Die Hard every December. I think gay viewers probably perceive Danny Kaye’s performance in White Christmas on a whole other level from straight people, though.
There’s practically a sub-genre of Christmas films about evil Santas. Which do you consider the most twisted?
The nuttiest one, I think, would have to be Christmas Evil, which is airing on TCM later this month under its original title, You Better Watch Out. It’s John Waters’s favorite Christmas movie, if that tells you anything, all about a guy who’s been obsessed with Santa his whole life, and after he gets fired from his toy factory, he snaps and thinks he really is Father Christmas, monitoring the neighborhood kids for their niceness and naughtiness and dispatching grown-ups for being bad.
Some of the films in your book, Gremlins and Die Hard, for example, aren’t usually thought of as holiday films. How did you decide to include them?
For a lot of people, however, those movies are very much part of their Christmas traditions, and I think in a lot of ways, both of them either fulfill the expectations of holiday stories — Die Hard is, after all, about an estranged couple getting back together at Christmastime — or specifically subvert them — director Joe Dante said he envisioned Gremlins as a cross between It’s a Wonderful Life and The Birds. I wanted to expand people’s notion of what they considered to be a Christmas movie, but I think if you go back and look at movies like Eyes Wide Shut or Metropolitan or Less Than Zero through that filter, you see that Christmas imagery is present throughout.
Do you think Hollywood will ever stop making new film versions of A Christmas Carol?
Well, it doesn’t cost them anything, so that’s always appealing. And it’s a story that we’ve come to love hearing over and over again even though we know every exact beat. I think Dickens would be thrilled that it’s a flexible enough tale to accommodate both Jim Carrey and Tori Spelling, the latter in the TV movie A Carol Christmas.
What qualities must a movie possess to become a holiday classic?
Generally speaking, I think they either tap into our own personal nostalgia for the holidays and how we enjoyed them at Christmas, or they tell us thing we want to hear about the potential in people to be their best selves, even if it’s only once a year. Different people get different things out of Christmas movies, but I think those two elements are the common bond between many of the films we think of as classics.
What are some recent films that you think we’ll refer to as holiday classics in the future?
2011 was actually a pretty good year for Christmas movies — I loved both Arthur Christmas and A Very Harold and Kumar 3-D Christmas, albeit for very different reasons. I’ve been saying that Arthur Christmas is a great film with a horrible marketing campaign, but I’m hoping it’s one that audiences discover either during its theatrical life or later on DVD.
Which film in your book are readers most surprised you included?
I probably get the most raised eyebrows over Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, but again, take another look at the film and you’ll be amazed at how almost every scene includes a decorated tree or wrapping paper or twinkle lights.
A film such as Meet Me in St. Louis is about an entire year in the lives of a family, yet watching it is a tradition around Christmastime. What do you think makes a film such a holiday favorite?
True, that one could just as easily be a Halloween movie, since there’s a chunk of the film devoted to that. But the movie has its emotional climax at Christmastime — plus you’ve got Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — which firmly places it in the holiday pantheon.
You were a guest on the TCM Classics cruise earlier this month. What was that experience like?
I did a clip show and lecture based on my book, and it was a real blast. There was an interesting mix of people on the boat in terms of ages, ethnicities, and sexual orientation, but everyone there was a movie fan and thrilled to be around not just movie stars like Ernest Borgnine and Eva Marie Saint but other classic film fans. You would get seated with strangers at dinner, and within minutes you’d be comparing notes about your favorite John Huston movie.
Purchase Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas here. Watch 1959's Santa Claus on the next page.