It’s been tough to watch movies in 2020 and not project our frustrations and anxieties onto the screen. Maybe the extravagant wedding sequence in “The Godfather” suddenly felt garish compared to all of this year’s Zoom “I Dos.” Or maybe you put on “Elf” to pass some quarantine time, and the crowded mall scenes launched you into a cold sweat, because everyone is inside and no one is wearing a mask.
When I watched the classic “A Christmas Story” recently for the 20th time (at least), my pandemic-weary brain zeroed in on something I’d never really noticed. I looked past the cute kids and the leg lamp and the famous tongue-stuck-on-the-pole scene, and became laser focused on the mom. One look at her disheveled hair and shabby robe and exasperated stare and I thought: This woman is a damn hero.
“A Christmas Story,” which TBS has played on a loop every holiday season for over a decade, takes place in early 1940s Indiana, and follows a young boy named Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) who desperately wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, even though his mom (Melinda Dillon, referred to as “Mother” in the credits), says his dream gift is too dangerous. That’s pretty much the plot, but the director Bob Clark and the writer Jean Shepherd somehow created an oddball, timeless Christmas movie that manages to be both darkly comic and sweet. Every year I’ve watched this movie assuming Ralphie is the protagonist. Now I’m not so sure.
When we meet Mother, she’s frazzled, serving food and wearing dowdy clothes that look like rags next to her husband’s comparatively haute couture suit. While The Old Man (Darren McGavin) reads the paper or grumbles about the faulty furnace, Mother cooks, cleans, wrestles the kids into their gigantic snow suits and frets about everyone’s well-being, even though no one frets about hers.
Normally I wouldn’t find her plight so enthralling, but on this viewing, as soon as her husband and kids left for the day, I desperately wanted to know what this woman did with her alone time. She wasn’t juggling home school and work during a global crisis, so did she just keep on cleaning? Maybe she mixed herself a clandestine Tom Collins and took a bubble bath. Where were the scenes of her celebrating her freedom by dancing through an empty house, like Jill Clayburgh in “An Unmarried Woman”? Was I projecting?
Something tells me she was not sipping cocktails and pirouetting from room to room.
Instead, we see Mother serving up cabbage and meatloaf, which practically makes her a saint in my book. I’ve occasionally handed my toddler son Goldfish and some grapes for dinner over the past year (toddlers are picky!), so at least her uninspired meals are home cooked. We also see her washing Ralphie’s mouth out with a huge bar of red soap after he says “the queen mother of dirty words.” My son said his first curse word this year also, only he’s 3 years old instead of 9 like Ralphie. Rather than stuffing soap in his mouth, I looked away to hide my laughter and to avoid giving the word any attention. Mother didn’t have the luxury of reading fancy books by child psychologists instructing her about what to do when kids curse. What she did have was a big bar of soap.
Mother might not get treated like a superstar, but Dillon received top billing in “A Christmas Story.” She came to the film with a Tony nomination for her Broadway debut in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” plus two Academy Award nominations, for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Absence of Malice.” Dillon started out as the first coat check girl at the improv theater The Second City in Chicago, but when her career quickly took off, she was overwhelmed by the prospect of fame. She turned her energy away from acting and toward marriage and kids. The role of real-life suburban mom quickly lost its allure, though.
“I got buried alive,” Ms. Dillon said of her stay-at-home stint in a 1976 interview with The Times. She went back to work.
Reading that, it’s hard not to imagine that Ms. Dillon brought some of those feelings to the role of a woman who, as Ralphie says early on in the movie, “hadn’t had a hot meal for herself in 15 years.”
She’s not just a meatloaf baking pushover, though. Mother has mastered the art of outsmarting her husband. She uses stealth tactics to convince him not to turn on the hideous leg lamp he won in a contest, like suggesting he keep it off so they don’t waste electricity (this qualifies as a stealth tactic in my eyes). She later not-so-subtly asserts her authority by destroying the leg lamp in a fit of rage. I cheered her on with every off-camera smash. Deprived of hot meals and cooped up at home, she needs this.
At the end of “A Christmas Story,” Ralphie and Randy tear open their many presents, and The Old Man opens a gift from Mother, a shiny blue bowling ball. As I watched her observe her husband and son’s delight around the Christmas tree, I noticed that she was holding something that could either be a gold spatula or a fly swatter. I hoped that whatever her gift was, it was not either of those things. Suddenly, on the umpteenth viewing of this movie, I needed to know if this woman, the saint of the film, got a Christmas present.
Frantic Google searches combining “mother” “Christmas Story” “gift” and “spatula” yielded nothing, so I emailed A Christmas Story House & Museum in Cleveland, the site of the actual house from the movie, hoping for answers.
“Who cares what the mom gets for Christmas,” replied the museum’s owner Brian Jones. Turns out he was joking, but still. “No one has ever asked me that in nearly two decades in the business,” he wrote.
According to Jones, Mother is indeed holding a fly swatter. If she gets any presents, we never see them. Is her Christmas gift the fact that her husband and sons are all happy and fulfilled? Where is her reward for multitasking and keeping everyone fed and clothed and protected from blizzards, all while sacrificing her own time and energy to make yet another cabbage stew? They could have at least given her a card!
From now on, when I watch the end of “A Christmas Story,” I won’t be focused on Ralphie’s BB gun or Old Man Parker’s bowling ball. I’ll be rooting for the mom, and imagining a deleted scene where she kicks up her feet, has that Tom Collins and gets a quiet moment all to herself.
Dina Gachman is an Austin-based writer and the author of “Brokenomics.”