It was a pleasant surprise when, in her 50s, Meryl Streep went from being the go-to actor for Serious Films that no one ever saw featuring Strong Women Dealing With Life-or-Death Crises (even though no one ever saw them, she always got Oscar nominations for them) to being an enormously successful box office attraction, headlining pictures like The Devil Wears Prada or Wore Prada or whatever the fuck it was called (it was well-made but all I remember about it was the scene where Anne Hathaway gets her hands on the as-yet-unpublished Harry Potter book) and Mamma Mia! and movies where she gets to nail Alec Baldwin.
Because I have always had and will always have better things to do than watch the twenty-five movies in a row where Meryl played a single mother with cancer in the Holocaust, I found myself extremely pleased when she gave making movies that didn't—like The Hours, for example—induce a deep longing for whiskey, Seconal, and razorblades a shot. Not because she'd never tried it before 2005, but because she had once, gloriously: 1990's Postcards From the Edge.
Postcards From the Edge was not Meryl's only attempt at something non-depressing, but the others (She-Devil, The River Wild) sucked. Postcards From the Edge does not suck. Au contraire, my friends, Postcards From the Edge is tremendous. It's based on Carrie Fisher's (semi-autobiographical at the very least) novel about an actress who, after some early success, gets fucked up on drugs, overdoses, and tries to put her life back together.
The novel jumps around between first and third person, and formally replicates the protagonist's frame of mind and pharmacological dependence: the prologue consists of glib, jittery, babbling postcards (from the edge), wherein heroine Suzanne is out of her mind on drugs.
Then she OD's, and part two, in rehab, is fatigued, reflective, self-critical, and alternates between Suzanne's point of view and that of a TV writer named Alex with a raging cocaine problem and nary a shred of self-awareness about it, juxtaposing the perspective of an addict who has hit bottom and realizes it (Suzanne) with a guy who “can do coke socially” (Alex). Eventually, Alex develops a crush on Suzanne that she remains unaware of until she laughs about “he would be the kind of guy I attract,” and he leaves rehab and goes nucking futs on coke, eventually checking himself back into rehab to get serious.
Part three follows a woman we eventually realize to be Suzanne in a brief affair with an endlessly talkative (just like her), infinitely horny movie producer through their conversations with each other and with their shrinks (because it was the 80s). They eventually break up, and part on reasonably good terms, though they'll probably never see each other again.
The remainder of the book is narrated in a more conventional third-person style, as Suzanne has re-gained control of her mind if not her professional and dating lives. A more conventional prose style does not infer boredom, though—Suzanne's dating and work adventures are engagingly told, and when she finds stable romance with a novelist by the end of the book, one feels genuinely happy (and relieved), even though because of the progression from ticking nuclear drug and drama bomb to stable mature adult IS, by nature, less interesting, the ultimate resolution of the book is more a pleased sigh than a fist-pumping “fuck yeah.” All in all, great fucking book, especially for a first novel.
It is, however, an apparently unfilmable one. So much of what makes the book interesting are the things about it that are specifically prose; Suzanne's actual narrative, an actress dealing with the dark side of fame, has been done before. This didn't stop Mike Nichols from having a go at it. Carrie Fisher adapted the novel herself, and by necessity ended up with a movie about something completely different from the book. Where the book charts Suzanne's journey to sanity, the movie follows her in her attempts to repair her relationship with her movie star mother.
And that is where the movie shines. Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine both cut loose and kick ass all over the place in this movie. Then again, everyone does. One of the cool things about being Mike Nichols is that you can get whoever the fuck you want to be in your movie, so if he wants Gene Hackman to play the director of the movie Meryl almost sinks by OD'ing, he gets Gene Hackman. If he wants Dennis Quaid to play the (heavily altered) horndog producer character, he gets Dennis Quaid. And so on.
The movie opens with a long tracking shot from the movie-within-a-movie (shades of Day For Night), revealed to be such only when Meryl hilariously fucks up a line at the end. Gene Hackman is understanding, until Meryl goes into her trailer to do some blow, at which point he blows up (zing!) and threatens to fire her if she doesn't get her shit together.
Then she's in bed with Dennis Quaid. He wakes up and starts talking, til he realizes she needs to get to a hospital, where he takes her.
Dennis Quaid: I'm dropping someone off.It loses something in translation; Dennis Quaid is brilliantly head-up-his-ass southern Californian in this scene, which makes all that that much funnier.
Nurse: I'm sorry?
Dennis Quaid: I'm DROPPING someone OFF.
Nurse: I'm sorry, sir—
Dennis Quaid: Is this the emergency room?
Nurse: Well, yes—
Dennis Quaid: WELL THIS IS AN EMERGENCY!!!
Meryl wakes up in rehab, where a cliché-spouting CCH Pounder tries to get her to toe the whole 12-step rehab lines, and where, when Shirley MacLaine visits, her gay fellow rehab patients talk to Meryl for the sole reason of getting to meet her mother.
