I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) over and over again—but have you ever seen Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995)? Because the two films have a lot in common.
First, the plot in brief: Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) would rather be a musician than the teacher he is. Or, as put by Jack Mathews, Los Angeles Times: “…the tale of a man compelled to give up his dream of writing a world-class symphony to become instead a world-class high school music teacher. A case of opus interruptus.”
Holland’s wife Iris is played by Glenne Headly. One of their significant challenges as a couple begins when their toddler son, Cole, is found to be 90% deaf.
And now, some of the comparisons made by film critics to It’s a Wonderful Life:
Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly: “Directed by Stephen Herek, Mr. Holland’s Opus is a big, patchy, episodic weeper set against the postwar rise and fall of America’s secondary-school music programs. The movie spans some 30 years and is patterned after It’s a Wonderful Life. Holland, like James Stewart’s George Bailey, has to give up his pipe dreams and see that humanity is his work, that it always has been.”
Emanuel Levy, Variety: “Borrowing heavily from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ Patrick Sheane Duncan’s script stresses the pleasures and rewards in life that are unplanned and unanticipated. Initially, Holland accepts his school job as a ‘backup’ position that will give him free time to compose, never imagining that his next 30 years would be spent in the classroom. But forced to redefine his dream, Holland ultimately realizes that he is not a failure, that his legacy as an inspirational teacher is just as important as his longed-for opus.”
Common Sense Media: “Less Stand and Deliver, more It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Holland’s Opus offers a poignant (albeit sappy) look at personal sacrifice, responsibility, and the impact teachers can have on students beyond the classroom. Richard Dreyfuss gives the performance of his career as the wily, often frustrated Glenn Holland, breathing life into a character that could easily have fallen into caricature territory.”
This role earned Dreyfuss major award nominations and was a career comeback for him after experiencing some serious life problems. Besides battling addiction, he’d also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Dreyfuss told Barbara Peters Smith, Herald-Tribune, that his shrink provided him great relief by telling him, “Richard, somewhere in your head is a faucet that is dripping either too quickly or too slowly, and we can help you.”
Now regularly speaking openly about his diagnosis and treatment, Dreyfuss is committed to trying to end mental health stigma for others.
If you don’t want a spoiler ending for Mr. Holland’s Opus, stop reading now. Here are the words of former student Gertrude Lang (Joanna Gleason), now a governor, who addresses Holland and a large crowd of supporters:
Mr. Holland had a profound influence on my life and on a lot of lives I know. But I have a feeling that he considers a great part of his own life misspent. Rumor had it he was always working on this symphony of his. And this was going to make him famous, rich, probably both. But Mr. Holland isn’t rich and he isn’t famous, at least not outside of our little town. So it might be easy for him to think himself a failure. But he would be wrong, because I think that he’s achieved a success far beyond riches and fame. Look around you. There is not a life in this room that you have not touched, and each of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. We are the music of your life.