Holly Gennaro McClane: portrayed in Die Hard by Bonnie Bedelia, John McClane’s estranged wife reflects the conflicts and contradictions facing women at the time the film was made – and even still today. She’s a working woman, a mother, and a wife. But there’s no consensus on whether she’s also a damsel in distress, or if she – like so many other conventions that Die Hard challenges – goes beyond your typical 80s action movie female lead.
- How Did This Get Made? mini-sode 199.5 (Paul’s recommendation is at 33:29)
- The Q&A Podcast with Jeb Stuart and Stephen E. de Souza, hosted by Jeff Goldsmith
- Die Hard: The Ultimate Visual History, by James Mottram and David S Cohen
- John McTiernan: The Rise and Fall of an Action Movie Icon, by Larry Taylor
- Another Angry Woman, Making fists with your toes: Towards a feminist analysis of Die Hard
- Deep Focus Review, The Definitives: Die Hard
- Empire Magazine, October 2018 issue, Tower of Terror (p. 98)
- Mental Floss, 19 Things to Look for the Next Time You Watch Die Hard
- MovieTime Guru, Die Hard: First Impressions Last
- Script Secrets, Die Hard analysis
- The Guardian, Die Hard at 30: how it remains the quintessential American action movie
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Full Episode Transcript
Welcome to the podcast, pal.
My name is Simone Chavoor, and thank you for joining me for Die Hard With a Podcast! The show that examines the best American action movie of all time: Die Hard.
Welcome to the fourth episode! A lot has happened Die Hard-wise since the last show. I want to get to everything, so I’m just going to jump in with a big thanks to Paul Scheer and the How Did This Get Made podcast. He recommended the show on one of his mini-sodes, and I’m stoked he likes the show, and took the time to give it a shout out. I’m still not sure how he heard about this show in the first place, but however he came across it, I’m glad he did!
Also, a couple of weeks ago I went on a spur-of-the-moment road trip to Los Angeles to see the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation’s screening of Die Hard, which was followed by a Q&A with both screenwriters, Jeb Stuart and Stephen E de Souza, hosted by Jeff Goldsmith of Backstory Magazine. Now, the entire conversation is available to listen to and there’s a link in the show notes. Aaaand you can hear me at about one hour, twenty five minutes in, because you know I just had to ask a question. Although it was really hard just picking one. Anyway, go listen to the whole thing because it’s absolutely fascinating. I learned so much. I literally sat in the audience with a notebook and pen and took notes like it was for school. One of the funniest things was, this was Jeb and Stephen’s first time being interviewed together, which I could not believe. They talked about the process of writing Die Hard, but also talked about their writing habits in general. I’ll bring up just one tidbit I learned that they shared in the Q&A. So, when you go through Hans’s gang, only two of them survive: Theo, and the pretty French dude who’s trying to run away with an armful of bearer bonds before McClane knocks him out. I’d just never kept track of all the gang members like that before. So, I think, if they’re gonna do a sequel anyway, they should bring Theo back. Just sayin’.
Finally, I got two books in the mail the other day that I’m excited to dig into. The first is Die Hard: The Ultimate Visual History by James Mottram and David S. Cohen. I had that book on pre-order the moment I found out about it, and it’s a huge tome that covers all of the Die Hard movies in detail, with these pieces put in between the pages – kind of like a pop-up book, but nothing… pops – it has storyboards, sketches, script pages, and my favorite, an envelope of photos taken to use as props in the film.
The second is the book John McTiernan: The Rise and Fall of an Action Movie Icon by Larry Taylor. Larry contacted me on Twitter and kindly offered me a copy of the book, and I can’t wait to read it for deeper insight on Die Hard’s director.
Okay, a few more pieces of business. You can always contact me and share your thoughts on Die Hard and this podcast by…
There’s also a Patreon for the show – it takes an incredible amount of time to put this together, so any contribution helps me to offset the cost of creating it, and is a real vote of encouragement.
Shout out to our new contributors, Heather and David. Thank you so much!
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All right. On to our main topic.
When we first see Holly Gennaro – or Holly McClane – she’s walking through the Nakatomi Corporation’s Christmas party, which is already in full swing. But she’s completely focused on a stack of papers in her hand as she brushes past her partying coworkers. She has shit to get done.
