The Thanksgiving holiday is getting closer, so why not get into the mood by watching five of the best movies ever made about this great American cultural celebration. It is interesting to see how two themes dominate the genre. Both no doubt tap into deep ancestral anxieties. The first is the thorny issue of transport, and actually, physically, getting home. This is one of western civilisation’s most pressing concerns, from Odysseus to E.T., the longing for home can be thwarted by many obstacles en route, and the hero’s journey is a hard one.
The second is the emotional complexity of what that all-embracing word “Home” really constitutes. Again, in a raft of great works from King Lear to The Cherry Orchard, the unconditional love and support of family is not always what it could be. The imaginal family and the all too real flesh and blood family rarely match up to expectation. Family gatherings are all too often more “dys” than functional These two themes come together beguilingly in the Thanksgiving movie, when so much is at stake. Both instill, as Robert Frost wrote, that sense of ”Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
So, in no particular order, let’s look at The Top Five. Hannah and her Sisters is an absolute classic. It begins and ends with Thanksgiving dinner. In the intervening two years it catalogues the complicated lives of a set of characters who are so intertwined with their busy existences, they are not really living. Looking on; rueful, scared, uncertain and unhappy, is Mickey, the outsider. He used to be married to Hannah and now is at the feast more by habit than by desire. Voiced and played by Woody Allen, Mickey is the neurotic, nervous wreck who gives this movie its through-line. Underneath all the bustle, the relationships, longings, adulteries and intense absorptions he only sees nihilism. Whether anyone can ever achieve happiness he sincerely doubts. This move is old now, but it is still full of insights, both tragic and comic, and out of the muddle of the huge and talented cast, comes, eventually, a sense of hope. Michael Caine is brilliant. The Ice Storm is as chilling as its title suggests. Like the antithesis of Body Heat where the tinkling of the wind chimes on the soundtrack evoked intense humidity, the constant tinkling of the icicles sends shudders down the spine. A storm has set in over the Thanksgiving weekend, and locked the affluent neighbors of a Connecticut suburb into their fancy glass houses, where both parents and children are experimenting with sex and drugs. They are all trapped in more ways than one. These families seek release through alcohol, adultery and amphetamines, but only find more ennui. This film has a super-subtle script, an underlying sense of menace building to a disaster, and a cold-hearted yet clear social commentary. Never have the seventies looked more ghastly or more glacial. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is to Thanksgiving what Miracle on 34th Street or It’s a Wonderful Life is to Christmas. It is one of THE Thanksgiving all-time movies. Steve Martin gets lumbered with John Candy when his First Class flight to Chicago gets cancelled. Martin’s character, Neal Page, is pretty nasty, picky and selfish as he puts up with his new, rather oafish, companion, but more often, finds ways to put him down. One problem leads to another as they try to make their way across the country, by all means of transport, ending up in the back of a truck. There are no surprises in the denouement of the two men finding they have more in common (humanity) than they have in their differences, but it is a fun trip as they find this out. The “pillow scene” where they have to share a bed in a cheap motel is a stand-alone and laugh out loud moment. Home for the Holidays is about a family reunion you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy. Jodie Foster, as director, exploits that tension that exists between the love of family, and the gnawing sense of disappointment in it. There are some awesome performances in here, notably from Anne Bancroft, Holly Hunter and Robert Downey Jnr. The Larson family are as beset with problems, animosities and history as any other family. What redeems the movie though is an underlying sense that they do in fact, in their own quirky ways, share a deep and important bond. “We don’t have to like each other, we’re family” is a line from the movie, which could be its subtitle. Scent of a Woman won Al Pacino an Academy Award and put his catchphrase “Hoo-ah!” into the lexicon. It has those key ingredients you want from your Thanksgiving, whether it is the dinner or a movie. It is both corny and heartwarming. Over a Thanksgiving weekend, a bitter, hard-drinking, blind old Colonel and a college kid hang out together in New York. The kid, Charlie, is in trouble at school. The Colonel, Slade, decides to give him a crash course in how to appreciate women. Sometimes derided as a vehicle to show off Pacino’s talent, the buddy story here is nonetheless charming, and if the ending is a bit inevitable, it is unlikely we would want it any other way. It would be like Thanksgiving dinner without the pumpkin pie. Of course, Grumpy Old Men is also a Thanksgiving movie with the wonderful curmudgeonly coupling of Walther Matthau and Jack Lemmon. Then there’s Katie Holmes in Pieces of April, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, and on the reverse side of that spectrum The House of Yes. There’s Paul Newman in Nobody’s Fool, there’s John Hughes again with Dutch. Thanksgiving, like Christmas, compels us to get together, eat turkey and put up with each other. Even, if all goes well, find reasons to be thankful. It’s such a rich seam to mine it is surprising there are not more movies on it. These top five, in their own ways, explore and enjoy those deep-seated longings they evoke in us all. To go home. To feel loved and accepted.
By Kate Henderson