Saturday, January 07, 2017

Postcards from the Edge (1990)

“Who could resist my stunning layered and moving not unlike Mary Poppins performance...?”  Carrie Fisher said that referring to Princess Leia during her one woman show Wishful Drinking.

The audience laughed especially when Carrie paired it with Mary Poppins.  They understood what she meant. Now I don’t know what the technical definition of layered is – besides that analogy on onions – but I have seen Star Wars many times and all I remember is the gung-ho princess. Not even Han Solo managed to peel off a mushy side of her.  Not even the destruction of Alderaan revealed an orphan of an entire planet now that I think about it.

For much of Carrie’s life millions of fans – more so if they lived outside the States like me – Princess Leia was never peeled off the late actress’s life.  And when Carrie died this Christmas break I decided to change that and peel off Princess Leia from my eyes, see what I have missed.

In Postcards from the Edge, Carrie’s first book, I think I understand what she meant by layers.  Postcards was adapted into a movie and the screenplay was written by no less than herself.  Now it is Carrie the author and scriptwriter and it looks like she put in what was missing from the Star Wars princess.

You can see layers in what also happens to be my favorite scene the coming home party - Doris Mann (Shirley MacLaine) arranged a coming home party for her daughter Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep).  This is a nearly 8 minute scene with a range of emotions – layers – in quick succession that shouts mother and daughter.

Annoyed, a little angry and feeling uncertain:  From last cut Suzanne came from the outside cooling off, maybe even trying to hide; came in only to blow the candles. She feels Doris had invited people she never would have.  How inconsiderate of mother to arrange a party and not even asked if it was ok.  After the candles a guest then asks for a song which heightens Suzanne’s unease.   

The singing part actually has three components: the singer and the listener - which is interchangeable between mother and daughter – and then the guests.  While the singing is a give and take between mother and daughter like much of the film, focus on the listener – who, not busy with song, is more expressive – and see the emotions subtle as they are.

Doris listened first and immediately she’s a mother: remove the jacket she signals to Suzanne already in the middle of her song.

Pride and nurture:  Doris lip syncs You Don’t Know Me as Suzanne sings it out loud.  There’s pride in her eyes because she taught her; Suzanne is a mother's daughter. The lip syncing is also a coaching instinct she never let go; children look for the parents in the crowd, if was still as if Doris can still will the daughter to go on singing while silently singing the lines. 

Sadness or is it uncertainty till finally pride: the last lip sync shot of Doris ended with a sad looking sigh and a look at her daughter.  A talented daughter but what’s wrong? When the song ends typical mom, Doris gives the loudest applause.

Admittedly I notice song title after passing over just that scene two or three times, should audiences take meaning to the songs that were sung?   You Don’t Know Me for Suzanne the actress who just came from rehab.  I’m Still Here for Doris who went through all the trials of Hollywood career and a daughter in rehab.

Anyways I digress it is now Suzanne’s turn to watch, she’s a fan: unlike Doris Suzanne gets a wide shot to emphasize that she is like all the guests in the frame who are fans all the same.  Doris’ glittery red dress is dazzling to Suzanne’s casual wear; the guests now were more into the performance.

Guilt, and is that feelings of rivalry: during the song Doris touches her daughter’s cheek as if to say the lyrics were for Suzanne, refers to something happening ‘last year’.  Was it the rehab?  Suzanne’s eyes move left and right, she’s thinking. What does mother mean?  Then she nod’s her head to the side with a flick of her eyebrow as if saying Doris bested her again and the rehab was just to rub it in.

Worship: Suzanne gives a teary eye clap when her mother finishes her song.  Amid all the irritation, annoyance, and the yearning to be far away, Doris Mann – mom – is the most beautiful and most talented woman she’s ever seen: Suzanne worships her.

Oh yes I bought the story right there, it was as if I have actually know them and I can fix everything, understood everything.  Just to be clear the only lines to this scene is the song and I was hooked on the listener and the layers peeling off one by one.  They didn’t have to talk; mother and daughter felt real.

