Holiday

Stephanie Zacharek reviews the 1938 movie classic "Holiday".


Stephanie Zacharek
March 21, 1997 4:25PM (UTC)

there's almost no movie that makes me as wistful as "Holiday" does, and I can't figure out exactly why. Even after it's over -- even after I know that disaster's been averted, that Cary Grant didn't futz up and choose the wrong partner -- I still feel unsettled, as if the movie has somehow cut too close for comfort. It's not that I fear for the future happiness of Grant and Hepburn; once I've seen them execute a jazzy dual somersault, I know there's no turning back for them. It's just that a mantle of sadness hangs over this most stylish of comedies -- weightlessly, like a silken web -- and afterward, I always feel as if it's quietly drifted onto me, too. "Holiday" never cheers me up, but it always opens me wide.

With characteristic ease, director George Cukor poses some big questions -- What do you want out of life, and whom do you want around you while you do it? -- but he's so nonchalant about it, they dissolve like cigarette smoke in the air. Grant's freewheeling Johnny Case thinks he's fallen for heiress Julia Seton, as perfect and cold as a diamond, but it's Julia's sister Linda (Hepburn) who's his soul mate. Johnny's plan is to retire young and have fun, but Julia and her father want him to go the big-business route. He almost complies, before he realizes that Linda -- who's not just stifled by her upper-crust lifestyle but almost destroyed by it -- is the one who completes him.

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It may be that "Holiday" scares me a little: I love it not just for its wit and its tenderness, but for its ruthlessness. Adapted from a play by Philip Barry -- himself a member of Philadelphia society -- "Holiday" doesn't skewer the rich simply because they're rich. Just as it makes a case for building a life in which you're surrounded by people you love (Johnny risks losing his smart, adoring professor friends, Edward Everett Horton and Binnie Barnes, because they wouldn't fit in with his new, rich-guy lifestyle), it's also unflinching about steeling yourself against people who can only hurt you, no matter who they are. When Lew Ayres, as Linda and Julia's sad, sweet souse of a brother, lays out the score to Linda about what Julia is really like -- "If you were in her way, she'd ride you down like a rabbit" -- it's hard to know if his candor is chilling or touching, because it's so much of both.

"Holiday" is flinty not out of nastiness, but because for its two main characters, there's so much at stake. Johnny and Linda connect instantly. Even as physical types they're perfectly matched. Grant is loose-jointed, confident and slightly rumpled; his boyish eagerness lights a sexy campfire behind his Mount Rushmore good looks. But Hepburn, neurotic and mighty like a rose, is the one who gets you. There's a coltish readiness locked inside her aristocratic frame, and it betrays her vulnerability. Even her cheekbones could break your heart. Maybe that's why, when she and Johnny do their back-flip routine, you feel happiest for her: Leaping off Grant's shoulders is just what she needs. Their tumble is over almost before you catch it, and watching "Holiday" on video, I have to resist the urge to rewind and watch that moment again and again. It's not meant to be replayed and scrutinized -- love is best when it's caught on the fly. What matters is that the two of them land on their feet. They're like longtime circus couples who instinctively trust each other with their very lives the way the rest of us ask, "More coffee, dear?"

I was 35 when I first saw "Holiday." A few days afterward, when my husband and I were once again sifting through titles at the video store, I felt listless and indecisive. I wanted another "Holiday," I told him, and he picked up immediately that I wasn't feeling just picky, but desolate. "There isn't one, sweetie," he said, with as much tenderness as I've ever heard in his voice. And I knew he was right.


Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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