Retrospective: ‘Postcards from the Edge,’ still twirling up 30 years later
Thirty years ago, Columbia Pictures released the sweet yet biting, semi-autobiographical Postcards from the Edge to critical acclaim, a number one perch at the box office, and, ultimately, two Oscar nominations. A great film, which has stood the test of time, but considering its pedigree (Streep. MacLaine. Nichols. Fisher. I mean, can you even?) isn’t talked about all that much. I’m here to fix that.
“Instant gratification takes too long.”
The Carrie Diaries
Carrie Fisher was not yet Hollywood’s most sought-after (and secret) script doctor when she adapted her debut novel, Postcards from the Edge for the big screen. The book and film centers on the relationship between Suzanne Vale, an actress, was on the rise, struggling with addiction, and her overbearing mother, Doris Mann, a larger-than-life Hollywood legend. A recent accidental overdose has put Suzanne’s career in jeopardy, making her uninsurable unless she lives with her mother for the duration of filming. Wounds are reopened, songs are sung, red gowns are worn.
The parallels to real-life had Hollywood buzzing: Carrie Fisher was also a recovering addict. And her mother, Debbie Reynolds, just happened to be a larger-than-life Hollywood legend. While the film undeniably draws from Fisher’s real-life, she bristled at the idea (Carrie Fisher was heroically, fabulously bristly) that the story was just a rehashing of her life. She famously said, “It’s easier for them to think I have no imagination for language, just a tape recorder with endless batteries.”
Other than uncredited script punch-ups for The River Wild, Hook, the Star Wars prequels et al. (the list is long, and will probably never be comprehensive), Postcards is her only film screenwriting credit. Ultimately, sadly, the screenplay was overlooked come awards season. Yes, she was nominated for a BAFTA, and yes, I have filed the appropriate paperwork to make a civil complaint against the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for snubbing her. Litigation is pending. I will not rest.
“What can possibly be the matter? You’ve gone back and corrected the past, at least in your work. What could be a better metaphor? It couldn’t be something I said.“
The Nichols of It All
Mike Nichols has plenty of forgettable movies: I’m looking at you Garry Shandling sex comedy (!) What Planet Are You From?. But when a film of his hits, it sticks around the public consciousness for a while. Think Elizabeth Taylor tossing drink glasses in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Robin Williams giving the history of dance in The Birdcage or even just the poster for The Graduate. Even some of his films that aren’t considered classics hold a place in film circle debate, like the bona fides of Closer and whether Primary Colors is good-bad or just bad-bad. Mike Nichols is a legend; he has an EGOT! Peter Farrelly could never!
So, it’s all the more surprising that Postcards sits in this in-between place of being “good” while not earning the following it deserves. In 1990, Nichols was coming off one of the biggest films of his career, Working Girl. Just two years earlier, the fish-out-of-water comedy was both a massive financial and critical hit, launched Melanie Griffith into the stratosphere, and garnered six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Nichols final Best Director nod. The man was white-hot, nearly 25 years after his directorial debut.
He’s the perfect director for Postcards from the Edge. He helps Dennis Quaid shed his golden boy image to play an absolute dick, Jack Faulkner, the man whose bed Suzanne overdoses in (I’m sure Meg Ryan can relate). He gets great performances out of both newcomers (Annette Benning! Oliver Platt!) and the glorious company of character actors he stacks the cast with (Mary Wickes, CCH Pounder, Robin Bartlett, Anthony Heald, and the great Dana Ivey, to name a few). Nichols also gets a few famous friends to do a couple of days of sublime work. Gene Hackman is the director of the film Suzanne is working on when she ODs; Richard Dreyfuss pops up as the doctor who pumps her stomach; Rob Reiner has a glorious cameo as an absolute schmuck of a movie producer.
In many ways, Postcards has the cadence and rhythm of a stage play, which, after all, is where Nichols cut his teeth. That’s never more evident than in the film’s biggest set-piece: Suzanne and Doris’s climactic fight lovingly shot and staged on a perfectly dramatic staircase. As viewers, we’ve been waiting for the bickering, side jabs, and eye-rolling to reaching its boiling point. And ooh boy, does it ever: Streep and MacLaine knock it out of the park, or more accurately, out of the Hollywood Hills. Fisher’s script is at its zenith, walking the coke-thin-line between drama and comedy. It’s a masterclass, directed and staged with precision, making iconic line-readings like “It TWIRLED up!” land as both a punchline and a declaration of war.