And that’s mostly how I think of Holly. She’s a woman with shit to do. And not Ellis, not Hans, and not even her husband John can distract her from doing what needs to get done.
Holly Gennaro, as portrayed in the movie by Bonnie Bedelia, turns out to be the character who most split people’s opinions. There’s no consensus on whether she’s a damsel in distress, or if she – like so many other conventions that Die Hard challenges – goes beyond your typical 80s action movie female lead. She’s characterized as cold… and warm. Strong… but not having an agency. A good wife and mother just doing her best… or a woman trying and failing to have it all. Even I go back and forth on these.
As one of the very few women in Die Hard, Holly Gennaro McClane comes to represent changing societal roles that had mostly been left to romantic comedies. Holly’s portrayal as a working woman, a mother, and a wife reveals the conflicts facing women at that time – and the conflicting viewpoints of the culture around her.
Let’s start as we did with our examination of John, and go into her character as written in Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel, Nothing Lasts Forever. She’s a totally different person, I think even more than how John was changed from the page to the screen. Retired former detective Joe Leland – who would later become John McClane – goes out to Los Angeles for Christmas to visit his daughter, not his estranged wife. Stephanie Gennaro – Steffie – is a divorced mother of two and an executive at Klaxon Oil. We see her through her father’s eyes, and it’s not a pretty picture. She’s sleeping with Ellis, and she’s been doing coke. Which I guess you would expect from someone sleeping with Ellis. It’s also reeeally awkward that her dad is putting thought into who his daughter is sleeping with. Also, there’s this: “Leland thought she looked tired. For years she had been five pounds too heavy, and now it looked like ten. With cocaine in her life, he had to be glad to see that she was still eating.” Yikes.
The events of the book transpire pretty much as they do in the movie. The employees are held hostage by terrorists – real terrorists in the book, not thieves – and Joe / John gets away and begins taking them down one by one. But when we get to the final showdown with Joe and the terrorist leader Anton Gruber, there’s a big, big difference. Spoiler alert for the book: Steffie goes out the window with Anton. So yeah, the book is kind of a downer.
Movie Holly, thankfully, is a much less tragic character. In Jeb Stuart’s draft of the Die Hard script, this is how Holly is introduced.
She turns into:
That’s the Holly we know. And the Ellis we know, unfortunately.
There’s a movie goof I’d like to point out. For all the drama over which last name Holly uses, if you look at the name on her office door, you can see that it’s misspelled. On her door it says “H. M. Gennero” with a second E instead of an A. I just thought that was amusing. Maybe McClane would have been easier to spell…
According to Die Hard: The Ultimate Visual History, casting for Holly’s role was part of a larger strategy of casting warm actors with a lot of depth to balance out Willis’s tough cop. Casting director Jackie Burch chose Bedelia, a New York stage actor who had won a Golden Globe for playing Shirley Muldowney, the first female hot rod racer in the 1983 movie Heart Like a Wheel. Bruce Willis liked Bedelia being brought on board. “Bruce thought that Bonnie would be wonderful; he had enormous respect for her as an actor, and he was so right!” said director John McTiernan. “She was again completely a working-class lady, but solid and honest as the day is long – and that is who he [McClane] would have as a wife.”
We actually don’t know all that much about Holly. Like with John, we meet her without a lot of exposition of her background; we have to pick up the context clues. We don’t know anything about how she met John, how she got her job. It leaves a lot of room for us to speculate – speculate about her history, and therefore what her motivations are in the film. Holly’s roles as a working woman, a mother, and a wife allow us to project our own feelings and beliefs onto her, so I’m actually not surprised that the people I talked to ended up with very different assessments of her. It’s also worth noting that there’s a cultural gap between how she was viewed in 1988 versus today, so we need to constantly ask ourselves, is this what the film is trying to say, or is that what I’m taking away from it?
The thing we’re most sure of when it comes to Holly is that she is a powerful, high-ranking working woman inside this large corporation. She works hard, and has been rewarded for her efforts. She’s got a corner office, a secretary of her own, and…[CLIP – DIE HARD – ELLIS – SHOW HIM THE WATCH]
Holly tries to downplay her success to John, since it’s already a sore spot in their marriage. But she’s still wearing that watch, and she doesn’t mask the fact that she has even higher ambitions.[CLIP – DIE HARD – HOLLY – I HAVE AN EYE ON HIS PRIVATE BATHROOM]
Katie Walsh, film critic for the Tribune News Service and LA Times.
