Nichols: Postcards from the Edge (1990)
Postcards from the Edge is written by Carrie Fisher, and based on her novel of the same name, which depicts the relationship between an ageing Hollywood actress, Doris, and her daughter, Suzanne, who is also a Hollywood actress, with a drug problem. From a distance, the screenplay, like the novel, might seem to be either a cautionary tale about addiction, a harrowing mother-daughter melodrama or an excoriating insider’s view of Hollywood. Miraculously, however, Postcards from the Edge manages to elude these more conventional trajectories as effortlessly as the book, partly as a result of Fisher’s screenplay, partly as a result of Mike Nichols’ direction and partly as a result of Meryl Streep as Suzanne and Shirley MacLaine as Doris, who put in two of the very best performances of their careers here. For the most part, there’s not really a great deal of plot to the film, which follows Suzanne after she is released from rehab and told by her studio that they will insure her for their next leading role so long as she moves back in with her mother, whom they trust to keep an eye on her for the duration of the shoot. Instead, Fisher and Nichols use that broad narrative arc to beautifully flesh out Suzanne and Doris’ relationship with each other, along with their broader relationship with Hollywood and the film industry as a whole.
As might be expected, that paves the way for a wonderfully spaced-out performance from Streep. As awry and off-kilter as anything in her career, her depiction of Suzanne is clearly the inspiration behind many of her later comic roles – especially Ricki and the Flash – and would easily count as her single greatest comic performance were it not for the fact that both Fisher and Nichols seem keen to prevent the film ever quite playing as a straight comedy. Instead, Postcards from the Edge is as tonally elusive, elliptical and evocative as Streep’s face, which in its natural state seems to be perpetually poised between laughing and crying, and usually demands that directors coerce it into one incarnation or another to anchor the films in which she appears. Here, however, Nichols appears to consciously work against ever containing or co-opting Streep’s protean, mercurial expressions, making for a film that never quite seems to constitute itself, and that often feels as if it could extend indefinitely in any direction at any point in time. In that sense, Postcards from the Edge is quite true to the unusual structure of Fisher’s novel, which moves between a whole variety of different timelines and text types, as if to evoke the multiple lines of flight available to Suzanne and Doris at any given moment if they can just remain restless enough to embrace them.
It’s not just Streep’s face that drives the film, however, but her furtive, sheepish body language, which in turn distills everything nonplussed about her expressions when confronted with directors who are determined to mould and simplify them in their own image. As Suzanne returns to work, she finds herself continually trying to dodge her own image, or other people’s preconceptions of what her image should entail, culminating in a terrific scene in which she is forced to reloop lines from the day before rehab that she doesn’t even remember delivering, caught somewhere between her voice and the image of herself in front of her on the screen. From the moment she steps foot back on the studio lot, she’s always slightly exhausted, slightly behind schedule, and one beat away from where she needs or wants to be, observing to Doris that “I can’t feel my life…I see it all around me and know so much of it is good but I just take it all the wrong way.” On the one hand, directors, producers and executives are continually monitoring and scrutinising her addiction, but, at the same time, they’re continually instructing her to evince the “right enjoyment” levels for her role, since the film she is appearing in happens to be a comedy.
At these moments, Postcards from the Edge charts a particularly delicate course right on the edge of comedy. From all appearances, this seems to be one of Suzanne’s first comic roles (if not her first comic role), and her inability to acclimatise to comedy (especially at this point in her life) becomes a kind of comic spectacle in itself. At the same time, however, Suzanne’s role also feels like a strategy for displacing Streep herself from any straightforward comic presence, as well as a way of thinking through how she might be cast in a comedy without losing any of her ineffable mystique, since her only other two comedies before this point, Heartburn and She-Devil, had been quite broad and old-fashioned by comparison, and don’t feel much like genuine Streep vehicles in retrospect. Key to that process is the shifting space between Suzanne’s real life and the studio lot – a space that seems to get narrower even as she has to continually generate enough momentum to prevent herself ending up in the same desperate state that led to her being admitted to rehab in the first place.
In short, in order to remain tenable as a comic actress Suzanne has to relinquish drugs but retain her lust for life, placing her in a push-pull situation that often feels like a parody of the way in which female pleasure – and displays of female pleasure – are policed by Hollywood convention. By contrast Postcards from the Edge brims with an irrepressible and exuberant sense of pleasure, since Suzanne never stops craving drugs, and that craving gives her a surfeit of desire that is never contained by the film, let alone by any one scene in the particular. So magnetic and contagious is that desire that it could almost have turned the film into a musical, and as it is there are a couple of stunning musical numbers, while all of Suzanne’s conversations seem to brim with a melodicism that won’t be tied down to any single song: “Did anybody ever tell you that you smell like the future?” “But I break…just like a little girl.” Again, that sense of pleasure makes the film quite true to Fisher’s original vision, since while the story may have clear resonances with Fisher’s own life, and her relationship with Debbie Reynolds, Fisher has made it clear that this is all it is – resonance – and that Postcards from the Edge is definitively a novel, rather than an autobiography.
