Francis Ford Coppola crafted his most beautiful film of the 1980s with Peggy Sue Got Married, a nostalgic fantasia that sees housewife Peggy Sue Bodell (Kathleen Turner) transported back to her senior year of high school in 1960, while attending her 25-year reunion in 1985. Peggy attends the reunion alone, since she’s recently split up with her husband and high school sweetheart Charlie Bodell (Nicolas Cage). She’s dreading having to explain her singledom to all the other classmates who remembered her and Charlie as the dream couple, so finding herself back in 1960 comes as a welcome respite, especially since it gives her a chance to restore her marriage, although this doesn’t really end up being the main focus of the film. Instead, Peggy Sue, and Coppola himself, recline on the nostalgic ambience of 50s suburbia – the style of the film is anchored squarely in the 50s, despite the fact that it mainly occurs in 1960 – resulting in a gorgeously dreamy performance from Turner, and one of the most wonderfully textural films in Coppola’s career – soothing, healing and emotionally resonant.
From the very first scenes, Peggy Sue has a mildly hallucinatory manner, as if she’s still living in the 50s, or the 50s are still unfolding before her eyes, so Coppola doesn’t treat time travel with the same novelty, excitement or adventure as occurs in Back to the Future, which was released the previous year. Instead, the film sinks into a reverential trance – a mildly narcotic high – as Peggy Sue revisits old places, objects and people, joyously reconnecting with her family and friends as she knew them in high school. Like some of Coppola’s earlier 80s films, this sometimes feels like a fairground ride, but this time in a good way, since if we ever get to experience time-travel tourism – “browsing through time,” as Peggy Sue put it – it will probably look something like this. Rather than freaking out, or trying to make amends, Peggy Sue just browses through all the experiences, people and spaces she never expected to see again, making for one of the cruisiest and most peripatetic films in Coppola’s entire career.
While Coppola’s 80s films often harken back to his own auteurist heyday, there’s a purer, simpler and less affected nostalgia here, as if Peggy Sue has entered a paradisal space where she can simply float amongst the most beautiful moments in her young adult life. Unlike One From the Heart and The Cotton Club, this film is poised on the cusp of hyperreality, but never quite goes there, which is presumably why every shot brims with such revelatory potential, especially when inflected through Jorden Cronenweth’s gorgeous pastel cinematography. No doubt, the script is a bit wooden, and Coppola’s direction can be a bit anonymous, but the nostalgic recreations – and Peggy Sue’s delight in them – radiate a warmth, comfort and authenticity that Coppola hasn’t quite managed to match since, not even in Jack, his only children’s film to date. The palette of the film is particularly luminous, mediating the 50s through 80s nostalgia, but also permitting the decade to breathe and exist on its on terms.
As a result, Peggy Sue Got Married moves much more fluidly than Coppola’s previous three films, often using the 50s fixation on car culture to keep this momentum going. Peggy Sue first clicks on to the time shift when seeing an old car, and also sees her ex-husband and father for the first time in their 50s guises when they are driving cars as well. Coppola would go on to use car culture to channel nostalgia in Tucker: The Man and His Dream, but the cars in Peggy Sue Got Married are arguably even more resonant than the Tucker Sedans in Coppola’s biopic, since they’re nearly always moving, carrying the film from moment to moment rather than being embalmed as static synecdoches for Coppola’s nostalgia. Along with the propulsion of these cars, most of the characters are extra energetic to contour Peggy Sue’s dreamlike passage – especially Charlie’s best friend Walter Getz, played by Jim Carrey, whose hyperactive persona is already fully-formed here, and much more memorable than Cage’s.
In other words, Peggy Sue Got Married is one of the few films in Coppola’s later career where he gives himself permission to relax, take the foot off the pedal, and create a beautiful and immersive world, rather than pressuring himself to make another enormous auteurist statement. Nowhere is this clearer than in the film’s disinterest in the mechanics of time travel, which sets it apart from virtually all other 50s/80s period pieces made during this decade. During the 50s, Hollywood was obsessed with invaders from beyond the suburban realm. These invaders were variously figured as aliens, communists, homosexuals and black folk, but in Peggy Sue Got Married the alien presence is simply a 50s character who has travelled back from the 80s. In one deft move, the film neutralizes the 80s frisson with time travel, and the 50s panic about invasion, in the name of a more profound and yet also quotidian yearning. Paradoxically, this allows Coppola to capture the breathless futurity of the 50s more convincingly than a “high concept” treatment might have allowed – most memorably when Peggy Sue tells a local science teacher about the impending moon landing.
