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Sex, Drugs & Holiday Roads

There are films that perfectly capture the complexity of the American experience—from The Searchers to Bonnie and Clyde to Raging Bull—but only one of them features a cartoon moose, incest, a shoebox full of weed, pee-soaked picnic sandwiches, a dead dog, a pimp shouting, “Fuck yo’ mama!” and a naked Christie Brinkley. Produced by legendary college humor collective The National Lampoon, scripted by reclusive teen-movie icon John Hughes, directed by Harold Ramis, and starring Chevy Chase, National Lampoon’s Vacation has turned 26 (hey, we were kind of busy last summer!). Like any classic, it transcends genre (in this case, super-broad physical comedy) to reveal lasting truths (about the frontier spirit, sex, race, class, and family). Seriously! Without Vacation there likely would be no Simpsons, no Family Guy, and no R-rated mainstream comedies of the Judd Apatow or Seth Rogen variety. Other films of the era have made more money (Animal House) and joined the classic guy-movie canon (Caddyshack), but Vacation stands as the most perfectly American com­edy of its day. This is the inside story of how it was made.


Matty Simmons (Producer, cofounder, The National Lampoon): In late ’78 the editor at the Lampoon said, “Look at this stuff coming in from this guy John Hughes in Chicago. It’s really good.” One of his stories was called “Vacation ’58.” I said, “I’m going to make a movie of this thing.” Animal House had just come out and was the biggest comedy of all time. I’m red-hot, right? I was sitting in Hollywood, and they’re kissing my ass all day long.

Harold Ramis (Director, Vacation; cowriter, Animal House): We were so spoiled by having Animal House as our first Hollywood venture. That created the expectation that, well, why can’t every film we do be the most successful comedy ever? Still, we had an audience that would be interested in Vacation. As far as the story, John Hughes was much more interested in the adolescent experience. In the original script, it’s all about the son, Rusty. I was much more attracted to the bored husband scenario, being the guy behind the wheel. I was more interested in telling my own story than that of a 13-year-old. So Chevy and I did a page-one rewrite, shaping it to this new Clark Griswold that we’d imagined.

Chevy Chase (Clark W. Griswold): Clark was a doofus. A well-meaning, typical young dad who was drawn to the idealism of traveling cross-country with his family. An everyman type. Harold knew what my instincts were from having done Caddyshack with me. He really imbued me with that character.

Ramis: We talked about the idea of a dad who tries to cram all his parenting into the two-week vacation he’s got. It’s that little pedantic quality that fathers can have, pointing out the window. “Look, kids, wheat!” The “we’re gonna have fun whether you like it or not” attitude.

The Griswolds initially intend to fly to Walley World, a Disneyland-like amusement park with a cartoon moose as a mascot. But office drone Clark convinces the family (wife Ellen and children Audrey and Rusty) that they should drive from Chicago to Los Angeles instead: “The whole idea of a family vacation is to spend time together as a family. You get on an airplane, you put on your earphones, and you’re lost in your own world.” He plans the trip on a primitive computer, mile by mile, so that nothing can pos­sibly go wrong.
Chase: That real idealism—“It’s gonna be a family trip, and it’s gonna be great”—is the source of the best kind of humor. “It might work out, or you might be eaten by a bear.” You never know what nature might bring. The setup is made in that first scene, “No. No, we’re not gonna fly. We can handle this drive!”

Kim Cattrall and Dee Wallace (the mother in E.T.) auditioned for the role of Ellen Griswold. But Beverly D’An­gelo, then coming off serious “New Hollywood” films, was cast. Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron became Rusty and Audrey.
Beverly D’Angelo (Ellen Griswold): I’d done Coal Miner’s Daughter and the film version of Hair, and I actually had a recording contract. The comedies being made that were like Animal House weren’t really considered the cream of what Hollywood was producing, you know? I mean, this was the era of The Deer Hunter! But Chevy and I just connected on a real mental and emotional level.
Ramis: We were casting in New York, and all the kids who were coming in looked like they’d just stepped out of a TV commercial or a Disney show. We were really in despair about ever finding a Rusty who would be interesting. Then Anthony Michael Hall came in.
Anthony Michael Hall (Rusty Griswold): It was my first big movie. I loved Caddyshack and SNL and was kind of walking around these people with my eyes bugging out. Dana Barron (Audrey Griswold): I had a call-back so they could see what the chemistry was between kids. I have an older sister, so I knew about crazy sibling rivalries. I had a scene with Michael and I screamed, “Eww, he’s touching me!” We snapped right into that arguing mode natu­-rally. Harold loved it, and that was that…That launched the Griswolds.


