The Star Wars Holiday Special elicits a lot of sympathy. Not for the goings on, but for the cast. The easiest cast members to pity are Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Harrison Ford. Not only are they stuck in this contractually obligated ninety-some minute nightmare of terrible television, director Binder doesn’t even know how to shoot their cameos. For some reason, particularly with Fisher and Hamill, Binder shoots them from a low angle. Hamill and Fisher are lucky enough to just have regular cameos (Ford’s stuck with an extended one); only neither of them should be shot from low angle. High or eye-level, sure, but never low. Maybe it was a way to keep the actors (reasonably) happy and not to really involve them in the Special. More on Binder’s incompetencies in a bit (or not, there’s a lot to get through when it comes to incompetency and the Holiday Special).
But the most disrespected cast member is Peter Mayhew. The whole thing is about getting Chewbacca (Mayhew) back to his family for Life Day, the Wookie holiday where they either sit around the home with these luminescent balls or take the luminescent balls to the Tree of Life while enrobed. Again, Binder’s not a good director and Jerry Bixman and Vince Humphrey are worse editors, so it’s unclear if the eventual Life Day celebration at the Tree of Life is an actual event or just the Chewbacca family’s shared vision. The planet is under Imperial control, after all, and it seems unlikely the Empire would let the Wookies congregate.
Anyway, Mayhew doesn’t get anything to do. Ford’s trying to get him home for Life Day, so he’s second-fiddle to Ford for those scenes–which are an atrocious mix of Star Wars stock footage and close-up inserts–Holiday Special filmed before Empire so it’s not like the actors were already in character. And when Mayhew does get home, the Special (thankfully) is almost over. The disaster is almost complete. But it does mean Mayhew doesn’t get any time with his family and their Life Day celebration ends up hijacked by more cameos, terrible video editing effects, and, well, Fisher singing a bad song.
Because most of Holiday Special is about Mayhew’s family waiting for his arrival as they prepare for Life Day. Mickey Morton plays his wife, Paul Gale’s his dad, Patty Maloney’s his son. In some ways, it’s better they didn’t have Morton and Mayhew make out Wookie style, but not narratively. The Special already has Harvey Korman doing alien drag, fully committed, so why not just go for it. Mayhew and Morton’s eventual hug has nowhere near the emotional weight Holiday Special–not to mention a Life Day celebration–needs.
Until Mayhew (and Ford) show up at home for the celebration, it’s a rough day for the family. The Imperials are bothering them. Although Mayhew is galavanting around the galaxy, he’s still on the Empire’s census and they want to know why he’s not at home. That–way too long–scene has Jack Rader as the mean Imperial officer overseeing the search. Rader’s awful. And not in a way you can feel any sympathy for him. His subordinate Michael Potter is also awful, but at least Potter gets to Jefferson Starship and chill thanks to trader Art Carney.
About the only person in Holiday Special, at least of the featured cast, who doesn’t seem to recognize it’s an unmitigated disaster, is Carney. He’s got his shirt open to his navel, he’s maybe got the hots for Morton, and Carney’s all in. He’s never good or anywhere near it, but he doesn’t get any sympathy for the bad. Bea Arthur, who shows up as a Tatooine bar proprietress (Holiday Special shows the Star Wars cantina alien costumes need good cinematography not to look idiotic–John B. Field’s lighting is abysmal), she’s never any good, but she gets a lot of sympathy. Not so for Carney. He’s never unlikable, but he’s not pitiable.
I guess it makes him the most sincere performance in the whole thing.
Except Korman, who plays three different characters, all outside the regular action. His four-armed alien cooking show host is the best–and the only time Special is any good. The second, where Korman’s doing an instructional video on a gadget–whenever Special needs to kill time, someone watches something, usually supplied by Carney; anything not for young Maloney is inconveniently erotic. For his Life Day present, old man Wookie Gale gets a personalized holo-video of Diahann Carroll being way too suggestive for a televised kids’ holiday special before going into terrible song, which Gale enjoys in the basest sense.
In the living room, with his daughter-in-law and grandson over in the adjoining kitchen. Though Maloney might be upstairs. Carney spends a lot of time trying to keep Morton warmed up.
Then, later, Carney sits Imperial doofus Potter down in front of a Jefferson Starship hologram and Potter’s just as turned on by their performance of “Light the Sky on Fire” (a terrible song the band actually released). That holographic device Potter’s watching was meant for Morton too. There’s a lot to unpack with how the Special treats Morton. Hamill tells Morton to give him a smile, Carney’s always going in for a kiss. Why doesn’t Mayhew appreciate Morton more; must be too busy thinking of galactic galavanting.
Before the dreadful Special is over, there’s a cartoon introducing Boba Fett (voice actor Don Francks didn’t return to the part in Empire), with some odd animation choices. Though the abnormally long-faced and squinty-eyed Han Solo (voiced, of course, by Ford), is something of an amusing standout. It’s not good or interesting, but it’s bad in an amusing way, which is often the most The Star Wars Holiday Special can achieve.
I suppose the whole thing could be worse–and I realize I didn’t get back to Binder’s inept direction but, really, I can’t. I don’t want to think about what could make the Holiday Special worse. It’s terrible enough as produced.
Props to Korman, though, for managing to do a solid sketch and a half in this catastrophe of brand exploitation.
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