In Stardust Memories, as we all know, Woody Allen plays a movie director. At one point, a studio executive (a brilliant little cameo role by Laraine Newman) says to him, “This is an Easter film. We don’t need a movie by an atheist.”
But what about a Christmas film by an atheist?
By the time I saw Woody Allen’s Christmas movie Everyone Says I Love You, Christmas was over, and so was New Year’s Eve. It wasn’t until some dreary day in the middle of something like February that the film reached us, weeks after the tree had been taken out to the curb and the confetti swept away. That day, Christmas seemed very far away.
It wasn’t just that the season had passed. It was where I was calling from, as Raymond Carver might put it, that was the problem. Everyone Says I Love You was a musical comedy set in Manhattan, Venice, and Paris, and it was the last city that served as the backdrop for the film’s richly evoked Christmas scenes. Well, I had never been to any of those cities, and it was hard not to feel out of the loop when gawking at them from Slidell, Louisiana, the city north of New Orleans where for all intents and purposes I grew up.
In my thirteen-year-old mind, it wasn’t a difficult choice: La Tour Eiffel or the Superdome? Please.
I was besotted with the offhand glamour of the Christmas section of Everyone Says I Love. For example, the way the story’s narrator D.J. (Natasha Lyonne) says that her family (mother Goldie Hawn, father Woody Allen, stepfather AlanAlda, and assorted siblings and step-siblings) doesn’t go for the usual Christmas things, like singing carols or hangings stockings. “What we do do is we head right for Paris,” she says, “and we spend our Christmas holiday at the Ritz.” Woody Allen must have directed Natasha Lyonne to deliver that line—among the wittiest he has ever written—in as deadpan a manner as possible. It’s charming how this lifestyle is, for D.J., routine.
Allen had her same nonchalant tone when he talked to interviewer Eric Lax about some of the challenges he faced in making Everyone Says I Love You. One problem was that he wanted to film the scene where Edward Norton picks out an engagement ring for D.J.’s older sister (played by Drew Barrymore) at Tiffany’s. “[B]ut they didn’t want us to dance on the glass countertops. We said we’d put in our own glass and protect everything but they just didn’t want dancing on them. They said we could dance in the aisles and take over the place but we went over to Harry Winston and they gave us complete cooperation and it was fresher.”
I would have gladly traded problems with Woody Allen.
At the same time, if I really searched my memory, I could find things in my life that were comparable to the stylishness of the family who spends Christmas at the Ritz. My favorite scene in Everyone Says I Love You comes when Woody Allen and Goldie Hawn go to a Groucho Marx-themed Christmas Eve party. Everyone there has dressed up like the comedian. There was something about the party’s improbable combination of elegance and silliness that I could relate to.
You see, around this time our family was friends with a family who lived in uptown New Orleans on a street called Audubon Place. The Christmas before I saw Everyone Says I Love You, we went to a party they threw at their grand house, which was probably not even the grandest on their street. I couldn’t tell you because the only time I ever saw it was in the cover of night at parties like this one. But really: I knew. Whenever I entered their house—three stories, with a spiral staircase and an elevator—I thought of April Wheeler’s line in the Richard Yates novel Revolutionary Road: “I still had this idea that there was a whole world of marvelous golden people somewhere…”
I always felt like telling April Wheeler that the people she is talking about live on Audubon Place.
The wife had an enormous collection of hats. I don’t mean that she had ten hats. There were at least fifty, but there could have easily been 100 or more. There was shelf after shelf of hats, protected by glass, illuminated by what was presumably special lighting. Their variety was almost cartoon-like. That’s what reminded me of the Groucho Marx party in Everyone Says I Love You; the hats looked as silly faux greasepaint moustaches do in the context of a luxe party.
And yet there was something terrific about them, too. Woody Allen would recognize this truth. He saw Everyone Says I Love You as a fond valentine to the Upper East Side—in all of its over-the-top splendor. “I look around and I see rich kids going to these private schools and their chauffeurs take them,” he told Time magazine, “and I see husbands and wives come down at night, and he’s got a tux on and she’s got a gown, and they go out—it’s a wonderful, romantic neighborhood. These people have money, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
I came to share Woody Allen’s benevolent view of wretched excess. People collect butterflies. Why not hats?
Maybe, then, I shouldn’t have felt so excluded from the world of Everyone Says I Love You. A few days after Christmas that year, my father and I went to the Brooks Brothers on Canal Street, hoping to find a good sale. I had been looking for an overcoat. I remember my father telling Stephanie, the clerk who usually helped us, that I was looking for the sort of overcoat “that Jules Feiffer might wear.”
You see, in my mind Christmas and the New York intelligentsia and having nice things were all rolled up into one tangly ball. These associations made perfect sense to me. My father got where I was coming from, but at the time I privately thought to myself, “I wonder if Stephanie has even heard of Jules Feiffer?” I might have also thought, “When in the hell will Everyone Says I Love You open down here?”
Then again, is shopping for a Jules Feiffer-style overcoat at Brooks Brothers a few days after Christmas so much more déclassé, or any less unconventional, than spending Christmas at the Ritz?
I say “Woody Allen’s Christmas movie,” but of course only a small portion of Everyone Says I Love You takes place during the holiday season. Yet when you watch the movie for the second or third time (I have seen it perhaps 10 times by now), it feels like the whole story is building to those scenes. There is a lot to enjoy in the scenes set in the spring, summer, and fall, but they don’t have the same magical pull. By the time we get to Halloween, we’re antsy, and so is our director. Woody Allen can’t wait for Christmas. He’s like a seven-year-old that way.
So many of the movies I think of as Christmas movies have very little to do with the holiday per se. I think of them as Christmas movies only because I saw them on or near Christmas. I’m talking about films like Marnie, Love Streams, Sleepy Hollow, Slacker, The Trial, The Talented Mr. Ripley. So it still really bothers me that I wasn’t able to see an actual Christmas movie like Everyone Says I Love You until February of the following year. I think I would have better grasped the connections between the fantasy on the screen and the reality of my own life if the hat collection on Audubon Place had been fresh in my mind as I watched the party where everyone looked like Groucho Marx.
The most famous scene in Everyone Says I Love You comes when Woody Allen and Goldie Hawn leave the Groucho Marx party and go for a stroll beside the River Seine. The stroll turns into a dance number and after it is over, Woody and Goldie talk about their former life together and their current life apart. It seems like they begin every sentence with “Do you remember when…?” Is there a better way to spend Christmas Eve than reconciling yourself to your past?
It was this scene that prompted Roger Ebert (the movie’s best and most persistent champion) to wonder if “perhaps Everyone Says I Love You is the best film Woody Allen has ever made.”
All I can say is this: there is nothing like leaving a fancy party early and facing the bite of the cold night air. Especially if you’re with a pretty companion. Especially if you’re going over old times with her. Especially if it’s Christmastime and you’re in Paris. I’ve had a few experiences not unlike these. I hope to have a few more.
Peter Tonguette is the author of Orson Welles Remembered and The Films of James Bridges. He is currently writing a critical study of the films of Peter Bogdanovich for the University Press of Kentucky and editing a collection of interviews with Bogdanovich for the University Press of Mississippi. You can visit Peter’s website here.