Wednesday, January 04, 2017

A Postcard from Carrie

To the world at large, she’ll undoubtedly be best remembered as Princess Leia. But Carrie Fisher gave us so much more than just one iconic portrayal. She lives on in my movie collection as the aforementioned rebel princess in the original Star Wars trilogy; as nymphomaniac Lee Grant’s rebellious yet equally promiscuous daughter in Shampoo; and as kooky Dianne Wiest’s romantic rival for Sam Waterston in Hannah and her Sisters. But Fisher’s masterwork, in my opinion, is a film in which she does not appear in front of the camera. In Postcards from the Edge (1990), Fisher reveals hilarious, uncomfortable and touching truths about herself, her famous mother and show business in her brilliant screen adaptation of her own best-selling autobiographical novel.

 In the hands of master filmmaker Mike Nichols, the vivid characters and the wry poetry of Fisher’s incisive script shine like diamonds, with frequent Nichols muse Meryl Streep (Silkwood, Angels in America) bringing Fisher’s pithy dialogue and beleaguered heroine to life with her usual aplomb.

In Postcards, the fun begins when troubled actress Suzanne Vale overdoses on opiates and her horrified bedmate (Dennis Quaid) drops her off, unresponsive, at the emergency room (literally). She’s resuscitated and shipped off to rehab, only to discover that the only way that anyone will hire her again is if she is under the watchful eye of a guardian. So she goes home to live with her estranged mother, who also happens to be a famous actress—a prospect as painful as the stomach pumping she’s just endured. 

Meryl Streep as Suzanne Vale

Shirley MacLaine as Doris Mann
Fisher’s jaundiced view of the movie business is evident here, as a still-fragile Suzanne is badgered by producers and directors as she begins work on a new film, a comedy in which she portrays a lady cop (opposite the dreamy Michael Ontkean, who has precious little to do here). The awkward moments where producer Rob Reiner asks Suzanne for a drug test/urine sample, the endless notes and criticisms Suzanne endures regarding her performance, and the clucking of a smug wardrobe woman (a hilarious turn by Dana Ivey) about the actress’s appearance (“Her thighs are...well, bulbous!”), are uniformly both funny and raw, essayed by a skilled cast and director Nichols. With deft humor and bullseye accuracy, Fisher neatly captures the grueling drudgery of filmmaking, the schadenfreude, jealousy and foibles of the film business.

Gene Hackman and Meryl Streep in the looping scene

Natalie Wood in Inside Daisy Clover
Fisher’s reverence for old Hollywood shows in the film’s many old-movie references including an obvious homage to the famous looping scene from Inside Daisy Clover (remember how Natalie Wood has that hysterical nervous breakdown in the dubbing booth?). In Postcards, Streep’s Suzanne struggles with the effects of the pills she’s just taken (and thrown up) as she attempts to correct the sins of the past—on film, at least-—during the voice-over recordings.

The cameos are worth their weight in Hollywood gold: Richard Dreyfuss as the amorous doctor who pumps Suzanne’s stomach; Lucille Ball’s second husband and Borscht Belt comedian Gary Morton as her agent; Rob Reiner as the gruff producer; Annette Bening as an empty-headed actress who mispronounces “endorphins” as “endolphins”; Gene Hackman as Suzanne’s tough but supportive director; veteran character actress Mary Wickes (The Trouble with Angels, Sister Act) as the “lovable loud mountain” of a grandmother and Diffrent Strokes star Conrad Bain as her senile spouse.

Doris and Suzanne

Carrie and Debbie
Of course, though, the centerpiece of the film is the uneasy relationship between Suzanne and her mother, legendary movie star and gay icon Doris Mann, played with relish by the indefatigable Shirley MacLaine (as unsinkable as Debbie Reynolds herself and a longtime family friend). Of course, MacLaine imbues the character of Doris with her own brand of star power, as does Streep. Much more than stand-ins for Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, Streep and MacLaine add dimension and their own subtle older-and-younger actress-to-actress competitiveness to the proceedings. Sparks of chemistry fly, and the results are absorbing, thanks to the screenplay, the performers and the expert guidance of a true actor’s director.

 Fisher’s often prickly script evokes the relationships of Joan and Christina Crawford and Lana Turner and Cheryl Crane in a tense confrontation scene between Suzanne and a drunken Doris, played under a print of a famous Life magazine cover featuring Shirley with daughter Sachi, who incidentally wrote a cruel Mommie Dearest–type tell-all about life with Mama MacLaine just recently. (Fisher and Reynolds posed for many a similar magazine layout over the years.)

Shirley and Sachi
 It’s not all recriminations and bitchy repartee, though, not by a long shot. The complexity of the mother-daughter relationship is beautifully drawn by Fisher as the film unfolds. There is much love and cameraderie lurking amid the awkward silences and the screaming matches between Suzanne and Doris. Like Debbie Reynolds did for Carrie Fisher, Doris encourages Suzanne in her singing, a talent she is not famous for but truly excels in. Streep’s strong performances of “You Don’t Know Me” and “I’m Checking Out” are counterpointed by MacLaine’s glitzy, showy and slightly camp rendition of Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here.” (Indeed, Carrie Fisher was a lovely singer, too—check out her sweet and soulful version of “The Way You Look Tonight” in the audition scene from Hannah, and her brassy belting of “Happy Days Are Here Again” in her 2010 one-woman show Wishful Drinking.)