”I’m not a box, I don’t have sides. This is it, one side fits all.”
Considering that from 2006 – 2014, she was our most bankable, most beloved comedy actress, it’s easy to forget Meryl Streep: Comedy Star was once impossible to imagine. At this point, Meryl had only been making movies for over a decade and was already considered the World’s Greatest Living Actress. Her run in the 1980s is pretty much unparalleled, setting a record for most acting Oscar nominations in a single decade (six nods, one win). She was the Queen of Accents, culminating in 1989, garnering her very own catchphrase when a dingo ate her baby. From a Holocaust survivor with a devastating secret in Sophie’s Choice to a woman with a hair-washing kink in Out of Africa, there were scant opportunities for Meryl to show off her funny side. The closest thing she came to comedy was the Nora Ephron-penned adaptation of her scorched Earth novel Heartburn, directed by, natch, Mike Nichols, that was more acidic than, you know, funny.
Meryl chose her first full-on comedy starring role in 1989. The film she chose, somewhat inexplicably, was the broad comedy She-Devil co-starring the ascendant Domestic Goddess herself, Roseanne Barr. She-Devil was something of a curveball for audiences, who were barely ready for Meryl Streep to be funny. At the height of Reagan Conservatism, the Teacher’s Pet of Hollywood came home from college pregnant, nose-pierced with a boyfriend who rode a motorcycle. Pearls were clutched, and She-Devil bombed.
Although time has been kind to She-Devil, the girls were coming from Meryl, drooling at the idea that they had found the one thing she couldn’t do: Comedy. After Postcards for which she received an Oscar nomination (prestige comedy, they’d say, Mike Nichols film they’d argue), she co-starred in Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life, another movie whose bona fides came from the auteur director. The temporary final nail in the Meryl Comedy prequel came in 1992 when she starred with Goldie Hawn, Bruce Willis, and Isabella Rossellini in Death Becomes Her.
Despite Death Becomes Her aging into the Perfect Gay Comedy™, at the time of its release, it was something of a critical and financial disappointment. She’d have to wait another decade and change before she got another shot at comedy.
“I can’t possibly compete with you. What if somebody won?”
Postcards from the Oscars
I have often been told that I run kinda hot. Literally, in the sense that I’m a ::redacted:: year old adult man who still raises a 105-degree fever when sick, and figuratively, because sometimes I get real mad, real quick, and then get over things real quickly—kind of like a chubby, less undeniably sexy Hulk. However, the times I can’t find it in myself to forgive, forget, and move on, are reserved for societal woes like the current presidential administration, climate change deniers, and people who take their time at the Starbucks drive-thru.
The poor showing of Postcards from the Edge at the 1991 Oscars is one of those things. Many years from now, with my final breath, I will say to my house plant and loyal dog: “I love you, Fern Mayo and you Mary-Louise Barker. Shirley MacLaine should’ve been nominated for an Oscar for Postcards from the Edge. Avenge me!”
In a Top 10 Oscar year, Postcards would’ve been a slam-dunk Best Picture nominee. In 1991 we were decades away from the Nolan rule of nominating ten films (or 8 or 9 or back to 10, I don’t know anymore) for Best Picture to appease rabid fanboys and goose Oscar telecast ratings. This rule’s results have been spotty at best, as it didn’t help populist hits like Wonder Woman, Knives Out, or Crazy Rich Asians crack the Best Picture line-up while nightmare films Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and The Blind Side end up making-the-cut. Literally, nothing makes sense. That said, the 1991 Best Picture race is truly wacky, making Postcards two-nomination tally (Actress, Song) all the more egregious.
This year’s Academy Awards includes one of the most it-is-popular-but-is-it-even-good nominees of all-time: Ghost. Look, I’m a human being on this Earth. I am not immune to the charms of Ghost. I happen to think Whoopi Goldberg’s Oscar win is one of the all-time greats and actually would’ve liked to see perpetually underrated Demi Moore get a bit more nomination heat for her famed one-tear crying. But a Best Picture Oscar nomination? Come on, guys.
