In Nancy Meyers’ “The Holiday” (2006) – one of the guiltiest pleasures you’ll ever have – two lovelorn women decide to trade their private lives over the Christmas break. Society columnist Iris (Kate Winslet) – who’s been jilted by manipulative colleague Jasper (Rufus Sewell) – heads to Los Angeles, while movie-trailer producer Amanda (Cameron Diaz) – furious with her cheating beau Ethan (Edward Burns) – sets off for suburban London.
One of the great joys of the movie is the way Iris revels in Amanda’s sleek, white, high-tech manse with its perfect-for-cannonballs pool and shades that retract at the clap of the hands. And while the more cynical Amanda has trouble at first downsizing to Iris’ Surrey cottage – this being a Meyers’ film, it’s a cottage like something out of Architectural Digest, ok? – she’s soon charmed by Iris’ abode, particularly as it comes equipped with Jude Law (playing Iris’ handsome, conveniently widowed bro Graham).
The principals – including a sympathetic composer-suitor for Iris (Jack Black) – ultimately wind up dancing in Iris’ Surrey living room on a snowy New Year’s Eve, because in Meyers’ movies (“It’s Complicated,” “Something’s Gotta Give”), home is where the heart – and thus, the romance – is.
She’s not alone. The home has been the shelter of our personalities, our relationships, our very souls ever since Neolithic Martha Stewarts set up house in caves that they decorated with little stick figures of people and animals (the better to hunt them, my dear). The ancient Greeks and Romans, the medieval Europeans and the Renaissance Italians aggrandized those primitive caves and mud huts into grand structures that had communal spaces and connecting rooms. But the notion of a house as a single unit comes from the independent-minded 17th-century Dutch, as illustrated in the intimate, psychologically acute interiors of painter Johannes Vermeer and other Old Masters. The Dutch sense of home as a place of both solitary comforts and social pleasures is one we live with today.
For many, a house is their most important financial investment. But as culture has demonstrated, it’s a tremendous emotional investment as well, one in which the physical structure is inextricably bound to the idea of “home” and the feelings of pride and warmth it conjures.
There was a whole tradition in 18th-century British and American painting in which people of means were portrayed by the likes of Thomas Gainsborough and John Singleton Copley in plush domestic settings against the lush, commanding backdrops of their property – the home as status symbol. (Two centuries later, this would be played for laughs in film comedies like “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House” and “The Money Pit.”)
The home was a kind of gigantic calling card for your place in society, so much so that 19th century literature is replete with novels, often by female authors such as Jane Austen, in which the loss of house begets a loss of face. The Bennet girls in “Pride and Prejudice,” the Dashwood sisters in “Sense and Sensibility” and Anne Elliot in “Persuasion” are all made to feel the potential or actual loss of their familial estates as a threat to their status as marriageable gentlewomen – either because of financial imprudence (“Persuasion”) or because the property is entailed away from the female line (“Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility”) – something the Crawley women come to understand in “Downton Abbey.” (See related story.) It’s not surprising, then, that the prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet begins to revise her opinion of the proud Mr. Darcy when she first encounters his magnificent estate, Pemberley.
Though women could be denied the right to hold property, the home, like all things domestic, is usually associated with women, even those who can’t be contained by it. Among the reasons Heathcliff returns to Wuthering Heights in Emily Brontë’s novel is because it’s the place where he was happy with Cathy and where he later believes her spirit wanders. He wants to possess Wuthering Heights just as he wanted to possess – and is possessed by – her.
But he also burns for revenge by real estate. The Heights and neighboring Thrushcross Grange were the sites of all the humiliations and abuses heaped on him as a child. As master of both, he is master of those who once brought him low.
The home is the battleground, then, where relationships are engaged for good or for ill. In the 1989 film “The War of the Roses,” Oliver and Barbara Rose (Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner) long to divorce but are each unwilling to cede ownership of their beautifully decorated mansion. So they wage war from within and in the end, the house buries them both.
Houses are weighted not just with murderously fragile chandeliers, but with memories. Sometimes, it takes a while to realize that’s what they’re really about. It’s telling that Hollywood would produce three of its greatest films about the home at a time when many in America had lost theirs – “Wuthering Heights,” “Gone With the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz,” all released as the Depression persisted in 1939.
In “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy spends most of the picture trying to get back not just to Kansas, but to the family farm and in particular Auntie Em, who symbolizes everything she loves and believes she’s lost. “GWTW” is trickier. The self-centered Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) initially cares little for Tara, the family plantation, which she sees as a distraction from her glamorous self and her schemes to land the beautiful but already engaged Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard).
It’s only when she almost loses Tara during the Civil War and is forced to work it like the lowliest farmhand in the Reconstruction that she comes to realize its value. When her petulant sister Suellen (Evelyn Keyes) balks at the work, saying she hates Tara, Scarlett slaps her, telling her that hating Tara is like hating their mother and father.
In the end, having lost virtually everything that really matters – her parents, her child, her best friend, her husband, her illusions of Ashley and herself – Scarlett turns to the one thing she has left. And goes home to nurture and reinvent herself.
Because she understands that whether it’s a tornado-swept farm, a resurrected plantation or anything in between, there really is no place like it.