George Cukor (1899–1983) was not the kind of auteur who was stylistically flashy, and his philosophical point of view was not rigidly defined by a dogmatic personality. His talents were more subtle, but, nonetheless, genuine. Cukor’s Holiday was adapted from the Broadway success by Philip Barry, who went on to write The Animal Kingdom and The Philadelphia Story. (Holiday had been filmed previously as an early talkie by Edward H. Griffith (no relation to D. W.), with Ann Harding in the Katharine Hepburn role (she had also preceded Hepburn briefly at Bryn Mawr); Robert Ames, a promising young actor who died shortly thereafter, in the Cary Grant role; and Edward Everett Horton in the same part he would play in Cukor’s version.) Cukor’s film, to me, is very appealing. I’d like to try to justify its inclusion in this series.
First, it seems that this 70-year-old movie could not be more timely. The choice between being a successful Wall Street banker or following one’s muse is, as they used to say in old movie trailers, “ripped from today’s headlines.” Is greed (and its potential for corruption) good? Of course, we all wish we could be Cary Grant. Even he expressed that desire. Since we’re not, and few of us can do the back flips he (as an ex-acrobat) performs, is Cukor and Barry’s deck stacked against the banking choice? As Dana Carvey’s Church Lady said, “You be the judge.”
There can be do disputing that much of the peculiar charm of Holiday comes from its actors and from Cukor’s exquisite timing with their banter. In spite of the nostalgically youthful hijinks of Grant/Hepburn/Ayres/Horton/Dixon, this is clearly a film made by adults for adults—the kind of film we seldom see today, at least in the American commercial cinema—and therein lies much its appeal.
So much of Hollywood film production has degenerated into forgettable and time-wasting amusement for digi-addled teenagers. It may seem unfair, in an exhibition focused on directors, to blame actors for this. However, ever since Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Doug Fairbanks (with D. W. Griffith ) formed United Artists over 90 years ago, provoking Sam Goldwyn to declare that “the inmates have taken over the asylum,” it has been generally recognized that movie stars are the people with clout, and who command the big bucks. Since I’ve previously focused on the first 40 years of film history, I haven’t had much opportunity to rattle the chains of people who aren’t safely dead. Now, though, I would like to appeal to some of our leading actors, who are all people whose talent I admire. By singling these guys out, I don’t mean to let others off the hook, but Robert Downey, Jr., Denzel Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Jake Gyllenhaal have all recently appeared in effects-burdened blockbusters that were (or may as well have been) derived from video games or comic strips. (I give George Clooney a free pass for his efforts, and, likewise, Clint Eastwood, to the extent he still considers himself an actor.) I urge these stars to consider doing something that might have a reasonable shot at being shown at a museum 70 years from now, attended by people and not robots. Of course, there are risks involved: Holiday probably contributed to Hepburn’s famously being labeled box office poison. Her career was, ironically, salvaged by another Cukor/Barry/Grant collaboration, The Philadelphia Story.
The New York Times ran a piece recently (“Would the Bard Have Survived the Web?” by Scott Turow, Paul Aiken, and James Shapiro, February 15, 2011) comparing the threat to copyright posed by the Internet with the collapse of the commercial arrangement that made the Elizabethan theater possible. “The experiment was over…and the greatest explosion of playwriting talent the modern world has ever seen ended. Just like that.” For me, this parallels the end of a Hollywood studio system that made little gems like Holiday possible. There are still some interesting plays being written, just as there are interesting films being made, but (and this is very hard for many of my colleagues in the curatorial/critical fraternity to wrap their minds around) there may just have been a golden age of cinema, parallel to the Shakespearian era, that ended in the 1960s or so—and is irreplaceably gone.
When I first moved to New York with nothing much to do, I discovered that Cary Grant lived at the Warwick Hotel, just down the block from MoMA on 54th Street. I presumptuously dropped off a note there indicating my willingness to collaborate with him on an autobiography. A few days later I got a phone call, a male secretary asking if I would hold the line for Mr. Cary Grant. Would I? There was probably nothing I, or anybody I knew, wouldn’t do for Mr. Cary Grant. He came on the line and explained that he wasn’t yet ready to write such a book, even though he had retired from acting, and he concluded with, “I wish you good fortune.” Throughout the brief conversation there was a pervasive graciousness. Grace! That was what George Cukor, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Holiday had, and that has been overwhelmed far too often by a deluge of tedious, consciousness-constricting digital effects.