The most wonderful time of the year means getting to watch some of the best films. As holiday movies have earned their right as an iconic and integral part of celebrating the holiday season within the last century, many films have managed to transcend the line from “classic holiday film” to just “classic film.” However, for whatever reason, holiday films have – on the whole – not been treated too kindly by the Academy Awards (although they haven’t been completely shut in the dark).
As such, here are my personal picks for Missed Oscartunities for some of my favorite holiday films:
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
While It’s a Wonderful Life did not become the holiday staple that it is today until many years after its release, it did manage to score quite a few Academy Award nominations at the 1946 Academy Awards (for which it was eligible due to different eligibility periods for the time). It was ultimately nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Frank Capra), Best Actor (James Stewart), Best Film Editing, Best Sound Recording, and it won a Technical Achievement Award for the development of a new method of simulating falling snow in the film. However, it arguably deserved a few more nominations.
Best Lead Actress (Donna Reed)
While James Stewart undoubtedly carries the film as George Bailey, Donna Reed gives a beautiful performance as George’s wife, Mary. Mary serves as an understated yet equally integral part of the film, and Reed portrays her with such a level of honesty, sincerity, and strength, that it’s hard to imagine this film without her. Her ability to keep up with Stewart, and effortless way of providing such a sweet and grounded balance to George’s over the top nature is beautiful to watch, and her performance certainly deserved more recognition.
While It’s a Wonderful Life was adapted from the short story, The Greatest Gift, it would have been eligible for Best Screenplay for the 1946 Oscars, as that is what adapted screenplays were categorized for, while original screenplays were categorized as “Best Original Screenplay.” The film certainly deserved a nod for its screenplay, as the timeless and heartfelt story is likely the biggest reason this movie has resonated with audiences for nearly 80 years. There wasn’t any way to know at the time that this film would become such a huge pop culture milestone; in fact, the film received mixed reviews and was a box office disappointment upon its original release. The fact that this story has been adapted time and time again via Christmas special parodies on television, special celebrity readings, and even a stage musical, is further evidence of how timeless this story is, and its screenplay should have been awarded for such.
White Christmas (1954)
Best Supporting Actor (Danny Kaye)
Kaye was the third actor to be cast as Phil Davis. The original plan was to reunite Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, who co-starred in the other Irving Berlin holiday Musical, Holiday Inn, twelve years prior. However, Astaire declined the role amidst growing issues with Paramount, and Donald O’Connor of Singin’ in the Rain acclaim was cast. When O’Connor had to drop out of the film due to illness, Danny Kaye was cast as Bing Crosby’s counterpart.
While the story certainly plays out to keep Bing Crosby at the center, as did the marketing for the film when it was released, Kaye is arguably the glue that holds the film together. He manages to strike a perfect balance of humor and sincerity to the role, without ever crossing too far into the line of being overly tongue-in-cheek. Furthermore, of the four leads in this film, he pulls the most weight. Crosby and Rosemary Clooney were certainly known more for their singing than dancing, and while Vera-Ellen’s dancing is unmatched, her singing voice was dubbed. Kaye is a true triple threat in this movie, effortlessly putting forth a brilliant performance, on top of nailing all of the musical numbers he’s featured in from both a vocal and dancing standpoint.
Best Costumes, Color
By 1954, color cinema was not a novel concept, but not yet so widely used that black and white films could be considered antiquated. As such, the Academy Awards split many categories, most notably the visual and technical categories, into color versus black and white. While legendary costume designer Edith Head won a 1955 Academy Award for Best Costume design for Sabrina in the black and white category, she arguably also deserved at least a nomination for White Christmas in the color category. From the iconic blue dresses that Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen wear during the “Sisters” number, to Clooney’s black velvet dress for the “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” scene, Head’s costumes are simply stunning, and serve now as a snapshot into fashions of the time.
However, for this particular film, Head deserves recognition for her ability to costume such a grand musical production. While she is able to show off her design talents in the big ensemble numbers, such as “Mandy,” she also creates more subtly when its needed. Most of the principal characters’ costumes during the large dance numbers, particularly those of Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen, are approached with a monochromatic look, which prevents any breakage of color that could potentially result in the focus being taken away from the dancing. A subtle yet brilliant move that certainly deserved more recognition.
White Christmas was the first film to be shot in VistaVision, Paramount’s answer to CinemaScope, which allowed for films to be shot in the widescreen 35mm format. While VistaVision did not last long in terms of usage by Paramount, it set a precedent for iconic films such as Vertigo (1958), To Catch a Thief (1955), and Richard III (1955). Furthermore, VistaVision paved the way for the technologies that created IMAX. This new ability to capture a wider aspect ratio served the grand musical numbers of this film perfectly, as it helps the film capture everything from the grandiose of a huge musical production, to war scenes. While the striking cinematography of the film deserves a recognition within itself, the usage of this new technology deserved to be commended.
A Christmas Story (1983)
Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium
Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story is an iconic holiday classic, adapted from Jean Shepherd’s book, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. In a similar vein as It’s a Wonderful Life, the original release of the film did not reflect the cultural phenomenon that it would later become, despite generally receiving positive reviews and a decent box office run. A Christmas Story has now become a holiday phenomenon, sparking a number of adaptations, sequels (including HBO Max’s A Christmas Story Christmas released this year), and a stage musical. TBS infamously airs the film for 24 straight hours on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. A good deal of the success around this film can be attributed to the screenplay, as its quotability and humor has held up for nearly forty years. As such, it should have been nominated for Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (the phrase used for Best Adapted Screenplay at the time) at the 1984 Academy Awards.
The Holiday (2006)
Best Production Design
What is a Nancy Meyers film without a gorgeous aesthetic and enviable houses? The Holiday is certainly no exception. Split between Los Angeles and England, this film showcases some gorgeous scenery, that is beautifully designed. Iris’s quaint English countryside cottage alone is enough to warrant a Production Design nomination for this film alone, although the film’s overall look is beautiful and has withstood the test of time.
Best Original Score (Hans Zimmer)
While legendary film composer Hans Zimmer is certainly not short for Academy Award nominations (although he has only won two, most recently for Dune at the 2022 Academy Awards), this film certainly showcases one of his more underrated scores. Given that one of the lead characters for the film is a film composer, it feels only fitting that this film would have a strong score – one that simultaneously captures the essence of the holidays, without ever veering too far into the “commercial Christmas” feel.
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