Accordingly, Fisher and Nichols offer up a film in which Streep and MacLaine may not quite be playing themselves, but are permitted to evince much more pleasure in their performances that you’d normally find in a Hollywood film, giving the sense that their roles resonate with them even if they don’t exactly represent them. Not surprisingly, this is clearest in the musical sequences, which start with the surprise party that Doris throws for Suzanne’s first night home from rehab, where she coerces her daughter into giving a reluctant performance of “You Don’t Know Me” and responds with her own version of “I’m Still Here.” In both of these beautifully broken, semi-conversational renditions, fractured by Suzanne and Doris’ awareness of each other’s presence and scrutiny, it’s almost impossible to distinguish between Streep and MacLaine’s roles and their pleasure in their roles, so contagious and radiant is their immersion in each other’s performances. By the end, that distinction has entirely vanished, as the film concludes with what initially appears to be a performance by Suzanne of “I’m Checkin’ Out,” only for the camera to pan back to reveal a clapper board with Postcards on the Edge written on it. From there, the camera moves further back still, to show the entirely of the cast and crew watching as Streep continues to sing, in what is now clearly the final cut of the film as much as the film-within-the-film, only for Nichols’ camera to finally alight on MacLaine, who is still partly within the guise of Doris, thereby collapsing the space around the film back into the space of the film one final time.
Yet that final shot simply reprises, in miniature, the growing convergence of the film and the world it depicts over the course of the screenplay as well. For if Suzanne remains clean, she never quite acclimatises to the the strangeness of being sober either, to the point where sobriety – and normality – becomes a tipsy fever dream of its own, as does her newfound awareness and apprehension of the present moment, which quickly feels more hallucinatory and hyperbolic than any high. At times, it is almost as if getting clean has made real life resemble a film, or has allowed Suzanne to step straight into a film, leading her lover Jack, played by Dennis Quaid, to observe that “You’re the realest person I’ve ever met in the abstract…You’re my fantasy and I want to make you real,” only for this to turn out to be a stock line that he uses for all his conquests. In the process, Hollywood comes to feel like an addiction that is more demanding and damaging than any of Suzanne’s drug cocktails, making it even more difficult to stay clean and requiring her to direct her momentum in ever more elliptical and unusual directions.
Probably the best distinction between Hollywood and real life comes from one of Suzanne’s mentors, an auteurist director, Lowell Kolchek, played in a cameo by Gene Hackman. While Suzanne is relooping her lines, Kolchek tells her that whereas movies involve sudden realisations, “in real life you have a realisation and then your life changes a month later.” In some ways, Postcards from the Edge takes place over the course of this month, a month in which even “instant gratification takes too long,” as Suzanne always seems to be on the verge of an epiphany that just as continually eludes her. At the same time, however, it’s hard to put too much trust in Kolchek either, just because he’s folded back into Nichols and Fisher’s profound scepticism of self-styled Hollywood auteurs as arbiters of both taste and reality, along with the sustained sequence shot as their preferred method of streamlining and sanitising female pleasure. In an opening that seems to puncture every auteurist opening in classical Hollywood and pre-emptively puncture every auteurist opening in 90s Hollywood, Nichols starts the film with just one of these stylised tracking-shots, which turns out to be helmed by Kolchek himself. As we move from the stylised dexterity of the shot, to the lapse back into convivial naturalism once Suzanne fumbles her lines, to Kolcheck’s subsequent rage and impatience, it’s hard not to feel that Postcards from the Edge is presenting auteurist flourish itself as the most debilitating addiction in Hollywood, especially for those actresses who have to accommodate themselves to its whims and tantrums.
In that sense, Nichols was the perfect director for Postcards for the Edge, since his career largely subsisted in being an anti-auteur, willing to adapt himself to whatever material he was presented with and so (like Sidney Lumet) peculiarly gifted at adaptations. As if in reaction to that opening tracking-shot, then, much of the formal impact of Postcards from the Edge comes from Nichols’ unexpected cuts and oblique transitions, which permit the film to remain offbeat and asymmetrical whenever it seems to be settling too deeply into one stylistic groove, working quite beautifully to translate Fisher’s jagged, awry prose style to the big screen. Part of the joke of the film, too, is that this circuit of self-appointed auteurs is played by actors, with most of the male cast appearing as a rotating series of cameos, keeping the focus squarely on Streep and MacLaine and ensuring that Suzanne is perpetually having to compose herself in order to convince the next man she meets of her sanity and sobriety. Admittedly, Dennis Quaid is top-billed, but he’s barely in the film, and even then his role consists largely in convincing Suzanne that he might one day be a top-billed figure in her own life, only for her to realise that this is the role he plays with virtually every attractive woman that he encounters.
Of course, that asymmetrical quality also means that Postcards from the Edge never quite comes to a conclusion, or even feels like a complete movie, but that’s also part of its offbeat charm. It’s also what allows Fisher and Nichols to avoid the smugness of so many 90s films about Hollywood, since this very much remains an outsider’s perspective, rather than an insider’s expose. In the best possible way, it’s a slight, self-consciously minor film, profoundly sceptical of bravura Hollywood self-awareness, and yet for that very reason I could have watched it for hours and hours, and felt compelled to rewatch it the moment it had finished. Even the final “crisis” in Suzanne and Doris’ relationship – Doris crashing her car after worrying that Suzanne might have started using drugs again – is merely a slightly larger skirmish than usual, albeit nothing that seems especially catastrophic in the grand scheme of things. In fact, nothing about Suzanne and Doris is especially catastrophic, since the great twist of Postcards from the Edge is that their relationship is good enough as it is, for all its flaws, with their climactic conversation coming down to one simple exchange – “Are you less mad at me now?” “I’ve always been less mad at you Mama” – and in that small moment lies the entire film, and its reminder of how strangely available survival can sometimes be.
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