This year’s line-up also featured a true meh of a winner (Dances with Wolves), a final installment of a groundbreaking trilogy that wasn’t even well-loved at the time of release (The Godfather, Part III), a film that is completely fine but perhaps hasn’t aged well (Awakenings) and the most significant film ever to lose Best Picture (Goodfellas). Postcards belongs in this line-up.
Continuing to fuel my eternal rage: Let’s talk about Shirley MacLaine. Legend Shirley MacLaine. Five-time acting Oscar nominee, one-time Best Documentary nominee, and, of course, one-time Best Actress winner Shirley MacLaine. Shirley MacLaine is the only person on Earth who could’ve played Doris Mann, a Golden Age Hollywood icon, adored by gays and the tabloids alike. She’s so much Doris that Mike Nicholls allegedly told Debbie Reynolds, the person Doris was loosely based on, that she wasn’t right for the role.
MacLaine’s career was in an interesting place in the ‘80s. She had one her first, long overdue Academy Award for Terms of Endearment in 1983, giving one of the most iconic acceptance speeches in Oscar history in the process. With that renewed cache, she joined the cast of ::checks notes:: Cannonball Run II the following year? Woo Woo Shirley MacLaine (not an insult, this is my second favorite Shirley MacLaine after Rat Pack Shirley MacLaine) dominates most of the 1980’s persona, culminating in the release of her autobiography, and subsequent TV miniseries, “Out on a Limb.” Her next big-screen appearance was six years after her Terms of Endearment triumph, the fizzled Oscar play, Madame Sousatzka. Despite its tepid reception, MacLaine won the Golden Globe for her performance (in an unprecedented three-way tie with Sigourney Weaver and Jodie Foster that year); the Hollywood Foreign Press Association loves MacLaine: She has received nineteen Golden Globes nominations, winning five, with two special awards for good measure. In 1989, MacLaine earns significant praise for her all-timer performance in Steel Magnolias as legendary curmudgeon Ouiser Boudreaux, one of her biggest hits ever. Still, she ultimately misses out on an Oscar nomination in favor of her co-star, newcomer Julia Roberts.
That brings us to Postcards where she is Lead Actress nominated at the BAFTAs over Streep but nominated in the Supporting Actress category at the Golden Globes. Y’all think category fraud/confusion is new? It’s been around FOR-EV-ER. It’s that very confusion that seems like the biggest culprit for her snub. Best Supporting Actress is a bit more stacked – Goldberg (winner) for Ghost, Postcards scene-stealer Annette Bening for Grifters, Lorraine Bracco for Goodfellas, Mary McDonnell for Dances with Wolves, and Diane Ladd for Wild at Heart. Laddseems like the only gettable slot in the line-up. That said, I don’t want to take anything away from Diane Ladd, especially not an Oscar nomination.
Streep’s Best Actress nod for playing Suzanne Vale comes in a pretty wild Oscar race. Kathy Bates steamrolls for her breakout role in Misery, Anjelica Huston is probably second place as a murderous mom in The Grifters, Joanne Woodward gets her final nomination in Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, and Julia Roberts is nominated for Pretty Woman, a pure movie star nomination, I wish we’d see more of. This nomination marks something of a fallow period for Meryl – she goes a whole five years without an Oscar nomination, which remains her most significant drought. The conversation about Meryl and Oscar is fascinating because there are no comparables. No one likes to talk about the dark side of her record-shattering 21 nominations and three wins. Meryl Streep has lost 18 acting Oscars with three wins under her belt, double the most acting losses by any other actor in Oscar history (sorry, Peter O’Toole).
The second Oscar nomination for Postcards from the Edge came for Best Original Song for Shel Silverstein’s (yup, that Shel Silverstein) film-closing barn burner, “I’m Checkin’ Out.” The song was performed at the 63rd Annual Oscars by Reba McEntire. The performance carries some significant weight as it took place just days after Reba lost her husband and most of her band in a tragic plane crash. As good as the song is – and as beloved as Silverstein was – it’s no match for Sondheim. The prolific legend won his first and only Oscar for “Sooner or Later” from the otherwise meh adaptation of Dick Tracy (which also gave us an iconic Madonna performance).