Even more noticeable, however, is that neither Peggy Sue nor the film itself show any real interest in how she ended up in the 50s. The transition between 80s and 50s is very low-key, while there’s no anxiety – as occurs in Back to the Future – about adversely affecting the future. Nor is there the same detailed focus on the broader implications of time travel, while even the experience of time travel is dulled by the abbreviated opening and conclusion, which both avoid situating us too emphatically in the 80s. Instead, you get the impression that Peggy Sue has been living in the 50s all along, at least in spirit, as Turner suspends her performance between adult and teenage lexicons in the most brilliant and dexterous manner. In that sense, Peggy Sue’s experience feels more like a wistful embodied memory than a time travel story, since it’s not so much about rectifying the past, or resetting the future, as appreciating the past – talking to all the people and taking all the chances she overlooked the first time around.
The emotional core of this journey is Peggy Sue reconnecting with her grandparents, and appreciating the older people in her young adult life with the hindsight of a middle-aged woman. For much of the film, Peggy Sue isn’t even aware if she has genuinely time travelled, or if she is just dead and experiencing a paradisal afterlife, so her concerns for the future are quite naturally displaced by her renewed interest in and attachment to her grandparents’ generation. Instead of trying to reset her future, she helps older people to arrive at their best futures – a neat symbol for the languorous generosity of the film as a whole. While the story is ostensibly about Peggy Sue restoring her marriage, the film feels more dissociated from this relationship as it proceeds, perhaps due to the notorious animosity between Turner and Cage on set. Even without that backdrop, though, the romance is not all that convincing, or interesting, and often feels transplanted from a different film. For the most part, Peggy Sue and Charlie can only commune when he’s playing rock on stage, with the entire school between them. They only come together through a song – aptly titled “She Loves Me Anyway” – while their main romantic crisis is the only time Coppola ruptures the nostalgic texture of the film, as he opts for a vampiric fantasy sequence that anticipates the mania of Dracula.
With this romance more or less sidelined, Peggy Sue has space and time to focus on the most resonant part of her journey – her discovery that her grandparents had the same deep nostalgia for their youth that she is now experiencing. Being young prevented her from recognising this, but revisiting her youth in middle age means she is acutely alive to her grandparents’ own nostalgic yearning. Rather than satiating her own nostalgia, returning to the past simply permits her to identify more strongly with her grandparents’ nostalgia, as Coppola suspends the delicate present tense of the film between deep memories, and experiences that will in time become deep memories. Every era, Peggy Sue discovers, has its nostalgic quotient for an older time, meaning that nostalgia can never be satisfied, even or especially when we seem to have travelled back to a period before our own nostalgia began.
In this way, Coppola also strikes a deft balance between acknowledging that his own nostalgia is a fantasy and reassuring us that nostalgia plays a critical and nurturing role in how we map out our present and future lives as well. Likewise, Peggy Sue’s final discovery is that the key to the future lies in the past, and vice versa, since her grandparents turn out to be members of a time-travelling society that they employ to help her travel home to 1985. Helping her return to a future they will never see, Peggy Sue’s grandparents nevertheless refrain from angst, crisis or even grief about parting ways with her for a second time, instead exuding a gentle, curious melancholy about the ways in which nostalgia builds shared communions across generational time and space. It’s the perfect closing note for Coppola’s most beautiful and elegant film of the 80s – the last film to date where he has genuinely felt comfortable about the past, present and future. In a finale so abbreviated that it almost feels like an epilogue, Peggy Sue wakes up in a hospital bed, back in 1985, surrounded by her husband and family, but the plot quickly dissipates, so brief is this mise-en-scene and so beautiful Coppola’s final fade, leaving a tone and feeling above all else – a radiance of reassurance, comfort and care.