Which gets that plotline off to a flying start. Shirley MacLaine refuses to see Meryl as anything other than an extension of herself, and is constantly giving Meryl advice about her career that would lead to Meryl following directly in her (mother's) exact footsteps. Meryl, meanwhile, is faced with the paradox of yearning for normality (i.e. a life outside showbiz) and not knowing anything other than the bizarre bubble world of Hollywood she grew up in.
When Meryl gets out of rehab, she gets a movie gig, but because of her drug history, the producers will only let her be in the movie if she lives with a responsible adult: her mother. Meryl hits the fucking roof at this suggestion, but ultimately the desire to keep working wins out, and she sucks it up.
The movie shoot follows the corresponding sequence in the novel fairly closely: on the first day of a low-budget picture where she plays a lady cop, Meryl gets notes from the director and three of the producers that she's “not having fun” and “holding something back.” Meryl, understandably, is like, “Um, it's my first fucking day, dude, and I just got outta rehab, how about cutting me some slack so I don't end up back there.” The day climaxes with Meryl, in a rear-projection shot where it looks like she's hanging off a building, shrugging, in one of the funniest shots in the movie.
On her way home, she runs into Dennis Quaid, whom she doesn't remember at first. He, though, remembers her, and clearly still wants to have sexual intercourse with her (in the Biblical sense). Even he, though, plays into her mother issues by flirting back when she comes on like, “Hey, there, handsome, is that a drug problem and a solipsistic sense of entitlement in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” Dennis Quaid wins Meryl over two ways: one, by being hot (in the 80s, he was about as hot as it got, you'll recall) and two by oh so sincerely murmuring things to her about how much he likes her, interpolated with all kinds of poetic stuff. Meryl falls for it (probably mostly because he was hot) and they shtup epically.
The next day at work, though, Meryl's co-star (Michael Ontkean) makes a crack about another sexual partner of Dennis Quaid's, so Meryl goes to track her (Annette Bening) down. In girl-talking with her, Meryl learns that Dennis Quaid fucked her and Annette Bening on the same day. I mean, as a guy I wholeheartedly support the idea of sleeping with 40ish Meryl Streep and 30ish Annette Bening, but both of 'em in one day is just greedy.
Meryl, pissed, goes over to his place, and they have probably the most awesome couple fight ever:
Man, Meryl Streep fucking rules. I love that scene.
So, after that, Meryl goes home and Shirley MacLaine tells her her manager has absconded with all her money, and the two of them get into a massive fucking argument about Shirley MacLaine's alcoholism and the effect it had on Meryl's upbringing. Shirley MacLaine denies all wrongdoing, and Meryl storms out to go overdub her lines from the movie at the beginning of the movie, and angrily pounds some drugs, that she makes herself throw back up.
Meryl and Gene Hackman have a great scene after Meryl nails the line, where he tells her that now she's clean, he's got lots more work for her. Meryl leaves happy, only to find that her mother crashed her car into a tree driving drunk.
They reconcile in the hospital, where Meryl runs into the doctor (Richard Dreyfuss) who pumped her stomach. They flirt, and he asks her if she wants to go to a movie, and she suggests Valley of the Dolls (a good reference not only because of the whole starlets-on-drugs business but because it was one of Richard Dreyfuss' first roles) but tells him she's not quite ready just yet.
The closing sequence has Meryl, working on a new movie by Gene Hackman, where she sings this awesome Shel Silverstein song, backed by this tight country band. It's great because the song's so fuckin good, but holy shit . . . Meryl Streep can sing. The earlier scene where she warbles out “You Don't Know Me” was dwarfed by Shirley MacLaine immediately jumping in and doing “I'm Still Here,” which is partly because Sondheim beats rock, paper, or scissors, but also to highlight Meryl's being uncomfortable with the show tunes that made her mother a star. (Strong choice, Meryl, strong choice).
As an adaptation, Postcards From the Edge works for the same reason most book-to-movie adaptations do: the recognition that books and movies are two separate things, and the ability to then successfully translate the bookish things about the book into movieish movie equivalents. It also helps to have the best available talent, and the entire cast explodes in this. The first time, or the first couple times, you see Postcards From the Edge, you're like, wow Shirley MacLaine is awesome in this (at the time there was a ton of fuss about how it was her triumphant comeback, and it certainly did eradicate her 80s status as a punchline for her unfortunate public discussion of reincarnation and other flaky shit) and she is. No question. But once you get to that third time (and, like, me, the fourth through fifteenth or so times) you realize, fuck me Meryl Streep is great in this. Scroll back up and watch that scene with Dennis Quaid again. Now scroll back down here. That's good thesping, that. Yeah, the script is great, yeah Dennis Quaid is awesome, but Meryl holds it the fuck down in that scene.
Happy birthday, Meryl Streep. I know you'd probably think I was a nekulturny shithead if you were aware I existed, but I think you're just swell.