Reportedly, Debbie Reynolds was unhappy with the character of the alcoholic, self-centered mother, frightened that the public would believe it was really her. ( “I am not an alcoholic,” Doris Mann insists in the film. “I just drink like an Irish person.”) In the press, Carrie agreed with her mother that the character she had created was fictional, merely using her real-life upbringing as a jumping-off point for her made-up story. (You could almost see Fisher rolling her eyes in interviews at the time; it’s so clear she wanted to help her mom save face, without negating her own experience as the movie star’s daughter.)

Streep, Reynolds, MacLaine and Fisher at the Postcards premiere
 Ironically, the supposed rift between Carrie Fisher and her mother over this portrayal served to bring the two much closer together than they had been in recent years. As they grew older, their relationship flourished. In 2001, Carrie and Debbie had a ball filming a TV movie called These Old Broads with Doris Mann herself Shirley MacLaine, Joan Collins and none other than Elizabeth Taylor…not a great (or even good) film by any stretch of the imagination but a camp curiosity nonetheless. How surreal it must have been for Ms. Fisher to pen that scene between Liz Taylor and Debbie Reynolds, their characters reminiscing about the cheating crooner who left one to marry the other (obviously based upon Carrie’s father, Eddie Fisher).

 Fisher’s admiration and protective affection for Reynolds is glimpsed in the final mother-daughter scene of Postcards, played in the hospital where Doris has ended up after an alcohol-induced car accident. Suzanne gently makes up her mother’s face to help her face the paparazzi crowding outside her hospital room, singing tenderly to her. It’s a sweet moment that says a lot; eventually, the child becomes the parent, and the parent becomes the child...did that occur as well in real life for Debbie and Carrie?

Soul sisters
 At the time of their surprising dual deaths (Debbie passed away a mere 24 hours after her daughter, the week after Christmas 2016), Carrie and Debbie had been longtime next-door neighbors in Beverly Hills—and, by all accounts, soulmates. As 84-year-old Debbie’s health and vigor declined, it was 60-year-old Carrie who accepted many of the recent life achievement awards and honors on her mother’s behalf, most notably Debbie’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award Oscar in 2015.

 As Hollywood royalty, Carrie Fisher lived her entire (abbreviated) life in the spotlight, but she gave us so much, first as an actress, later as an advocate for mental health—and ultimately, she might add herself with that streak of dark humor, as a cautionary tale. But Carrie Fisher’s talents reached their zenith as a writer, with her unerring ear for witty dialogue, her frank storytelling and unconventional sense of humor, all gloriously apparent in one of my favorite films, and the outstanding book it’s based upon. Thanks for the Postcards, Carrie!


William said...

Fantastic write-up, Chris! A nice tribute to both Fisher and her mom as well (not so strange they died only a day apart). Enjoyed this movie when it was released; now I'll have to see it again.
Besides, anything with Mary Wickes ...!

I -- and many others -- also thought Michael Ontkean was "dreamy." My late partner had a major crush, almost an obsession, on him for a time, LOL! I fear "Making Love" did not help Ontkean's career, which is a shame.

Glad to see a wonderful and rich new post from you! Keep 'em coming!

angelman66 said...

Hi Bill - thanks so much for your kind words!

You are so right--it's really not strange at all that Carrie and her mom are both gone together...somehow seems appropriate. I feel bad for Carrie's brother Todd and daughter Billie, of course.

I love Mary Wickes, too--from Now Voyager to her wonderful appearances on all those Lucy shows, and The Trouble with Angels...then years later, she had an amazing comeback with the Sister Act films, and with this one.

Ontkean is adorable! And though I did not love Making Love when I saw it as a teenager in 1982, subsequent viewings have made me like it more and more. Now I think I need to add it to my DVD collection.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

William said...

My pleasure! Forgot to mention that I've ordered the Shirley MacLaine "Mommie Dearest" book -- which I was not aware of -- as I'm curious as to what her daughter will say about her. Nothing good, I'm sure!

angelman66 said...

I'm anxious to hear your reaction to it, Bill!

Quiggy said...

5 months is WA-A-A-AY too long between posts, Chris. But this one is an interesting one for the wait. Not sure if it's my type of movie, but I may take the plunge. Of course I'm such a procrastinator it may be a while. (I STILL haven't gotten around to Gilda... yeeeeep.)

Rick Gould said...

You covered all the bases, Chris!

I'm working on a post about Debbie's duo memoirs, surprisingly in-depth...great minds think alike!

Anyone watching HBO's Bright Lights tomorrow? Better have the Kleenex handy!



angelman66 said...

Hi Quiggy - thanks for stopping by. I know, I have neglected my blog duties lately; hopefully will be more prolific in 2017. Happy New Year! Not sure whether this movie is up your alley or is certainly darkly comic, superbly written and well acted! Let me know...

angelman66 said...

Hi Rick - thanks so much! And yes, of course I will be watching the HBO Bright Lights documentary on Carrie and Debbie.

Looking forward to your post on Debbie's memoirs! I read the last one and really enjoyed it...need to read the first now, and your post. Looking forward to it!

Happy 2017!

Rick Gould said...

Hi Chris,
Would love to hear your thoughts on the HBO Bright Lights doc!

Here is my latest post, on Debbie's two memoirs, My Life and Unsinkable:


Realweegiemidget Reviews said...

Always wanted to see this, now you've convinced me - what a cast!

angelman66 said...

Hi Gill - I think you will LOVE it! Carrie Fisher's wry humor is all over it!!