The first indication that things aren’t going well comes when Clark and Rusty drop off their trade-in and pick up their new car. Instead of the Antarctic Blue Super Sports-wagon (with the “optional rally fun-pack”), they are hustled into buying a mutant station wagon with wood paneling and a “metallic pea” paint job.
Eugene Levy (Car salesman): I played a lot of sleazeballs. Basically, I sold him a car I didn’t have and figured I would use my wherewithal to keep the sale and sell him another car. The Wagon Queen Family Truckster: I do recall it was a nasty-looking thing.
Chase: It was just the ugliest gas-guzzling station wagon you could imagine. By any standard today, that thing would be considered a major problem in the green world.
Ramis: They brought it in, and we began doing things to it. We said, “How about adding a headlight here? How about doing this and that?”

In a scene that would inspire multiplex picketing today, the Griswolds make a wrong turn and find themselves lost in East St. Louis. They ask a crew of pimped-out black guys for directions, only to be told, “Fuck yo’ mama!” While they’re given bogus directions, the locals strip their car and spray paint honky lips on the side.
Chase: They have no idea. They’re so white. They have no idea how to relate to inner-city black people. The scene is played very broadly. “Roll ’em up.” You couldn’t really roll up the window, because there wasn’t one. If you look closely, you’ll see the window doesn’t go up.
D’Angelo: We were the dopes. Sure, there was certainly a lack of a PC element to it. But we were the ones who were idiotic.
Chase: About a month ago, my wife and I were driving back from Colum­bia University, trying to get on the highway. We pulled into the wrong area, and there were these inner-city African-Americans drinking beer and hanging out, and it was at a dead end, late at night. I actually opened the window and said, “Hey, homes,” and these two guys who were there just started laughing immediately.

Insisting he can still go another 100 miles, Clark tries to make up for lost time and ends up falling asleep at the wheel, prompting a classic ’80s-style stunt-driving sequence in which he deposits the car perfectly in the hotel parking lot. Once in the motel, we are treated to another hallmark of ’80s comedy: gratuitous nudity.Ellen lingers in a shower stall lathering herself with a washcloth until Clark re-creates the murder scene from Psycho, with a banana.
D’Angelo: I thought it was great. I didn’t think it was gratuitous at all.
Simmons: Anthony Michael Hall was about 14 and she was in the stall and we’re getting ready to shoot the shower scene, and there’s Michael six feet away from her. I grabbed him by the shoulder and said, “Get the hell out of here!”
Hall: I was totally trying to sneak a peek. Yeah, of course. She had a nice rack! I’d say it in front of her now. Was I conflicted that she was playing my mom? You know what? At times I was. Usually when I was running lines in her trailer with her.

In the film’s most notorious sequence, the Griswolds check in on Ellen’s cousin Catherine and her husband, Eddie, and their large white-trash brood, including a young Jane Krakowski (currently of 30 Rock fame) in Coolidge, Kansas. Again, there are harsh elements of class division, played for uneasy laughs. Eddie’s insurance has been canceled, and his family has been reduced to smoking weed, incestuous French kissing, and chronic masturbation.
Ramis: The movie was taking place during the Ronald Reagan era, so I thought of Eddie’s family as the Reaganomics family, victims of his economic policies. It was a Grapes of Wrath kind of moment, too. Eddie was Tom Joad who didn’t leave.
Chase: Randy really pulled it together for me. I got it right away when he said, “I bet you could use a cold one,” and then handed me the swill of his own beer. I knew right there what kind of character I was dealing with. Every time I asked Randy to do a Vacation after that, he would initially say no. He’s really working on more serious stuff.

Quaid, Oscar-nominated for The Last Detail, has nonetheless appeared in three other Vacation films, including 2003’s TV movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure. The character, his most famous, remains a source of borderline shame. He responded to Maxim’s request for an interview with a cryptic statement: “Blame Harold Ramis for Cousin Eddie. I’m tired of taking all the credit.”
Ramis: Randy wanted to have a serious career, and to his chagrin he’s known for his biggest buffoons—Eddie and that guy in the bowling movie [the Farrelly brothers’ Kingpin, in which he plays an Amish bowling ace]. I saw him do Sam Shepard onstage!

Audrey pairs off with her Cousin Vicki, who informs her, “I’m going steady. And I French-kiss.” Audrey, unimpressed, replies, “So? Everyone does that.” “Yeah,” Vicki says, “but Daddy says I’m the best at it.”
Jane Krakowski (Cousin Vicki): People quote that to me word for word. Constantly. Or they ask me to say it. I knew it was wrong. I knew that you’re not supposed to kiss your dad like that. But I don’t think I knew the full shock value of incest. I knew we didn’t do it in my house. Honest.
Barron: I understood what the implications were because you can see my face, I was like, “Huh?” But still, I was very innocent at that age. The “potmaster” showed me the box of weed that’s supposed to be Cousin Vicki’s stash, and to this day I don’t know if it was real.

