Picked Flick #45: Frankie & Johnny
Michelle Pfeiffer may well be the most beautiful actress in Hollywood, and though she's rarely cited among the Streeps and and Moores, her talent is terrific and underrated: she's extremely attuned to her characters, capable both of mannerism and intuitive openness, and malleable to the divergent needs of a wide range of directors, genres, and projects. Despite all of this, however, she seems genuinely unsolicitous of attention. One almost gets the sense that she'd prefer to go unnoticed, and that it's both a blessing and a curse for her to be so skilled and well-rewarded in a profession that requires such extraordinary levels of scrutiny. She doesn't work that often, and when she does, she frequently opts for parts in movies that feel destined to escape critical or popular regard. Sometimes the parts aren't even that good, and you wonder, why is an actress of Pfeiffer's caliber and acclaim willing to break her reclusive patterns in order to star in Up Close and Personal or To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday? Why is it that even when she stars in a film with a built-in pedigree, like the Oprah-certified The Deep End of the Ocean or the Pulitzer-winning A Thousand Acres, the films don't ignite, despite how good she is in them? Is some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy at work? Are audiences so intimidated by her Garboesque appearance that they miss how proudly middlebrow her tastes run, how, at least on screen, her fundamental guardedness gives way to such emotional transparency? Even in upper-crusty endeavors like Dangerous Liaisons and The Age of Innocence, she telegraphs emotions, very subtly shading them but still making them big enough for large crowds to relate toas opposed to, say, the more architectural acting styles of co-stars like Glenn Close and Daniel Day-Lewis. Even while traveling among totally different filmmaking idioms and adjusting her performmances accordingly, the uniting feature is that she always finds the identificatory points, situating her characters on a perfectly even keel with the audiences (especially, you feel, the women) who will be watching her, and stressing the common humanity that links Age's Countess Ellen Olenska, tainted by divorce and decorously spurned by the late 19th-century Manhattan aristocracy, with Ocean's Beth Cappadora, a wounded Wisconsin mom who likes milk with her pizza.
In my mind, this paradoxical blend of glamour and agoraphobia, these keynotes of humility and sadness that connect the women she plays, reach their apotheosis in Garry Marshall's Frankie & Johnny, exactly the sort of film that tends to zip straight from a quick release to a rental-store shelf. Regardless of how capably Pfeiffer modifies and recalculates her looks in almost every role, the rigid preconception that she was too beautiful for a part played onstage by Kathy Bates muffled any hope of her performance being taken very seriously. Having Marshall's name attached as director couldn't have helped, but for both the star and the director, the film still represents their peak accomplishment: her apex in a career of admirable successes, his solitary but impressive excuse for calling himself an artist. Frankie & Johnny delivers one of the most elusive chimeras in mainstream moviemaking: a romance that has the look, the rhythm, the one-liners, and even the premise of a comedy but is actually not a comedy. Its low notes and minor chords are just as foundational and just as constant as its bright spots and perky exchanges. Its resolution, however proudly optimistic, is also quite tentative. In sum, it's an adult vision of two complicated people converging, finding an ointment but not a cure for the ways in which they have been hurt. It's a romance where people remain throughout who they were in the first scenes. The script, adapted by Terrence McNally from his own play, expands the action and widens the cast, but it brooks remarkably few compromises with the testy, nervous, mercurial attraction between Frankie and Johnny: the way he comes on too strong, smitten but also a little arrogant; the way she refuses what seems to arrive too easily and unexpectedly at her feet; the way he romances her and pleads with her but occasionally betrays something ugly; the way she loosens up and has some fun testing the waters, but never quite stops building up walls, slamming doors, and changing her tune. Pfeiffer, owning the movie while the wonderful Pacino agreeably serves it back to her, is eminently believable at every instant. She's funny and tart at work, she relishes small victories like bowling a strike and winning at handball, she keeps scenes alive while acting behind a countertop or inside a cramped New York bathroom. In the terrific, mood-setting openingthe one moment in the movie when we leave the cityFrankie has the nervy, suspicious jitters while visiting her family in Altoona, PA, but her candor and clarity are beyond reproach when she confides to her mother at the kitchen sink, "Maybe I'm not the happiest person in the world, but that's not your fault." Like Pfeiffer herself, Frankie wants to be left alone, but she also wants to be found.
Garry Marshall doesn't quite prove in Frankie & Johnny that he's got a firm handle on the known worldmeaning, for example, that struggling busboys who quit to be screenwriters still live in fantastic two-story loft apartments. But compared to the laundered, insane exuberance of Pretty Woman, with its constant denials of its lurid and reactionary content, Frankie & Johnny feels wise, unpushy, generously ceded to the actors and the writer, peppered with punchlines and gag shots but willing to let top-drawer cinematographer Dante Spinotti do his thing. Seemingly truncated plot threads, like Pacino's reconnection with his ex-wife and alienated children, actually gain strength from being peripheral: there's a credible, refreshing sense in the movie that Frankie and Johnny's courtship does not subsume every one of their private voyages and trials. Even the song score Marshall chooses is of an utterly different species than Pretty Woman's market-friendly avalanche of radio hits; it privileges the expected and shimmering Debussy, a funkily melancholic title track by Terence Trent D'Arby, and a song called "It Must Be Love" by Rickie Lee Jones that, like the movie, is either an uptempo ballad or a cautiously muted pop declaration, depending on how you look at it. The production design of the diner is excellent. The supporting notes supplied by a then-unknown Nathan Lane and the perennially underutilized Kate Nelligan are delectable. A faux-rose that Johnny whips up out of a dyed-red potato, a fork, and a celery stalk swipes the all-time movieland prize for whimsical, endearing diner chic, narrowly squeaking past Jeffrey Wright painting Claire Forlani's portrait in his pancake syrup in Basquiat. Frankie & Johnny is so unpretentious that its fine, layered, beautifully coaxed instincts at serving its script and its characters and its audience are easy to overlook. Don't. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)
Image © 1991 Paramount Pictures.