Queer & Now & Then: 1995
It feels clearer with each passing year that Jodie Foster has directed one of the great queer American studio movies. Like so many worthwhile films, this one was at the time viewed only as a box-office disappointment, but, at least based on anecdotal evidence, Home for the Holidays (1995) has for many become a perennial cinematic antidote to the Thanksgiving blues. (I can confirm that watching it has been an annual ritual for at least this writer.) Many of its initial reviewers deemed it yet another dysfunctional family comedy full of “kooky” characters engaging in extremes of behavior. I’ll certainly never forget Owen Gleiberman’s Entertainment Weekly pan, in which he claimed that the film “strives” to make this “unhappy” family “as freaky as possible” and categorized them as a “menagerie of jabbering wrecks.” None of this strikes me as remotely true to Home for the Holidays, which is a particularly acute and meaningful experience for the queer viewer. Hardly just about screeching relatives, Foster’s raucous yet enormously touching film, from a layered script by W.D. Richter (who wrote the very great, queerish 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers), concerns the marginalization, alienation, and estrangement you can feel within your own family.
The film unfolds in chaptered segments, all via the perspective of Holly Hunter’s Claudia Larson, a thirty-something single mom and art restorer who, as the film begins, has been laid off from her job at the Art Institute of Chicago right before getting on a plane to see her family in Baltimore. Foster is pinpoint precise in detailing the humiliations and irritations of holiday travel we all share (awful plane seatmates, ill-prepared wardrobes, free-floating germs), but it’s when Claudia arrives in her hometown that the director begins to work a genuine alchemy of empathy. Her relationship with her parents, so fully embodied by Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning that it’s as though they’ve never played anyone else, is defined by a constant push-pull of adoration and repulsion that never feels less than authentic. Bancroft’s bewigged Adele, with her constant malapropisms (“You’ll melt like a thermometer”) and mispronunciations (“You’re the rocket gibraltum!”), and her tossed-off self-pity and fussbudget intrusions, comes across as a matriarch still intent on holding together a family unit that has long been dispersed, both emotionally and geographically. Durning’s Henry at first seems sketched like a classic American dad, musing distractedly about past dental procedures and admiring his favorite processed foods (“Reddi-wip . . . smell it and weep!”), yet his pathos—his regrets, his loves—increasingly come to the forefront. It’s never stated outright, but you can feel that the weary melancholy in Adele and Henry’s bones partly comes out of the conflict that remains so present among their three grown children.
In addition to Claudia, this trio includes Tommy (Robert Downey Jr.) and Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson), and herein lies the source of much of the film’s—and the family’s—conflict: the wildly extroverted Tommy is gay and mostly out of the closet, while Joanne is a self-consciously prim hetero suburban mom whose life appears to revolve around her bratty kids and right-wing husband, Walter (Steve Guttenberg). Tommy’s presence, his very being, upsets Joanne and Walter in some fundamental (if not quite fundamentalist) way; his awareness of their non-acceptance makes him behave in an even more intentionally abrasive way toward them, which exacerbates every possible situation, all but confirming, in Joanne’s eyes, his aggressive, horrible Otherness. Home for the Holidays is ripe with resentments and long-simmering anger from a variety of characters, including Geraldine Chaplin’s perpetually lonely, Froot Loops–necklaced Aunt Glady, yet Tommy and Joanne’s deadlock is the fulcrum, the rotted core affecting every other relationship.
Apologies to Gleiberman, but there’s nothing at all “freaky” about the relatable Larson clan; if anyone could be deemed a “freak” here, it’s only because they would likely classify themselves as such, as a way of defining and inoculating themselves in opposition to the rest of the family (except for Joanne, who at one point literally shrieks at Tommy, “You’re calling me a freak?!”). Miraculously, Foster and Downey manage to make Tommy’s gayness central to Home for the Holidays while also ensuring it’s an incidental facet to his character. Somewhat uniquely to films of the era, Tommy is neither martyr nor victim nor clown; he’s a fully rounded man of contradictions and his flamboyance feels wholly a part of his psychological makeup rather than his sexuality. There’s a desperation to Downey’s performance that feels just right—desperate to be loved, desperate to be left alone, desperate to please, desperate to piss off; it’s all completely lived-in. The actor was at the time struggling through his addiction, as we came to know, and many have written off his dramatic, exaggerated spontaneity (some scenes were improvised) as merely a product of a drug-addled mind, yet this doesn’t account for all the marvelous nuance and restraint he brings to so many scenes. Chief among these is a quick sequence in which, following the family’s catastrophic two-turkey dinner—in a chapter cheekily titled “The Birds”—Tommy calls his husband, Jack, seen in a quick cutaway surrounded by a diverse group of friends in what is clearly a more cosmopolitan, gallery-type space. During their fleeting conversation, Tommy asks, “How’s my real family?” It’s both empowering and heartbreaking, and it’s how many queer people—and anyone misunderstood by their blood relatives—have long felt: that the family you make can be more meaningful, more real, than the one you were born into.