I think that it’s nice to see Holly in a executive role. I think a lot of times, you have like films like 9 to 5 where the working women are more secretaries, or they start as secretaries and they move up to something better. I think it’s nice to see the way that, she says, “I had an opportunity and and I took it.” And we don’t have to really explain how Holly got there, we just understand that, you know, she’s obviously a valued member of the team, Takagi really likes her, she’s doing a great job. And so I think that it’s kind of nice to see that there’s an effortlessness to her success . And I think that’s a bit of an anomaly, otherwise I think 80s movies were constantly showing how women had to like, struggle and get to that role.
In the films of the 80s, we can see the intersection of corporate culture and second-wave feminism play out on screen. Unsurprisingly, it’s a mixed message. We applaud the ambition of women escaping the “pink collar ghetto,” as they call it in Nine to Five. In that 1980 film, Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda are secretaries who are held down, underestimated, and harassed at the office – until they kind of by accident take out their boss. After holding him hostage at his home for weeks, he escapes and returns to the office, only to see that while he was gone, the three women made changes that drastically improved the morale and performance of his workers. In 1988’s Working Girl, Melanie Griffith plays Tess McGill, a woman driven to improve herself and grow her career as she works for a coldly calculating executive played by Sigourney Weaver. When her boss is laid up with an injury, Tess takes over her office, her home, her wardrobe, even her boyfriend, and uses them to execute her own business plan. Which is actually pretty creepy if you think about it. But she’s the hero of the story, so her chutzpah gets rewarded when she’s given a job by the executive she had been pitching. In these films, we see likeable women with low-ranking office roles climb the corporate ladder to success, and we applaud them for their determination.
But there’s also the reverse. Women who are already high-powered businesspeople are forced to reckon with their desire for a family, and end up taking a step back from the workplace. In 1987’s Baby Boom, Diane Keaton is made the guardian of a baby girl when a distant relative dies. She’s a busy executive – with the biggest shoulder pads there could possibly be, they’re more like helipads instead of shoulder pads – and at first she refuses to take responsibility for this child. But of course, something inside her melts and she bonds with the child and quits her job – something unthinkable at the beginning of the movie – to devote herself to raising this girl… and to creating a nice little business of baby foods, too. Now, the 1983 film Mr Mom focuses more on Michael Keaton’s character learning to deal with being a stay-at-home dad after losing his job, but we also see his wife, played by Teri Garr, return to the workforce. She’s met with immediate success – but in the end, her lecherous boss and her desire to be with her family pushes her to scale back her time at work. In these films, we can’t say that these women are punished for their ambition, but we do get the message that these women are wrong. They’re wrong to focus on their careers, and once they realize what’s really important – raising a family – that’s how they can get their happy ending.
Adam Sternbergh, novelist, contributing editor to New York Magazine, and pop culture journalist.
I think it’s also not a mistake that the movie uses this kind of marital discord around the idea of a husband and wife dealing with the fact that the wife has a powerful career, or a more important career than the husband. That was also very much of that moment in history and it was, you know, around the same time that movies like Mr Mom were coming out. And you know, America, to some extent was at the cineplex was grappling with this idea that women are successful, and they’re in the workforce and traditional roles are changing. And you know there was this idea in the movies that this was this incredibly new and novel thing, this sort of ascendant woman in the workplace, and the men around her are all trying to deal with the fact that, whoa, she’s got responsibility and she’s got a real job. Bonnie Bedelia is a great actor and was sort of perfectly cast in Die Hard, so I think that she has a sort of gravity that I think some of the other sort of similar characters in the other movies don’t have. And I think they handled it well in the movie. You know her relationship with Mr. Takagi is sort of established early on, that she’s this trusted lieutenant of his. So I think even in her smaller role you take her seriously in a way that you never quite manage to take Melanie Griffith seriously in Working Girl.
Women in these executive roles are judged for “trying to be a man;” some do try to take on characteristics coded as masculine in order to sort of disguise the fact that they’re a woman. You know, if women are perceived as weak, then she must not display emotion, she must be even tougher than the men around her. Unfortunately this can backfire, as a woman controlling her emotions is often seen not as stoic, but as cold.
