Format: ThisTV Chicago on rockin’ flatscreen.
Right around the time she was in Terms of Endearment Shirley MacLaine began a string of films in which her defining character trait was to be as intensely annoying and self-absorbed as possible. This is a role she seems to have perfected by the time she got to her supporting role in Postcards from the Edge. Fortunately, she’s only in a supporting role here and we spend the bulk of our time with the incomparable Meryl Streep. Unfortunately, it’s a major supporting role, so we’ll still be spending a great deal of time watching Shirley MacLaine essentially play the same character she has over and over yet again.
Postcards from the Edge is based on Carrie Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. The book (which I haven’t read—I’m reporting what I’ve heard here) is about drug addiction, the movie industry, and the relationship between a drug-addicted actress living in the shadow of her ridiculously famous mother. Fisher is the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and also had a drug addiction issue. So there are certainly parallels here between her real life and the film. However, that’s not really important in judging the film itself.
Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep) is the actress in question. As the film opens, she is wrapping production on a movie. While the film seems to be going well, Suzanne’s constant drug use is the worst-kept secret on the set. She is confronted by director Lowell Kolchek (Gene Hackman), who is concerned for her, but also concerned for his film. Once the film wraps, Suzanne spends a night out with Jack Faulkner (Dennis Quaid), who discovers her near-comatose in his bed the next morning. He dumps her at an emergency room and leaves.
When Suzanne is finally conscious again, she discovers herself in rehab, where she was placed by her mother, legend of stage and screen Doris Mann (Shirley MacLaine). While Suzanne’s drug use is a poorly kept secret, Doris’s constant drinking is more guarded, and seems to be known only by Suzanne. In rehab, Suzanne gets herself under control (more or less) and meets Aretha (Robin Bartlett), who is her roommate and co-recoveree. Once out of rehab (this all happens very quickly), Suzanne learns that no director or studio will take a chance on her unless she complies with their rules, which include living under the supervision of her privately alcoholic mother.
There’s a lot to like here and a lot to be frustrated by. Postcards from the Edge, while it does go for something like a Hollywood ending and something akin to at least acceptance, doesn’t pull a great deal of its punches. There are a couple of scenes near the end that are risky in terms of the emotional content. It’s the strength of the performances that pull them through. The first comes between Suzanne and Lowell Kolchek while she is looping dialogue for his film. This could have easily been pure sap, but it comes across as rather sweet. The second comes much closer to the end as Suzanne visits Doris in the hospital after Doris has run her car into a tree during a drinking binge. Another bonus is a number of cameos from solid acting talent—Richard Dreyfuss, Rob Reiner, Annette Bening, CCH Pounder, and Simon Callow among others.
Where Postcards from the Edge really works, though, is in the relationship it establishes between the audience and the characters. For a great deal of the film, Doris is possibly Shirley MacLaine’s most irritating screen creation. This is a woman who, much like her character in all of her movies between 1983 and whenever, knows more than anyone else, always has the right answer in her own head, and demands that she be allowed to run the lives of everyone around her. What humanizes her here and fails to in many of her other movies is that this is far from her only flaw. It’s her alcoholism that, paradoxically, makes her much more likeable because it makes her that much more fallible and human. This humanizing doesn’t really come until the end of the film, but it’s pretty satisfying when it happens.
Meryl Streep, of course, is stellar as she almost always is. I’ve joked with people before that she gets nominated for something almost every year because no one would know it was Oscar time unless there was a Streep nomination. The truth is that she earns the ones she gets, and she earned this one. There are moments of real despair here, but also moments of real comedy. She may not be having fun with the role, but there are moments when she clearly is, and that comes through.
This is her movie more than it is anyone else’s, and a great deal of the film is not simply her coming to terms with her mother, but her coming to terms with herself and the life that she has. Of course, that is dominated by her mother, but the point still stands. For as much as this is about her really understanding why her mother is the way she is, a great deal of it is also her understanding how that has shaped her into the person she has become.
This would make a great companion piece to The Great Santini, which I watched a couple of days ago. In The Great Santini, there is a wonderful scene where the son finally beats the father in a contest, something that has never happened and is reacted to poorly by the over-competitive father. Here, there is no confrontational event, but a conversation about almost the same thing, and it rings just as true.
I wasn’t sure how much I would like this, since I figured it would be very similar to Terms of Endearment or would get emotionally drippy. It doesn’t, and that’s the main reason it works.
Why to watch Postcards from the Edge: Meryl Streep is always worth your time.
Why not to watch: Shirley MacLaine specialized for years in being intensely annoying.