Beverly D'Angelo: Vacation's Ellen Griswold, Then And Now
Beverly D'Angelo in 1975 her dressing room at the O'Keefe Centre in Toronto, preparing for her role of Ophelia in the musical Kronborg: 1582. (Photo by Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Beverly D'Angelo won over the hearts of America as Ellen Griswold in National Lampoon's Vacation, but she was on a roll way before she hopped in the Wagon Queen Family Truckster with the Griswold family to take a trip to Walley World. After starring in Hair in 1979 and playing Patsy Cline in Coal Miner's Daughter a year later, D'Angelo's turn as one of the best moms in comedy was quite the surprise.
Although, when looking at D'Angelo's career beginnings as an artist with Hanna Barbera, and a backup singer with an early version of The Band, it's clear that she's the kind of person who cares more about the journey than the destination.
D'Angelo got her start taking whatever work was available
Audiences know D'Angelo for her work in front of the camera, but her earliest gigs in the entertainment industry were more of a behind the scenes, or behind the singer, capacity. Interested in art and performance from a young age, D'Angelo first worked as an illustrator with Hanna-Barbera Studios (home of Scooby Doo and Jonny Quest) before taking joining up with Canadian rockabilly artist Ronnie Hawkins as a backup singer in his band The Hawks. (This was after the most famous incarnation of the group had departed to become The Band.) D'Angelo says her time in Toronto was thrilling, and that when she wasn't singing backup for Hawkins or working in the studio she was performing in a seriously wild cabaret. She told the AV Club:
I was starting to sing jazz. Singing in a place called the Zanzibar, which was a topless bar. I was fully clothed in an evening gown. And between two girls who were on 5-gallon oil drums with the tops cut off and Plexiglas and light shooting up, and I performed from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Every 40 minutes, I’d say 'Now gentlemen, it’s swing time.' I was 18. And these girls would get on trapezes and swing across the patrons’ heads.
Hair brought her to Hollywood
D'Angelo seems to have never had trouble transitioning from one medium to another, and in 1976 she started acting on Broadway in Rockabye Hamlet, a musical based on Shakespeare's Danish family drama. If that was the fire that lit the fuse, the very next year the fireworks that are her career began shooting into the sky. D'Angelo appeared in Annie Hall for a brief scene in 1977, and by 1979 she was playing Sheila Franklin in the film version of Hair, a role she won through an intense series of auditions. She explained:
The auditioning process was very specifically Milos’ [Foreman, the director] thing, because it was long. I once asked him, “What do you think is the most important thing you do as a director?” And he thought about it and he said, 'casting.' And it’s interesting to think of because the way he cast, he kept bringing different groups together and had them improvise. Or we’d go through a scene. So things started to emerge. I wanted to play the hippie girl because I had been a hippie, but things started to emerge like who fit in where. And that’s how I fit in.
She only appeared in Coal Miner's Daughter because she didn't know better
In many ways, Coal Miner's Daughter was D'Angelo's breakout role for most theatrical audiences. It didn't make her as famous as her role in Vacation, but her performance as the doomed Patsy Cline is one of the most emotional parts of the film, and it showed that she had serious range as well as powerful pipes.
D'Angelo says that if she'd been any older she wouldn't have taken the role. Not because it wasn't any good, but because she would have been too intimidated to play Cline if she realized how scrutinized her performance would be. She said:
Thank god I was so young and stupid because if I would have known what I was really taking on, I think it would have been overwhelming, but I was really pretty innocent. I’d have made a couple of movies but I really wasn’t even set on being an actress. To me, it was like, 'I’m a singer. I’m going to play a singer.' And that’s all okay. I felt entitled to do that, but I was too young and dumb to be that scared, although I was scared of Loretta [Lynn]. I really wanted her approval. I really did. And I’m like, 'Oh my god, oh my god, they’re going to find out about my wild past and that I’m supposed to be just a little girl here.'
She doesn't know what would have happened if she hadn't accepted the role in Vacation
Beverly D'Angelo almost didn't take on the role of Ellen Griswold, not because she wasn't into it, but she was just enjoying life. After marrying a genuine Duke, she moved to Ireland and made a home in the country. Her agents were hounding her to take the role but she demurred, suggested friends who would be good for the part. It was only after her husband read that script and told her how funny it was that she was convinced to take the role. She explained:
Thank god I did Vacation because if I wouldn’t have done Vacation, god only knows what would have happened. Because I married an Italian duke in 1981 and was based in Italy and I stayed married to him. But I went to live in Ireland... I didn’t see me like that, and I certainly didn’t see me as a little buttoned-up suburban housewife. But my mother was. And I thought, I can act. So I went in, I really thought it would be a lark, and it was very much in the context of, this is for the people who love Saturday Night Live and this is a satire. So I was living in Italy when my friend called me up and said, 'Do you know you’re in the No. 1 movie this week?' I’m like, 'What are you talking about?' He’s like, 'Vacation is No. 1,' and my agent was saying, 'Really, what are you doing there? Get back here.' Because I was just having this life.
The Vacation films have been D'Angelo's bread and butter since the '80s
D'Angelo has appeared in five Vacation films including the one that started it all, and while those are far and away the most popular pictures in which she's starred she's not bitter about it. Instead, she sees the Vacation films as movies that have allowed her to do what she wants. Following Vacation in '83 and European Vacation in '85, D'Angelo appeared in a series of films that didn't smash the box office, but she did earn acclaim for her eclectic roles in High Spirits and In the Mood.
Her versatility in the '80s and '90s was seen both as a hindrance and a help. How do you package someone who can seemingly do everything? D'Angelo isn't too burnt up about the lack of box office gold in her lengthy resume, she's just happy that something she did really connected with audiences. In 1991, she told Entertainment Weekly:
I didn’t have a game plan for my career. I’m a working actress. Doing the Vacation movies gave me freedom to do independent films I couldn’t otherwise afford to do.
Beverly D'Angelo won't go away
In 1997, the same year that she starred in Vegas Vacation, D'Angelo's career had a resurgence in both the world Hollywood and on the indie scene. In the same year that she reprised her role as Ellen Griswold she appears in the seriously wild Gregg Araki film Nowhere, and the Troma film Pterodactyl Woman from Beverly Hills (both films are great, and they'll make your stomach churn). The next year she earned serious nods for her role in American History X, and continued grinding away in film and television.
In 2001, she gave birth to twins through IVF with her then-partner Al Pacino. You'd think she would lay low after bringing life into the world, but she kept on working. Her most notable role in the 2000s was just on a little HBO show called Entourage where she portrayed the hard-nosed agent Barbara Miller of the Miller-Gold agency. Since then D'Angelo hasn't slowed down at all. She continues to appear in film and television, and in 2018 she was given the Broken Glass Award at the Palm Springs Women in Film & TV annual event. While speaking about the award and her career, D'Angelo said that while awards are nice, she just likes to work with the people she likes:
As basic as it sounds, I have always thought to be around the people that I love and do the things that I love... I always regarded the ambition and the fame, in and of itself, as being impure. It’s something that denigrates the subject matter. It’s hard for me. I’m not a red carpet dweller, not a reality show speaker. I don’t look for that. Isn’t that weird? I always look for some way to make a kind of throughline in film from something that got within me.
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