You know, I think it’s interesting, the way they portray the essential conflict of their relationship, which is that she wants a high powered career, and he clearly has an idea about more traditional values in their gender roles and their marriage, taking his name, that sort of thing. But I think Holly has kind of toughened herself to exist in that world. And so she has kind of like, I mean as we see her at the party and stuff, it’s like she has to put on this front a little bit of, I’m tough, I can hang with the boys, nothing bothers me. So she’s a little bit colder and more brittle in a way. And I hate to describe a woman that way, but she does have like a hard shell a little bit throughout the movie. And John is more like nakedly emotional, or at least we see him being more nakedly emotional about the situation.
Sasha Perl-Raver, writer, correspondent, and the host of FX’s Movie Download.
I have in my head Joan Cusack wearing a power suit with giant shoulder pads and a huge Aquanet bang wave, and Reeboks on top of nude tights. But the working woman of the 80s was somebody who had to have it all, she has a great career, she had a great sex life, she wasn’t afraid to let you know about it. She’s Sigourney Weaver. But not Ripley Sigourney Weaver, she’s Working Girl Sigourney Weaver. She’s a working woman in the 80s. Was a little brash, a little bit ball-busting, and usually had to be taken down a peg. Like it tended to be more of like the villain character than the hero. Like I’m thinking of Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Mannequin. In Mannequin she’s trying to do the corporate takeover and she’s overpowering and she really needs to be one of the people that falls in like a vat of tar at the end. All of those women sort of in the end, it was their drive that ended up being the hubris.
SIMONE: Does Die Hard do that with Holly?
SASHA: Of course they do that with Holly. She had to come all the way across the country and drag her children and leave her husband? You deserve to be held hostage in Nakatomi Plaza.
When we talk about working women of the 1980s, the first thing to come to mind, even before the sexual politics, is the fashion. Maybe the fact we think of the fashion is already gendered because we’re talking about women here, but it’s a powerful image. As we’ve heard, there are iconic pieces that come up over and over again: shoulder pads. Big hair. Bright eyeshadow. Power suits. White sneakers over nude hose.
Holly’s look is very much in this vein, but also more sophisticated – just as her character is, compared to those who came before her. According to Die Hard: The Ultimate Visual History, costume designer Marilyn Vance conceived Holly’s look to convey professionalism and power, using browns and pinks that complemented Bonnie Bedelia’s hair color and skin tone. A business suit was never an option. “She was a softer character,” says Vance. “But at the same time, she had a very important position, so her clothing, to me, had to be suede and leather and something more sumptuous. And it was the right time of year for that because it was Christmastime.” Vance shopped for Holly’s clothes at Saks Fifth Avenue, then had the studio’s costume department use them for inspiration when creating the character’s wardrobe. “The whole idea was for her to be strong but not tailored,” says Vance. “She’s soft as a person but she still means business.”
And let’s not forget the importance of Holly’s Rolex. Given to her as a reward for her hard work, it’s symbolically sacrificed at the end of the film, as John unclasps the band so that Hans loses his grip on her and falls from Nakatomi Tower. The symbolism is pretty heavy-handed. The thing that represents her corporate life must be released so that she can keep her family life. And, you know, her life-life. But at least there’s ambiguity about whether or not she’ll give up her job at the end of the film. Concessions are made: losing the watch, Holly using the last name McClane – and we’ll talk about that more in a minute – but she doesn’t also declare that she’s quitting her job and moving the family back to New York.
One more thing about the watch. Jeb Stuart, Die Hard screenwriter, has a nitpick. He says: “Anyone who’s ever owned a Rolex knows that watch isn’t gonna just open. It’s a sealed clasp! I brought that up at a production meeting and everybody looked at me like I was insane.”
Now, I’ve never owned a Rolex, but if someone wants to send me one so that I can test this out myself, you are more than welcome to.
But more than just looking the part, Holly is a natural in the workplace. She’s a good boss, making sure the work gets done, but also looking out for her employees, whether it’s sending her secretary Ginny off to enjoy the party, or negotiating better treatment for her fellow hostages. Even Hans has to acknowledge that.[CLIP – DIE HARD – HANS – MR TAKAGI CHOSE HIS PEOPLE WELL]
Reed Fish, director and screenwriter.
