Holiday Heart (2000)

The best way to sell the immediate appeal of the film Holiday Heart is likely to announce up front what it is in basic terms: an R-rated, made-for-TV Christmas movie starring Ving Rhames as a street tough drag queen. By now you’ve already decided if you’d ever be interested in watching such a thing, which gives me the freedom to admit that the film is unfortunately not as riotously fun as it could be, considering the potential of its premise. For all of the visual excitement of such a large, muscular man as Rhames playing far against type as a booming-voiced drag queen, Holdiay Heart goes out of its way to normalize & de-sex his character. Off-stage, Holiday Heart is a gay man, but his lover dies before the film begins and only exists in photographs, so the film’s intended Christian audience never has to actually see him expressing queer desire. He’s also introduced as a musician dedicated to worship at his local church before we ever see him perform under his drag persona, reassuring the audience up front that he is a deeply Christrian man and his sexual orientation does not define his relationship with God. Rhames makes for a fascinating appearance as a lumbering brute delicately holding telephones with his fingertips so as not to break a nail, but as a character his titular drag queen protagonist has no inner life outside faith in God and an emotionally vulnerable readiness to cry at the drop of a hat. He has all of the character nuance of Barney the Dinosaur and functions in the film mostly as a Magical Gay Man who can fix straight Christians’ problems through his (literally & figuratively) giant heart. The movie is still enjoyable as a novelty melodrama & Rhames’s few drag performances are aces, but that (lack of) characterization is such a bummer.

Holiday Heart is not just any lumbering, muscular drag queen; she’s the most popular one in town. Making a name for herself by lip-syncing to Supremes hits in a pageant queen tradition, Holiday is nightclub royalty, but still feels rawly empty after the loss of a long-term life partner. This family-sized hole in his heart is filled when he stumbles into a father figure role for the daughter of a near-destitute drug addict. The setup is awkward & messy, but Holiday essentially takes in a mother-daughter duo from the streets to protect them from the domestic abuse & homelessness that threatens their lives. The film is a strict melodrama from there (even name-checking Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life several times throughout to clue you into its tone), with many repetitive fallouts between Holiday & the mother he chooses to shelter as she slips in & out of relapses and flings homophobic slurs in his face to hurt his feelings (which is surprisingly easy). The fate of the little girl they’re both reluctantly tasked to raise hangs in the balance as they struggle between selfishness & self-preservation and The Christian Thing to Do. Obviously, this setup does not lead to a nonstop laugh riot, but the melodrama can often be over-the-top enough to elicit a chuckle or two. The earliest drug relapse is a depraved lighting of a microscopic roach found at the bottom of the mother’s purse. A flashback shows Holiday being shunned at his romantic partner’s funeral while weeping & singing “Baby Love” in full widow drag. A mild hip-hop beat plays over three cliché dramatic orchestral music that scores its more self-serious moments. And then, of course, the whole thing swerves at the last second to justify its pun title by staging its emotional climax on Christmas, a holiday that otherwise plays no part in the plot.

Overall, Holiday Heart is a lot more Christian and a lot less Christmas than it would have to be to satisfy as an over-the-top camp spectacle. The film’s super serious focus on Faith cuts down a lot of its sillier eccentricities and makes the majority of the experience feel more like a bummer than a party. Still, it has the dorky energy of a kids’ movie that just happens to feature a ton of F-bombs & homophobic slurs. It also can’t be over-stated how much the novelty of seeing Ving Rhames in traditional pageant queen drag can carry its less exciting melodrama slumps. The thing about drag, too, is that it’s performative & uncomfortable; most queens can’t wait to de-glamor after a performance, but Holiday lounges around in her stage garb as if it were a comfy bathrobe. He’s not at all coded as transgender, so that bizarre choice just registers as lagniappe opportunities to soak up the Ving-Rhames-as-a-drag-queen novelty, since the lip-sync performances themselves are too few & far between. Much of Holiday Heart registers as goofy & embarrassing, especially in its indulgences in gospel music & erotic slam poetry, but Rhames’s performance as the titular drag queen is genuinely mesmerizing. It’s just a shame they stripped his character of sexual desire & potential for society-disrupting chaos to better mold the film into a Christian-family melodrama about fatherhood. It’s a fun-enough movie as is, but it could have been an all-time with a little more personality.

-Brandon Ledet

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