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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Stewart

The Holdovers

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

ICYMI - I timed Oppenheimer but didn’t have enough to say about my findings to warrant a full blog post. For a three-hour movie, it was fairly easy to work through, and I very much enjoyed having the opportunity to give it a second, closer watch. I’m more convinced of its Best Picture frontrunner status and will be thrilled if it takes it. (I’m also grateful to everyone who made my tweet about this data my second most-liked one ever.)

On to The Holdovers - This was one of my most anticipated projects of the year due to the debate surrounding Dominic Sessa’s category placement. Since watching it in theaters, I’ve viewed him as lead and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as supporting (the latter seems obvious, but there are those who argue the opposite), and seeing the numbers only confirms both positions. To be clear, it would be entirely possible for Paul Giamatti (who appears in 55% of the film) to be the sole lead and Sessa (49%) to be supporting. I know of several cases where two performances are of similar size but on different levels of prominence, such as The Last Detail (Jack Nicholson, 76%; Randy Quaid, 68%) and, yes, Green Book (Viggo Mortensen, 70%; Mahershala Ali, 51%). However, Sessa’s character is as narratively important as Giamatti’s, and that point is even more obvious to me after having watched (and timed) the 1935 French film Merlusse.

In case you’re unaware (as was I), Merlusse is what gave Alexander Payne the idea to commission the Holdovers screenplay, and watching it revealed many similarities and (thankfully) even more differences. The older film is far too simplistic and barely entertaining, but I appreciate that it spawned a truly great one almost 90 years later. Both Henri Poupon’s Merlusse (a fish-related nickname) and Giamatti’s Hunham are unmarried, unliked teachers with single eyes and body odor problems who get stuck supervising their boarding schools’ holiday holdovers when a coworker with a supposedly ill mother is relieved of the duty. The former’s story only lasts for about 24 hours and ends happily, but the latter’s spans two weeks and concludes on a bittersweet note.

Poupon doesn’t appear at all in the first 20% of his film but ends up clocking in at almost 40% and indisputably stands as the only lead. Although there is a sort of stand-in for Sessa’s character – a 12-year-old student named Villepontoux whose father is dead and whose remarried mother has decided to leave him at school at Christmas – he is one of 26 boys put in Merlusse’s care (as opposed to Hunham’s five and, later, one) and is developed no further, amassing a screen time total of just 19% before unceremoniously exiting at around the 86% mark. He is firmly supporting, and Sessa’s Angus – a richly developed character who grows along with Hunham as their story progresses – is firmly leading. Although The Holdovers incorporates a wholly original deuteragonist in Randolph’s Mary (who lands at 19%), that’s all she is meant to be, and to suggest that she and Angus are anywhere close to being on equal footing is silly.

Newcomers (evidently not just child actors) have been unfairly classified as supporting far too often and it bums me out to see it keep happening. I just hope we can get to a point where fewer people feel compelled to play into the practice.

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