Yeah, I think Holly was portrayed pretty sympathetically. I mean, maybe not in the context of the late 80s where it’s like some affront that she’s going to use her maiden name. But you know, she was a good boss, right? She had a pregnant assistant she was always looking out for her. And she was someone who seemed to put her team members above herself, you know she was in a situation, a hostage situation, and she seemed to be looking out for everyone else before her. So it’s pretty sympathetic.
Holly’s office is decorated with the trappings of one of her other roles: mother. Images of her children play a pivotal role in the plot of the film, even if they barely appear in the movie themselves. Pictures of her and her kids fill the shelf behind her desk. In frustration, Holly slams one family portrait facedown on the shelf, hiding the only evidence of her marriage to John from Hans. And Hans finds that portrait when reporter Richard Thornberg interviews little Lucy McClane on TV – Holly’s horrified face at seeing the McClane children on camera gives her connection away. For his part, John spends a moment looking at pictures of his kids in his wallet, a reminder of the way things used to be, and how he’d like them to be again.
We never actually see Holly with her children. This makes sense narratively, as pretty much the entire movie takes place at her office just as the Christmas party starts. It’s hard to say how Holly is as a mother, but we do get a short scene with her on the phone with her daughter Lucy.[CLIP – DIE HARD – HOLLY – ON THE PHONE WITH LUCY]
Holly’s tone becomes warm, and she smiles to herself as she talks to her daughter. She’s comforting and reassuring without promising too much – after all, Holly doesn’t even know if John will make it home for Christmas.
The ability for Holly to work a demanding job while still having children is a dilemma faced by working women in a way that working fathers never seem to worry about. It also speaks to class and racial divisions, where we must acknowledge that Holly is extremely privileged to even attempt to have it all. Holly relies on her housekeeper Paulina to watch her children while she’s at work. It makes me think about that scene in the awful, awful Sex and the City 2 movie where Charlotte and Miranda complain about how hard motherhood is when they both have full-time help, and they cheers their Cosmo cocktails in honor of the “women without help.” Yeah, thanks Sex in the City 2, thanks for that shoutout from two women having cocktails at a resort in Abu Dhabi. Die Hard of course doesn’t go in depth on this issue, but we get a glimpse of it.[CLIP – DIE HARD – HOLLY – ON THE PHONE WITH NANNY]
I also think it’s interesting to think about her relationship with her nanny. And how upper class working women often rely on women of color and that type of domestic labor in order to both have kids and be in the working world. So there are multiple industries and levels of classes that are going on in the sense of, how do I be a working woman and be a mother and be a wife, and it’s sort of like, one’s gotta go for Holly, and she’s gonna be a mom and she’s gonna be a working woman but she can’t really be a wife. So you see that struggle, and I think at one point she says to the nanny, “What would I do without you?” and it’s such a small moment but it really illustrates that you really can’t be everything to all people at all times in those roles.
Die Hard’s emotional arc for its lead character, John, hinges on his relationship with his wife. Now, we know Holly is a good employee and boss. We think she’s probably a pretty good mom; it’s hard to tell but we don’t have anything totally contradicting that. But Holly as a wife – this is where she most obviously can’t have it all. By prioritizing her other two roles, Holly shirks her role as a wife. She leaves John behind, even leaves his name behind. Holly’s use of her maiden name becomes a particular sticking point in the film.[CLIP – DIE HARD – JOHN – YOU DIDN’T MISS MY LAST NAME]
Then again, John doesn’t sound like he was a supportive husband.[CLIP – DIE HARD – JOHN AND ARGYLE – GREAT JOB TURNED INTO A GREAT CAREER]
So, should we be blaming Holly? Is she putting herself and her career first, and dragging the kids along with her? Or is she doing what’s best for her family, and leaving John behind because he’s not going to support her in the way that she needs?
If you think too much about their marriage, though, it seems quite problematic. Like, she’s moved with the kids across the country and he stayed in New York. The movie doesn’t really explain why he would do that; it quite seems – at least to a modern perspective, it seems quite a dramatic choice for him to just refuse to move with his kids, and be separated from his kids. But again this is the sort of time period between like, on one end, Kramer Versus Kramer, and on the other end Mr. Mom and movies like that, so obviously there was a lot of issues that were being worked out in the movie theaters about men and women and families and who was the head of the house, and how we were going to like work that all out together.
One way to get a read on what the movie is trying to say about Holly is to see how she compares to her husband. As the couple fights, whose side do you take? Is she treated more sympathetically, or is he? Opinions are split.
