Beverly D'Angelo on the legacy of 'National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation'


'National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.'
Beverly D'Angelo and Chevy Chase in 'National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.' (courtesy Hennepin Theatre Trust)
Beverly D'Angelo interview
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Beverly D'Angelo is an actor and singer perhaps best known for her portrayal of Ellen Griswold in the National Lampoon's Vacation franchise. She spoke with Jill Riley ahead of an event being presented this weekend: A Virtual Vacation with the Griswolds: An Evening with Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo.

Jill Riley: Beverly, hi! How are you?

Beverly D'Angelo: I'm great. How are you, Jill?

I'm feeling really good right now, and I'm just going to tell you, from a personal standpoint, I grew up with the Griswolds: with all of the Vacation movies. Christmas Vacation was just a staple in my family's household.

And you know what? I don't know if anyone envisioned that it would be the yearly funfest that it [became]. When I grew up, they always played The Wizard of Oz at Christmas, and now it seems to be Christmas Vacation, so it's kind of been reinforced by television: that it's part of life now, that Griswold thing.

Well, Christmas Vacation came out in 1989. I remember it very well, because since then it's just been movie quotes back and forth in my family for years. There was Vacation and then European Vacation...Beverly, what do you remember about when the idea was sort of thrown around for another Vacation movie and that it was going to be a Christmas Vacation?

You know, it's funny, Jill, because that word "franchise" is kind of in everybody's vocabulary now, but back then, I think we just used the word "sequel." It certainly wasn't created with the idea that now they'll go here and now they'll go there and now they'll do this and now they'll do that. The thing that was the most wonderful about Christmas Vacation...we did the first one, then we did European Vacation, but the thing that was great about Christmas Vacation is, it brought John Hughes back into the fold again because he was a writer on that script. The first Vacation, I think, was his first screenplay.

You know, he was from the Midwest and I think that's why I loved him so much. I'm from the Midwest — I'm from Ohio — and so even though I ran away like I was running from a burning building when I was 17, I really did get that value system that you can really only get when you're growing up in a place that the rural and the urban kind of meet. You're raised to be independent and be an independent thinker, but you're also raised to be part of a community. John Hughes just always had that sense.

I've got to tell you, I always saw the Vacation movies as romantic comedy. I really thought at the core of it was how much Ellen loved her husband — even though it's starring Chevy. But by the way, I've got to tell you about this thing: the Zoom thing that Chevy and I are going to do, people are able to ask us questions. We'll be showing clips and we'll reveal some behind-the-scenes moments...all that kind of stuff. That's on the 28th of November.

It'll be really cool to see Beverly D'Angelo and Chevy Chase talk about this. We see your faces and we see Ellen and Clark, but you guys have a longtime friendship.

Oh, yeah. We became friends on the first one, and we've maintained that friendship. We've worked together so many times. We not only did the five Vacation movies — and that reboot they did with Ed Helms, like a cameo kind of thing — but we did a campaign for Old Navy; we did a Super Bowl commercial for HomeAway, a vacation rental company; and we did a pilot for a TV show. We've done some autograph conventions together.

I mean, our paths have crossed professionally forever, but it's because at the foundation we're friends. I always said it was the chemistry between me and Chevy that created Ellen and Clark, as much as the words that we had to say.

I love that you say that the role of Ellen, when you look at it from the romantic comedy [perspective], that she would have to be such a loving wife to put up with the antics of Clark.

You want to know something? That role was in honor of my own mother. I was a wild person, Jill. I was wild, so wild that honestly, I swear to god it was an acting challenge to play Ellen. It was so far from the way that I lived my life. In fact, when I did the first Vacation I was a duchess. I was based in Italy and I was married to a duke. I was a wild person...I mean, really. I used to lie in the gutters, I used to drink, I used to smoke.

So Ellen was this suburban person that I kind of fled from. My mother always said, if you can't say something nice, don't say something at all...and as far as marriage went, she said as long as it adds up to 100%, it doesn't matter who gives 99% and who gives 1%. Well, you know...I've never been real good at it, but she was really great. I grew up witnessing a beautiful love affair between my mother and father, so I knew there was a love affair that was always going on between Ellen and Clark.

And you see that! It's kind of wonderful that if you look at all the movies, you witness a longtime marriage. But I do think that for Ellen, and for me as an actress, I really wanted to make sure that it was clear that love was motivating everything. She just loved her husband and she loved her family, and I remember when they did the fifth one, Christina Applegate said, "I'm going to bring Ellen Griswold into contemporary times! She's not a doormat!" But you want to know my secret? I never thought that Ellen Griswold was un-liberated. I thought she was loving and just on top of everything. I love that character.

Beverly, I'm curious: with National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, what is your favorite scene from that movie? Because for me, as someone who's been a fan of it for so long, it's hard to pin down one scene. I just feel like each one...there was not a dull moment in that movie.

I don't know. I mean, I know the one that the fans always talk about is when Ellen says, "What else can I say? It's Christmas and we're all in misery." I think everybody identifies with that. But yeah, there's so many things. I bet if you talk to Chevy, he'd probably say the attic scene. That really moved him. That's so John Hughes-ian, to really put that heartbeat in there.

And then for the floor to collapse.

Exactly! Exactly. Good call, Jill. Yeah.

As you reflect back on Christmas Vacation, as far as the filming went, what was your favorite scene to film?

Oh, I think the dinner scene, with the exploding turkey, was fun. It was fun because for that shot, the camera circled the table and got a shot of everybody eating in different ways, which I thought was funny. We had three different turkeys, because they just didn't explode right. But in a lot of ways, doing those movies with Chevy was kind of like being on a TV show, because we'd just get back together and then there'd be somebody new here and somebody new there. It certainly wasn't hard: we shot it in the summer, and that snow was made out of probably...asbestos or something. I don't know.

In scenes that I would think you'd be freezing cold standing you're saying it was actually summertime!

We were in...I think it was Breckenridge to get the Christmas tree itself, and there was snow there. But in L.A., the exterior of the house, I promise you it was warm. It wasn't cold.

Beverly, what question do you often get asked from fans?

Mostly it's, "Are you and Chevy really friends in real life?"

And your answer is yes!

Yeah. I'll tell you what people say to me all the time: they say my husband is Clark. They say he's just like Clark. Maybe there's that universal tap-in...we all just think there's a Clark in everybody, you know what I mean? In every man. Like, that bumbling pretty good-intentioned but he can't quite pull it off. The thing about the Griswolds is that everything that can go wrong for that family does go wrong, but they persevere!

Right. It always ends up working out.

It always ends up working out because of love. That's my theory.

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