Picked Flick #56: Postcards from the Edge
Postcards from the Edge hails from that period in Streep's career when she suddenly and understandably appeared apprehensive about forever playing pietàs and martyrs and wailing women from across the Earth's four corners. She had a Funny Period the same way Picasso had a Blue one, and though I haven't actually seen any of its other avatars (She-Devil, Defending Your Life, Death Becomes Her), her work in Postcards is so lively in detail that, again, you feel like you're getting several performances for the price of one. Meryl tokes up, she zones out, she trips, she sings twice, she shoots guns twice. But the real action is in the shifting sands of her face and her tiny symphonies of physical accents, whenever she's about the deceptively simple business of selling a line or a scene, or even a fellow actor's performance. Watch what a comic tour-de-force she finds just by crouching among a wire-rack of costumes on a movie-set, her eyes and her relative posture our only inlets into a twelve-tone coloratura of comic humiliation. Waking up, unexpectedly, in a rehab center, she parses out into multiple comic beats what many actors would fold or purée into a single affect: her dazedness, her breath, her shame, her fright, the blinding whiteness of the light and the room, the puzzling discovery of a plastic hospital bracelet around her arm, her dawning recognition that news of her predicament has certainly, already sprinted to undesired destinations. Carrie Fisher has filled her autobiographical script with choice one-liners and her trademark sensibility for observing life askance. "I have feelings for you," confesses a sun-kissed Dennis Quaid, to which Streep responds, "Well, how many? More thantwo?", and while the line is a great gift to her (and there's way, way more where that came from), her muffled, almost foggy playing of it is a cadeau to Quaid, an earnest tryer who rarely knows, and certainly didn't know in 1990, how to anchor a scene or vary its rhythm. Streep forces him to shake things up, just like she keeps Shirley MacLaine's campy grandiloquence on a liberal but certain leash, letting her do her Thing, even getting her own zappy charge out of it, but also keeping everyone in service of the movie, especially of Fisher's voice. Like Streep, Fisher is possessed of a sophisticated hamminess that she isn't at all bashful about trotting out, so it's no surprise that the two women are such ample enthusiasts and protectors of each other. Fisher's overriding and self-analytical theme, that she has no idea who she is or who she should be, or whether those two concepts even remotely go together, also creates a winning ironic frame for Streep's own chameleonism: watching her change shape and mental fabric, even within seconds, weds the familiar pleasures to some new questions about exhibitionism and avoidance.
Watching so many modern film comedies, I can't help wishing that they had been made fifty years ago; it's the single genre where the drop-off in quality strikes me as the most precipitous, largely because filmmakers' confidence in things like words, speed, and economy have shriveled to the size of a maraschino cherry. Postcards, though, is a rare example of a film that wouldn't be funny at any brisker pace, or with more rapid-fire actors. A more intricate style wouldn't add muchand besides, at zero cost, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus is already having fun moving Streep around the foregrounds, middle-grounds, and backgrounds of his shots, and she mines different kinds of comic gold depending on where she is: a miracle. Finally, in a major departure from most Hollywood comedies about Hollywood, Postcards feels credibly conditioned in what the industry actually is and how a set might actually feel: the anodyne hallways and lots and trailers, the dead intervals between camera set-ups, the way in which Streep's humbled B-lister keeps getting into personal fender-benders with producers, directors, wardrobe assistants, and crass starlets. Hollywood as a way of life, with its own cadences and its own soil, tillable for its very own jokes, is largely divorced from the clichés of celebrity and grotesque wealth. This Edge, then, is a terrifically accessible place, recognizable as a movie about parents and children, about Achilles heels, about the weeks and months of life that seem totally ceded to personal embarrassment, whether or not you have a drug problem, whether or not your mother is
Image © 1990 Columbia Pictures.