Rusty asks Cousin Dale, “What do you do here?” Replies Dale, “I got a stack of nudie books this high.” Shortly thereafter, Rusty learns about “bopping your bologna.”
Hall: That term is great. I just love that Harold and Matty were willing to go to that extent. Visiting the inbreds. They just went there.
Barron: “Boppin’ your bologna.” It still haunts me. It’s so gross. “Have you ever bopped your bologna?” What the heck is that?

Aunt Edna, Clark’s nemesis in curlers, is played by bug-eyed TV vet Imogene Coca. The Griswold’s agree to give her a ride to a relative’s house in Phoenix.
D’Angelo: She was so devoted. That car was like a gazillion degrees. One time we were out in the desert and she couldn’t remember her lines. She ended up going to the hospital. I think she had a mini-stroke.

The film becomes even more of an all-American affair with the appearance of Christie Brinkley, then the world’s most famous model. Brinkley was stunt-cast as the irresistible temptress who follows the Griswold’s route and flirts with Clark from the wheel of her red Ferrari.
Christie Brinkley: I had no ambition to act. I just figured it’d really be fun to be a part of the whole thing. Almost every scene we shot ended with me gunning my motor and charging off ahead of Chevy’s car. So I’m trying to make sexy eye contact with Chevy without laughing, while driving parallel to his car and hardly looking at the road, while wiggling my shoulder around so the top of the dress is half off. [Laughs] It took quite a lot of talent.
Hall: I was that kid who had the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue that came out every February. That was the wet dream, shooting a movie with Christie Brinkley. She came out by the pool one day, and you could hear the porn music in my head. I was like Judge Reinhold in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

The Griswolds and Aunt Edna stop to have a picnic lunch near Colorado. Brinkley also stops; she plays the radio and begins to dance. Clark, in the midst of eating a bologna-and-cheese sandwich, performs an impromptu erotic dance with it, simulating cunnilingus to June Pointer’s “Little Boy Sweet.”
Chase: I was just talking to Christie about that two nights ago over at a party at Billy Joel’s. She brought the scene up. How funny it was. I didn’t realize she’d ever gotten it. It was sort of a joke between me and a couple of friends, what I was really doing with that sandwich. Clearly, she did get it. I’m almost embarrassed.
Brinkley: That scene is so funny…I was so far away from him when I was doing the scene; I really couldn’t see all the intricacies. But when I saw the movie and saw him give his little sandwich that special kiss, I thought that was such a fun touch.

When Brinkley and Chase finally do play a scene together that includes dialogue, it’s clear that a Best Supporting Actress nod was not in her future. Brinkley’s naked hotel pool scene has become legendary, despite the fact that she is clearly wearing a flesh-toned bodysuit.
Brinkley: When I got my sides for the pool scene, it was, “Now you strip and jump in.” I said, “Well, I don’t really wanna do a nude scene for this movie. I think it’s more interesting to leave something to the imagi­nation.” There was quite a debate. I ended up stripping down to my bra and underwear. Then when I was actually in the pool, I just had a little nude one-piece. Like a nylon stocking. It looks nude, but you have a little teeny bit of coverage.
Chase: They were pushing the water back and forth, so you can’t tell that she’s not naked. Yeah. Pretty upsetting.

{ACT III: Walley world or bust!}

In rapid succession, the Griswolds kill Aunt Edna’s dog, Dinky, lose their luggage, get lost in the desert, and crash the family truckster. Audrey gets her first period, and Aunt Edna dies. They end up strapping her to the roof and later dumping her corpse on the patio at Cousin Normy’s in Phoenix. When the family suggests turning back, Clark—with a maniacal glint in his eye—tells them that they are “fucked in the head.” When they finally make it to Walley World, a Moose mascot informs them that the park is closed for repairs. Clark freaks out and takes secur­ity guard John Candy hostage—and he and the family ride the roller coasters.
Chase: I tell you that was the most frightening filming I’d ever done. Going up and down on that roller coaster with John weighing about 280 and a huge heavy camera in the car. I was just wondering, Am I gonna die here?

Vacation was a commercial success, grossing $61 million in the U.S., and received mostly positive reviews (though Siskel & Ebert split thumbs), but it wasn’t a blockbuster. Its legacy has grown on video, cable, and DVD, and hasn’t diminished despite the release of three increasingly sub-par sequels and a crappy TV special.
Krakowski: It has the vibe of a cult now; people know all the lines from it. They can quote it back to you. It’s pretty cool.
D’Angelo: Well, at first it was like, “Oh, my God, now I’m burdened with this.” But as time went on, what really made the difference was I saw how much people loved it. It’s taken years for me to see how important that film was. Years. Would I do another one? In a heartbeat.
Chase: Aw, hell, I’ve had an idea for another sequel for years now: The Swiss Family Griswold. There’s a fire on a cruise ship and they believe the ship’s going down, so they jump overboard and get stuck on this island. Eventually, they find Cousin Eddie there. He was one of the members of the cast of Survivor and had never gotten off the island. I think it would be a great one, frankly.
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