Ed Grabianowski, pop culture writer and horror and fantasy author.
I think the intent was to make Holly a little less sympathetic because I think in that era, the whole working woman image and the idea of it, a woman who puts her career before family is somehow neglecting her responsibilities or something like that. I guess it depends on how tied you are to the idea of a traditional family. So I think anyone who is is going to find Holly very unsympathetic, and anybody who’s more interested in feminism and equality among men and women is going to find Holly more sympathetic. So overall I find Holly sympathetic, but I definitely understand where John McClane is coming from. And I don’t feel unsympathetic towards him, because I don’t think like, he didn’t set out to do anything bad. He just reacted shittily to a situation that happened to his family, that wasn’t necessarily what he wanted. And that happens to people, you know, like regardless how you feel about family structure in general, like just stuff happens to your family and you’re like, I don’t know how to deal with this and sometimes you fuck it up and you have to go back and fix it. And that’s what John is doing. I guess in that way, it sort of comes out a tie.[CLIP – DIE HARD – HOLLY – I KNOW WHAT YOUR IDEA OF OUR MARRIAGE IS LIKE]
The fact that we don’t know what John and Holly were like at the beginning of their relationship can leave you wondering how they were even together in the first place.
If you say that opposites attract, I get that, but I don’t think that opposites marry and have children and are then suddenly torn asunder by a move across the country, or whatever other things are the reasons that they actually broke up. I think that they – she is too no-nonsense to have been with him for as long as she was. She seems to me a very pragmatic woman who would not have taken his stuff, and they would not have gone to the altar. Unless it was like, a Las Vegas 36-hour situation. They make no sense to me. What do you think?
SIMONE: I think they probably got together, they were younger; there was probably some hot chemistry. You know, they’re both attractive and there’s passion; they seem like passionate people. And then they actually get married and have kids and she shifts that passion to the career. And they don’t talk about the reasons for taking this job but I would have to assume, at least she’s telling herself she’s doing it for the sake of her family, that this will help take care of them or something. And just drifts apart from John and they sort of evolve as people on their own. And so when you see them later, they’ve already moved far apart.
SASHA: And I always assumed she took the part because she was sick of dealing with this workaholic, New York City police guy who was always off with his trigger finger like at the ready, and she just wanted to have a nice, stable life so she got the job working for the Nakatomi Corporation so she could provide for her family and not have to worry about him. Or maybe! She was always afraid he was going to get himself killed on the job, so she pulled away to protect her heart and had to make sure she didn’t have to live on like a widow’s severance or whatever. What’s that called?
SIMONE: It’s not like a pension. Like a benefit?
SASHA: Whatever the death benefit would be. Maybe that’s what it is. Maybe she always knew that he was too wild. And she just wanted to make sure – she, she seems very stable. Very stable.
It’s true that at first glance, John and Holly seem like opposites. But at their cores, they’re both very determined – and stubborn – people.
Scott Wampler, news editor at Birth. Movies. Death., and host of the Trying Times podcast.
I think it’s complicated, to borrow some terminology from social media. I think that Holly is – I think that they’re both career people, and when you have two people that are that invested in their careers and then they have kids, shit gets complicated. Holly’s thing is that, you know, she got moved out to LA for a job, or she chose to move out to LA for this job. I can’t fault her for that. I also can’t fault John McClane for being mad that she pulled up roots and took the kids out there. I can imagine not being thrilled with that either. So I think it’s sort of a draw in terms of who my sympathies would lie with more. And I also think they’re both a little dickish in their own ways. In this sense, I do believe them as a couple. And I can see what attracted them to one another. You know, on a physical level, and just on a worldview level. You know?
I think that that whole Holly-John dynamic, but for me it felt like very just unreal? Because it didn’t seem like someone in her position would be with someone like him. And maybe it’s one of those things where their lives were, you know, when they first got together ten years ago their lives were much different, and then her career took off. But like I never really saw what the deal was, why they would ever be together, and why, say, anyone would ever want to be with John McClane romantically whatsoever, at all. ‘Cause clearly he is not someone you’d want to be married to, in my opinion. I feel like the dynamic between Holly and John – there’s good tension there, but I just didn’t find the relationship all that believable. It didn’t seem to me that she would be with him. I really have to do some mental gymnastics to figure out the scenario where those two characters would have gotten together and gotten married and had kids.
