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Career > > 1990 > Postcards from the Edge

Postcards from the Edge

September 12, 1990 | Columbia Pictures | 101 minutes
Directed by: Mike Nichols | Written by: Carrie Fisher, based on her book | Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus | Editing: Sam O'Steen | Costume Design: Ann Roth | Production Design: Patrizia Von Brandenstein | Music: Carly Simon
Actress Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep) is a recovering drug addict trying to pick up the pieces of her career and get on with her life after being discharged from a rehab center. When she is ready to return to work her agent advises her the studio's insurance policy will cover her only if she lives with a "responsible" individual such as her mother Doris Mann (Shirley MacLaine) who was the reigning musical comedy star of the 1950s and '60s. Suzanne is loath to return to the woman she struggled to escape from for years after growing up in her shadow.
Cast: Meryl Streep (Suzanne Vale), Shirley MacLaine (Doris Mann), Dennis Quaid (Jack Falkner), Gene Hackman (Lowell), Richard Dreyfuss (Dr. Frankenthal), Rob Reiner (Joe Pierce), Conrad Bain (Grandpa), Mary Wickes (Grandma), Annette Bening (Evelyn Ames), Simon Callow (Simon Asquith), Gary Morton (Marty Wiener), Dana Ivey (Wardrobe Mistress), Michael Ontkean (Robert Munch), CCH Pounder (Julie Marsden), Robin Bartlett (Aretha), Anthony Heald (George Lazan), Oliver Platt (Neil Bleene)

“All of her life, Suzanne Vale has been Doris Mann’s daughter, a big movie star’s daughter,” explains Streep, “and this is the story of her shaking off that Doris mantle and coming out and becoming herself at last. I think it’s a really interesting story, not just for movie stars with progeny in the business, but for anybody who’s got an indelible character for a mother or father.” “What attracted me to this project,” observes MacLaine, “was not only the mother-daughter aspect – because, God knows, I’ve done those before – but the fact that this was also a picture that for the first time told a really sensitive and authentic story of the pressures of Hollywood. Doris offered me the opportunity to play an aging woman who still looks beautiful and allowed me to recall all the feelings that I had as a mother, wondering whether I was overshadowing my daughter.” “There were three factors that attracted me to this film,” recalls Nichols. “I always thought that Carrie approached a lugubrious subject with energy and humor and vitality; comedy is a good way to get at something that you can’t necessarily examine in a serious approach. And when drugs and alcohol in the upper-middle class are approached too soberly, it comes out like afternoon television. “I have always found it interesting to consider the relationships of women and their mothers,” he continues. “And finally, everyone has a fascination with show people and with show business. Movie people are maybe the last royalty – although there’s nothing royal about them – and people love to read and hear about them. And I just wanted to explore this alien world – which has always seemed very funny to me, with its own customs and own laws, both written and unwritten, and its own politics – in a way that might show audiences that all lives are similar.” With Nichols committed to direct “Postcards From the Edge” and Streep – who had worked twice before with Nichols (on “Silkwood” and “Heartburn”) agreeing to star in the film, the project took on a life of its own, attracting an impressive collection of first-rate actors. “Mike Nichols’ great gift is that people want to work with him, so once he and Meryl were on board it was like giving a party – let’s say a party in honor of Meryl and Mike. Who’s not going to come? Well, everybody came,” recalls Fisher.

The first movie I made in California was “Postcards From the Edge”, and we were all sitting around at lunch, and Shirley MacLaine said, “Meryl, how do you like California?” And I said: “You know, I feel sort of guilty, but I love it. I love it, I don’t why. It has flowers all the time. I love it – the only thing is, I’m a little bit scared of the earthquakes,” and everybody laughed uproariously. And Shirley looked at me very seriously, and she said, “How long do you plan on being out here?” And I said, “I don’t know maybe two years at the most.” And she said, “Well, you’re all right, because there’s not going to be a major earthquake until the winter of 1994.” And the day after this thing (the earthquake in 1994), I woke up in a sweat because I remembered that she said this, and I saw her at this event, and I ran up to her and said, “Shirley, do you remember that you said that?” She said: “Of course. But I moved, and you didn’t.” [Laughs] I said, “OK, when’s the next one? It’s such a shock to see that movie! When I was making it, I thought, I’m so fat, I’m too old to do this… I mean, look at all these great women who were in that film. Shirley MacLaine looks incredible and Annette Bening had this great, sexy part. But now I watch it and think, Geez, what were you whining about? (Meryl Streep, US Weekly, October 1994, Good Housekeeping, January 2003)

“I remember that I was beside myself with fear and anxiety at the first reading,” recalls Streep. “One of the reasons I took this part was because I’m so afraid of singing in front of people, and this role was a way to explore my own insecurities about myself.” “At the first reading, we sat around a big table with all the cast – and it is such a formidable cast and Shirley MacLaine is so larger-than-life a personality that I didn’t have to work hard to feel like I was in her shadow .- and when it came time to get up and sing, my knees were just going a mile a minute and my upper lip was uncontrollable. I found that I didn’t have to work hard to be nervous about singing in front of all these people,” Streep explains. “There were other things about this project that appealed to me in addition to having the opportunity to sing on screen,” she adds. ”This was a character who sounded more like me than other things I’ve done, and it was a role I could slip into with less effort than some I’ve done. The script also offered a nice balance of comedy to drama.” To prepare for this role, Streep spent some time at a drug rehab clinic and attended meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. She also spent a lot of time with Carrie Fisher. “I didn’t really have to pick Carrie’s brain,” Streep says. “She’s like a volcano -she erupts. I liked her immediately, and I didn’t hang around her to ‘get’ the character; I liked her as a friend.”

