In the nine years since I wrote 100 Great Film Performances You Should Remember But Probably Don’t, I occasionally see a screen performance that I wish I had included in the book. Not that I’d want to delete any of my choices, just make room for a few more. I’m sorry there was no space for Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Joan Fontaine in Ivy (1947), Billie Burke in Everybody Sing (1938), to name a few, and I was just reminded of another, having just re-watched Holiday (1938). No, not the performances of Katharine Hepburn or Cary Grant, but that of supporting-player Lew Ayres, who gives the standout performance.
Philip Barry’s play, Holiday, was a great success on Broadway in 1928 and holds up surprisingly well in its early-talkie version of 1930, with memorable performances from Ann Harding and Mary Astor as the central sisters. Hepburn had understudied Broadway’s Hope Williams in the role of Linda (played by Harding on film) and finally got to play it in George Cukor’s 1938 remake at Columbia. It was the third Hepburn-Grant picture following two box-office misses: Cukor’s gender-bending curiosity Sylvia Scarlett (1936) and Howard Hawks’ utterly brilliant Bringing Up Baby, with its ingeniously funny performances from both Hepburn and Grant. After Holiday, they would make The Philadelphia Story (1940), a huge hit based on another Philip Barry play (which had starred Hepburn in 1939), again directed by Cukor. The Hepburn-Grant Holiday does not rank among the finest romantic comedies of the 1930s, yet it’s still literate and charming, never better than when Ayres takes focus.
Ayres made his mark as the naive young soldier of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and in the first and best version of State Fair (1933) in what became the Dana Andrews role in 1945. After Holiday, he immediately became the star of MGM’s Dr. Kildare series, churning out picture after picture with time for few other roles. His career was almost destroyed during WWII when he declared himself a conscientious objector, yet he served honorably with the Army Medical Corps and as an assistant chaplain. After the war, he got an Oscar nomination for his warm, gentle turn opposite Jane Wyman in the moving and delicate Johnny Belinda, the only Ayres performance that ranks alongside his work in Holiday.
Holiday is one of those 30s comedies set among the super-rich, with Hepburn the oldest child of wealthy banker Henry Kolker, followed by sister Doris Nolan and baby brother Ayres. They are “one of America’s 60 families.” Nolan has become impetuously engaged to Grant, after knowing him only ten days in Lake Placid. Grant is doing well financially, at a big New York firm, but he yearns for freedom, ready to break with convention and “retire young, work old,” uninterested in piling up money for its own sake. It’s obvious after a few minutes that Grant is with the wrong sister, utterly mismatched with cold, humorless Nolan and perfect for frustrated, dreamy Hepburn. The whole thing feels tricked from the start and there’s very little surprise as it sorts itself out properly. Grant seems a bit less than usual, lacking the sharp self-awareness of his most irresistible performances, while Hepburn sometimes seems too self-consciously aglow, too calculating in her “radiant” effects. They’re both splendid when compared with normal earthlings but they’re not up to their especially high standards, in no small part because of the roles themselves.
I have no comparable reservations about Ayres as Ned, the alcoholic brother too weak and pessimistic to defy his father, thus going to his bank office and putting in the time as if it were a prison sentence. Ned gets little attention here, no real delving into his problems. We know that his music ambitions as a musician and composer were thwarted by daddy and that Ned hasn’t the courage to stand up to him. And so he drinks and drinks. Holiday is a comedy and so it would have been quite easy for Ayres to go for easy drunken laughs, yet he keeps things remarkably subtle, offering a quiet and darkly shaded portrait of a man suffering silently. And yet he is still very funny, but funny in a realistic way, exposing his wit and smarts under his breath, often for his own amusement. His drunkenness is real, too, nicely sustained, believably embarrassing, never theatrical.
It’s an aching, mysterious performance, one that allows for the possibility that Ned is a closeted gay man. After all, Ned has no girlfriend or any dates, and he seems to be living in a private hell that cannot be shared, even with Linda, the sister he’s closest to. When Hepburn reveals to him her burgeoning love for Grant, and Ayres understands perfectly, it appears as though Ned knows a thing or two about unrequited love and about a love that dares not reveal itself. The affection that Ayres displays with Hepburn shows us some of the depth in Ned, a man too scared to face the world, perhaps always to be lavishly sheltered from becoming the person he was meant to be. If there isn’t enough real conflict and ambiguity in Holiday, there surely is in Ayres. Without love, without music, he immerses himself in alcohol and may never emerge from his trap as Linda will from hers. As Hepburn and Grant go off to start their “holiday,” what stays with you is the lingering image of Ned, for whom holidays may never be anything more than days off from the bank.
It’s remarkable that Ayres didn’t get a supporting Oscar nomination for this performance, especially in the year that the great Walter Brennan was cited for one of his worst performances, in Kentucky, the first in-color performance to win an Oscar. Now no one remembers Brennan’s cantankerous overacting (like an all-steamed-up Colonel Sanders) in Kentucky, but Holiday viewers will never forget sad and funny Lew Ayres unable to leave his ivory tower.