The party scene actually serves as bookend which should matched with the hospital scene near the end of the movie.  Here Doris was disheveled and injured because of an accident; bandages were on her head.  She looks quite broken; an unhappy daughter weighs heavily on her mind.

Suzanne comes in and after a few moments magic happens.  Mother and daughter have a heart to heart exchange, they say how they really feel, and ends it by a song.  It was short and intimate song that mother sang to daughter in private when she was sick.  Now they are singing together, also in private, no fans around.

Remember how the party scene was arranged for Suzanne? You can say the obvious which is Doris wants a welcome for her daughter but it can also be read as mother’s way of giving support.  Doris, albeit approaching the sunset of her career, is still an actress of good standing and she won’t hide her daughter. Now in the hospital scene Suzanne is the one giving support, helping her mother with makeup, raising her up her spirits.  It is an emotionally satisfying full circle.

If I haven’t said enough then I’ll say it one more time Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine had perfect chemistry.  Then again if it can be considered a fault Shirley MacLaine looks so glamorous that the pair can be sold as sisters. I thought of her fully as a parent only at the hospital scene where she had no makeup, so the story says, and no wig.  I never thought she had a wig.

Besides Carrie writing the book and also writing the screenplay, another reason why I chose Postcards from the Edge is that it’s supposed to be semiautobiographical.  I’ve read biographies before and I thought if I really wanted to know a person I should read one, or in this case watch it.  The prefix ‘semi’ did strike me as odd so I looked it up.  If I understood right, the book is semiautobiographical because there’s a character Suzanne standing in for what should have been Carrie Fisher; Doris Mann for Debbie Reynolds.

My advice if you’re looking for the same things as I am supplement this movie with the 2011 interview of Carrie and Debbie on Oprah and Wishful Thinking.  The spirit of Postcards seem accurate for the most part after I’ve seen the Oprah interview and Wishful Thinking.  The ER where she gets her stomach pumped; the rehab; the flowers sent by the ER doctor; Debbie’s eyebrows; Carrie’s grandmother by Debbie; no doubt there’s more in the book version.

What escaped me throughout the entire movie is what the word ‘edge’ in the title means.  I was thought down and dirty addiction, brushes with thugs, or even jail time.  Robert Downey Jr. when he was using did endup in jail so I was expecting the same.  Nothing could be farther from grace than jail time which makes the comeback all the sweeter as RDJ himself has shown.

The ‘edge’ has been dulled off by Carrie’s usual wit.  When Suzanne had her stomach pumped I was expecting her to be half dead instead she - like a drunk - managed to make the ER staff laugh. Same with the biggest fight mother and daughter had in the movie, it started out looking brutal and ended with great wit.  There’s nothing wrong with the approach I just end with a feeling of wanting to understand more, feel what she’s feeling.

Then again that’s I think how Carrie treats the sharp edge, she swings it to humor when she can. Because she’s bipolar she knows the sharpest edge intimately she knows it’s not a place to dance for very long and that is reflected in her writing.

Who would have thought Princess Leia was author and screenwriter? Certainly not I, not until she died and articles came out saying what most people never knew.  I don’t know if Spielberg saw the same ‘layers’ as I did but Entertainment Weekly called Carrie Fisher “one of the most sought after [script] doctors in town.”  According to a Slashfilm article I found Steven Spielberg called her sometime after the movie Postcards to do some rewrites on Hook and that started her secret career as script doctor. 

Carrie went on to other such movies such as Sister Act, Last Action Hero, LethalWeapon 3, the Wedding Singer and maybe more unknowns.  Script doctors often go uncredited and not all movies can be saved – like the Star Wars prequels which ironically not even the great Princess Leia can save.  Carrie did some work as a script doctor on those three.

My next project on Carrie Fisher is to read her as just an author.  I know now she can write but I want to see her without the help of her great delivery like Wishful Drinking, of movie directors, or the original writers of the scripts she fixed.

The Princess Diarists – that’s what I’m getting because it’s Star Wars.  I could say I’ve succeeded but I would be lying, Princess Leia will never be peeled off my eyes.  At least now I can see her without a blaster and actually typing.