Nevertheless, the womb always beckons you back, and Tommy has decided to join his real/not real family on this particular Thanksgiving, putting himself in the line of fire again. Thankfully he has Claudia to hang onto. There’s a lovely little moment when, while Henry says grace in a pre-meal sputtering of forced nonsense, Tommy looks across the table to Claudia and silently mouths the word “Help.” Later, after the catastrophic meal—during which Joanne calls him a “pervert,” and Tommy “accidentally” flips the turkey right into her lap—the two hide out in the kitchen with their heaping plates of turkey and sweet potatoes, pause, and share a silent hug. The tight bond between Claudia and Tommy is the true bright spot in the darkness here, the sibling relationship so many of us wish we had. Hunter and Downey feel very much on the same wavelength, a tribute not only to the smart casting of two wildly idiosyncratic stars but also to Foster’s willingness to let them dig in and really roll around in their characters (at one point, literally, on the floor). In some cases, they do indeed even finish each other’s sentences. Claudia and Tommy’s connection has to feel honest so that Joanne’s resentment can fully register. Joanne and Walter’s insistence that Claudia and Tommy lead “glamorous” or “fabulous” urban lives (two positive words that they quite pointedly turn into negatives) is an acknowledgment of resentment, an indication that by moving away from home, unlike Joanne, they’ve somehow shirked life’s responsibilities. In this case, these include not just taking care of their aging parents but also, implicitly, the choice not to lead the heteronormative dream, complete with nuclear family and two-car garage. By being aligned with Tommy, Claudia is effectively queered herself; furthermore, she’s a single mother who had her daughter (Claire Danes, in two brief scenes) as a teenager; smokes weed in her parents’ bathroom to calm down; resents having to spend time with her normie sister and brother-in-law; and over the course of the holiday weekend ends up falling for Leo (Dylan McDermott), the handsome visiting stranger everyone mistakes for Tommy’s latest boy-toy.
A rare mainstream film about the experience of feeling like an outsider in your own backyard, Home for the Holidays is especially poignant for being directed by Jodie Foster. A powerhouse Hollywood icon for decades publicly dogged by her open-secret lesbian identity, Foster can be felt throughout the film, her persona radiating off multiple characters, most acutely Tommy and Claudia. Foster was widely derided, even in some corners mocked, for her 2013 Golden Globes speech, in which, after receiving the Cecil B. DeMille career achievement award (presented to her by Robert Downey Jr.!), she seemed to be coming out, or at least acknowledging for the first time in such a forum questions around her sexuality. At first, she nervously hemmed and hawed, and teased a bit, full well knowing what the audience expected: “I guess I just have a sudden urge to say something that, um, I’ve never really been able to air in public… I’m just gonna put it out there loud and proud…” Her intentionally deflating declaration “I am, uh, single” and her follow-up statement that, “If you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else” left hungry viewers feeling so bruised that they may have overlooked the much less ambiguous tribute that followed, to Cydney Bernard, “one of the deepest loves of my life, my heroic co-parent, my ex-partner in love but righteous soul sister in life.” Foster’s speech is worth bringing up in this context because Home for the Holidays is so much about the different faces we show in our public and private spheres and how we choose to define ourselves in relation to others.
One of the film’s joyful-sad revelations is that Tommy and Jack were recently married yet Tommy didn’t feel the need to tell anyone in the Larson family. Ironically, this event is announced by Joanne, who says her friend happened to witness this horrific gay display on a public beach (“He kissed him on the lips!”). Joanne’s unbridled homophobia may seem extreme by today’s standards, even in Trump’s America, but there was nothing particularly shocking about her declaration upon the film’s release, in the Clintonian “Don’t ask, don’t tell” 1990s. Preoccupied with standards of decorum, she’s most aghast at the thought that Tommy would allow someone outside of the family to know about him—that to declare one’s homosexuality is tantamount to airing dirty laundry, that what’s private should stay private.
The eruptive disorder of Foster’s film, which critics like Gleiberman rejected as some sort of a tic or aesthetic mannerism, is therefore an apt, and quite moving, formal choice. A family might be a tightly contained, self-reliant unit, but the people trapped within it can be so much more beautifully combustible. The chaos drains as Home for the Holidays moves to its more subdued final act, pointedly titled “The Point.” No film I’ve seen has better taken the time to capture the feeling of post-holiday comedown. By shifting focus to the blooming romance between Claudia and McDermott’s doe-eyed Leo, Foster and Richter remind the viewer that we all are always creating new, good memories, and some of them have the potential to outlive the bad ones. The closing montage, set to Nat King Cole’s gorgeously orchestrated rendition of “The Very Thought of You,” features a succession of the various characters’ memories, captured with a home-movie look and grain although many of them are referencing moments that the film had explicitly told us were never recorded or photographed: a very young Claudia displaying bravery to her father on an airport tarmac; Claudia’s underwater moment of serenity with her own child; a tiny Christmas kiss between Glady and Henry; Tommy and Jack’s exuberant beach wedding. The sequence never fails to move me to tears: an evocation of moments in public spaces that now only exist in the private recesses of the mind.
Michael Koresky is the Director of Editorial and Creative Strategy at Film Society of Lincoln Center; the co-founder and co-editor of Reverse Shot; a frequent contributor to the Criterion Collection; and the author of the book Terence Davies, published by University of Illinois Press.