She’s the best version of me I’ve ever seen; I wish she could do it all the time. I had to explain to her what drugs are like because she hadn’t really done that. (But) I do that very well; I have a lot of practice. I didn’t know that it was going to turn out to be helping Meryl as research; that’s probably what I did it for – as research for Meryl. I had to teach her to be a truant, like a bad girl. I had to teach Meryl bad behavior – and anybody who wants that kind of training, that’s my specialty. She understood the notion of it very well. It’s ridiculous what she can do, and I think she thinks it’s ridiculous, too. She’s not just this goddess, or I couldn’t hang around with her. That’d be awful, if she was this queen of acting and accents. I don’t think she gets too far into character that she can’t crawl out easily. (Carrie Fisher, The Hollywood Reporter, June 2004)

“Shirley is a star in the sense of the people who are accustomed to being stars,” observes Streep. “She’s a person who knows how to be on and when to turn off. She’s very electric – she throws a lot of power in her performance. And she made my work a little easier because I was supposed to be a little dimmer as a personality. As Suzanne, my task was to be in her shadow, and Shirley casts a long one.” Even during rehearsals, Nichols lived up to his reputation as an actor’s director, which continued once production on the film began. “This was my third movie with Mike directing,” says Streep, “and the more he knows me, the more he demands of me, so the experience of working with him on ‘Postcards’ was worse in a good way. Mike is demanding, but he doesn’t have tunnel vision. People can come in with ideas, and if he doesn’t like them he rejects them in a most diplomatic way. Mike is great, and he’s very funny on the set. Even when he’s angry, his wit sharpens and he’s very amusing.” “Mike is the best because of his sense of detail and his sense of emotional sophistication,” adds MacLaine. “On the set, I was very aware that I was in Mike’s world. But I like to adapt to different worlds and other people’s creative talents, and I don’t see how I could have entered a world that was more evolved creatively than Mike’s.” What happens to Suzanne in the course of the story is what happens to most people who mature. You learn that you have to forgive your parents for your own sake as well as for their sake, and parents learn that they have to forgive their children, because – after all – children hurt parents just as much as parents hurt children. As we know, the only thing that can allow you to be free and live your life is to forgive on both ends. “To draw that story through these very colorful and – in some cases, like in the musical numbers – very flashy events while always staying clear about exactly where we were in the story at any given time was a real challenge for me,” Nichols continues. “Finally, I wanted to suggest that show people are both more like ordinary people than the audience generally realizes, and also less. They’re stranger. But they’ve got another kind of courage and they’ve got a lot humor and a strong will to survive both in life and in show business. And, in fact, all lives are similar.” But as Suzanne Vale – a second-generation member in good standing of Hollywood “royalty” – explains to one “civilian” in “Postcards From the Edge,” “We’re designed more for public than for private.”

“Postcards” lives from Carrie Fisher’s brilliant writing, making it a quoteable film. Suzanne – “designed to be annoyed” – is not a character you would associate with Fisher at once – at least I’ve never watched this film as a biopic on Fisher’s life. Rather, it’s a sharp look at the film industry, the way actors are treated on their way down, but mostly a portrait of a very disfunctional mother-daughter relationship within the machinery of Hollywood. The acting of Streep and MacLaine is outstanding, as is the rest of the cast. The film bursts of great actors in supporting roles and cameos – Gene Hackman as Suzanne’s director, Rob Reiner as her producer, Richard Dreyfuss as the doctor, from Dennis Quaid, Simon Callow and Oliver Platt to Anthony Heald and Annette Bening, all actors are featured in small but great roles. They and of course Streep and MacLaine make this a movie to be recommended. The aspect I’ve enjoyed probably most of the film is the portrait of an older actress struggling with her life. Usually with a storyline like this, you expect a twenty-something year-old actress – just as we are used to from today’s celebrities and tabloids. But having a middle-aged actress struggling with drugs and a fading career is a reminder that addiction is not a question of age. Also, no matter how old you are, if you still have parents you will always be a child. Both topics are wonderfully observed in “Postcards”. I’d rank this performance among Streep’s best. She deserved her Oscar nomination for playing Suzanne – although Kathy Bates was a fair winner for “Misery”, given the fact that also Anjelica Huston gave a career-best performance in “The Grifters” and 1991 has been a crowded place with many fantastic performances that year, it’s nice to see Meryl on the list anyway. Another fantastic Mike Nichols film.

★   American Comedy Award – Best Actress
☆   Academy Award – Best Actress in a Leading Role
☆   Golden Globe Award – Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical

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