These unanswered questions about the couple’s past leaves us unsure about their marriage’s future. But there are clear signs that both hope for a reconciliation – they just need to get out of their own ways first.
When Holly calls her housekeeper Paulina, she tries to play it cool, but you know she wasn’t intending on using that spare bedroom if John came home. She likewise tries to act disinterested with John himself, not let on how bad she wants him…[CLIP – DIE HARD – HOLLY – I HAVE THE SPARE BEDROOM]
… Until, of course, she finally opens up.[CLIP – DIE HARD – HOLLY – I MISSED YOU]
And John has to blow it by picking a fight with her, right at that moment.
But we know that John loves Holly. He spends the entire movie putting his life on the line for her. At the end of the film, we don’t know how their marriage will fare once they get home. But at least for a moment, we get a happy ending.[CLIP – DIE HARD – ARGYLE – RUN INTO EACH OTHER’S ARMS]
John and Holly exit Nakatomi Tower together, holding each other, happy to be safely reunited. When John introduces her to Al Powell, Holly takes a turn.[CLIP – DIE HARD – HOLLY – HOLLY McCLANE]
This one line always ends up at the center of analyses of Holly’s character. What does it mean? Is Holly going to give up her career and go back to being primarily a wife and mother? Is she just in a particularly generous mood because she just escaped with her life? In my personal opinion, I believe that because John introduced her to Al as Holly Gennaro, using her own preferred name, with no hesitation, that she felt it was time to make a concession. And if both John and Holly are willing at long last to make concessions, they have a future together.
Well, if we ignore the sequel films, anyway.
Another way to try and analyze how Die Hard treats its female lead is to compare it to other action films. So: Is Holly considered a damsel in distress?
After our analysis of her character, we can tick off some pros and cons.
Let’s say Holly is a damsel in distress. Well, she…
- Is literally being held hostage.
- And when the villain finds out her connection to the hero, the villain targets her specifically to cause the hero emotional pain.
- It can be argued that she has no agency, no ability to make decisions or act pro-actively to save herself: she just sits with the other hostages and waits.
- Her emotions betray her when she sees her kids on TV.
- And finally, we do get a peek at her bra by the end of the film.
But what does Die Hard do differently?
- Holly’s not the only hostage, of course. She’s being held with men and other women.
- The villain first uses another man – Ellis – to try to manipulate our hero; Hans is using whoever he thinks might have a connection to John, regardless of gender.
- Holly doesn’t act fearful throughout the film – except for the very last bit where’s she’s hanging out of a 40th floor window, which, who could blame her?
- And finally, maybe she does have agency. Maybe she thought about trying to escape or sabotage the villain’s plan. But it could be that she assessed her options and decided that trying to go along with the villains’ plan would give her the best outcome. We know she’s an incredibly level-headed and pragmatic person.
And she gets a lot of great moments in the film. The film totally does not discard her or disregard her. She is very strong in her own right and gets to – and is quite instrumental as to how the whole thing plays out too. Which in hindsight might not seem like a big deal, but at the time it also felt like a break from the sort of standard action movie foil, heroine, damsel, exactly.
Whether or not Holly is a damsel in distress leads us to our final question of this episode. Is Die Hard a feminist film? Yeah, okay, that even sounded funny to me. I’m gonna go ahead and say “No” here. I think that a film has to be doing more to actively challenge the patriarchy and promote women’s rights and explain women’s issues to be called feminist. But I do think that Die Hard was working a little harder than other films at the time. Die Hard is elevated above all other action films of its time in nearly every aspect: story, acting, the craft of the film. And I think in so doing, it put a little more thought into Holly too. Her character, with all her positive attributes and flaws, achieves a level of humanity that many other films deny their female leads. As we discussed in the last episode, what makes the character of John McClane such a beloved hero is his humanity. It makes sense that his wife would have her own humanity shine through, too.
In our next episode, we’re going back to the beginning. We’re going to take an in-depth look at Roderick Thorp’s novel Nothing Lasts Forever to see where the seeds of Die Hard were sown.
Thank you to our guests Ed Grabionowski, Sasha Perl-Raver, Scott Wampler, Reed Fish, Adam Sternbergh, and Katie Walsh. Be sure to check the show notes on the website to learn more about them.
Thanks again for joining me, and yippee-kai-yay, motherfuckers!