“I was such an awful mother… what if you had a mother like Joan Crawford or Lana Turner?“
“These are the options? You, Joan, or Lana?“
Singing & Dancing!
A plot-point in the Postcards from the Edge is that Suzanne shies away from her singing talent (much like Carrie Fisher did) to avoid comparisons to her mother, a capital-P Performer. The film ends with Suzanne not taking the pills she stashed in her pocket, coming to some peace with her mother, and taking on a role in a movie where she joyfully performs “I’m Checkin’ Out” on the set of her new movie. It’s pure bliss.
Earlier in the film, to celebrate Suzanne’s release from rehab, Doris throws a big, splashy party at the house. Now I’m no expert in addiction’s nuance, but I can’t imagine this is one of the recommended steps towards recovery. Suzanne plays the dutiful daughter, blowing out candles and succumbing to her mother’s pleas to sing a song for the guests. Suzanne begrudgingly agrees, asking the pianist to play “that Ray Charles tune” You Don’t Know Me. Like many people of a certain age, this wasn’t my first exposure to Ray Charles’ music. Just as I believe he would’ve wanted I was introduced to Ray Charles on Pepsi commercials and that one episode of Who’s the Boss? where Angela and Sam get into a huge fight. But this was the first time I heard “You Don’t Know Me,” which would ultimately live rent-free in my mind as a cover by Jan Arden from the My Best Friend’s Wedding soundtrack. She does a nice job in an off-the-cuff sorta way, endearingly not knowing the bridge, self-consciously obeying her mother’s stage direction to remove her jacket mid-song. The crowd applauds.
Then someone in the crowd screams out: “Now Doris: Sing something!” A Doris Mann performance is clearly what they’ve been waiting for, what Suzanne and Doris have been waiting for, what we’ve been waiting for, the entire night. You get the sense, immediately, from the scripting, the acting, the direction, that this isn’t the first time Doris has succumbed to the request of performing “on the spot.” And it’s dynamite.
Doris gives a full performance of Sondheim’s (irony alert!) “I’m Still Here in D-flat.” You can tell that this was a song that was part of Doris’s cabaret act at one point, the kind of number she’s known for fondly. It’s all over Suzanne’s face that she has seen her mother perform this song in that very living room a thousand times. Maybe Suzanne is a better actress than her mother, we don’t know, but to steal a phrase from the podcast Las Culturistas, Doris is an Actress and a Star. There’s very little competing with that. Meryl Streep does her best acting in the film, as Suzanne watches her mom perform, awestruck, a kid again. Some of the best character moments come from these two musical performances, including the triumphant end of “I’m Still Here,” where Suzanne giddily cheers for her mother. It’s a lovely, affecting moment that puts everything about this fraught, loving relationship into focus.
“Are you less mad at me now?”
“I am always less mad at you, mom.”
Before 2020 decided to positively put every other year to shame with its seemingly endless array of pit-dwelling misery (I’m doing fine!), 2016 was a pretty time for me, personally, the world at large. My father had passed away suddenly, I lost my job, had emergency back surgery – the list goes on.
By the time I threw out the lobster tail and filet mignon I had bought to celebrate the election of our first female president (LOL, intermittent sob), I thought there was no lower the year could sink.
But right at the buzzer, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died within days of each other. As it happened, Reynolds passed away on December 27th, inspiring me to watch Postcards from the Edge somewhere in the last four days of this very bad, no good, awful year. Half paying attention, as I had seen the movie roughly one thousand times previously, I bravely put down my second screen for the party scene. Rapt, as usual, but “I’m Still Here” just hit different. There was something specifically uplifting about being at the doldrums of my spirit and hear someone so triumphantly sing over, and over the phrase, I’m still here. For just a moment, Doris’s performance bluster fades away, she takes her daughter’s face in her hand and sings directly to her: “I got through all of last year, and I’m here.” Reader, I am proud to tell you, I had the cathartic cry I had been building up for months. It has now become a yearly tradition to watch Postcards from the Edge to close out every year. I can’t recommend it highly enough.