Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Unsung!: Soapdish

I love animated opening credit sequences. I also love the animated performances in this overlooked, over-the-top farce.

Soapdish is a terrific little comedy from 1991, the year we will be celebrating at our upcoming F This Movie Fest 2 on Saturday, February 2nd.  The fact that Soapdish was not chosen for the lineup of this auspicious festival, I can only ascribe to blatant favoritism on the part of the judges, Patrick.

THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Celeste Talbert (Sally Field), reigning diva and star of the soap opera The Sun Also Sets, is at the top of her game professionally but at the bottom of the ninth personally. She has fame, riches, and adoring fans. She has just won her sixth Best Soap Opera Actress award. She has been a beloved daytime television star for more than two decades. Unfortunately, her lover has just left her, her character is aging, and all the other actresses on the show hate her guts.
Montana Moorehead (Cathy Moriarity), who plays Nurse Nan on the show, conspires with producer David Seton Barnes (Robert Downey, Jr.) to have Celeste removed from the show so that Montana can become the star. The two instigate a series of schemes to deal a death blow to Celeste’s popularity: they write a scene for the show in which Celeste’s character tries to murder a mute, homeless girl (Elizabeth Shue); they engineer the return of the show’s original leading man (and Celeste’s old nemesis) Jeffrey Anderson (Kevin Kline), and they hatch an outrageous publicity campaign…

Did I mention that Celeste and Jeffrey rekindle their secret love? Or DO they? Did I mention that the actress playing the mute, homeless girl is, in reality, Celeste’s beloved niece, Lori Craven? Or IS she? The film has a lot of fun turning the lives of its “real” characters into a soap opera.

Some would complain that this “life imitates art imitates life” trope is too explicit – that Soapdish is trying to wring an entire movie out of just the climactic moments in Tootsie. I would argue that, for this movie, explicitness is the point. Soapdish features actors that are over the top because it is arguing that ALL actors are over the top. Film farces are difficult to pull off, and structurally Soapdish knows what it is doing. I credit co-screenwriter Andrew Bergman, who also wrote The In-Laws, Fletch, and The Freshman, three comic gems.

Hollywood seems to think that farces are easy. So many recent romantic comedies use elements of classic farce, where comedy results from mistaken identity, intentional lies, and outrageous disguise, but fail. Farces are elaborate Chinese puzzle boxes that must be constructed very carefully.  The trap, or major revelation, must be sprung at just the right point; Soapdish does it exactly 2/3 of the way in. Compare this to the recent stinkfest Just Go With It, which places its major revelation OFFSCREEN – instead of watching it unfold, we hear about it second-hand.

Soapdish presents a difficult acting challenge for Sally Field. In the segments of the soap opera we see, Field needs to be over-the-top and “bad” because she is appearing in a silly soap opera and this film is a comedy. But in the rest of the film proper she has to be over-the-top and “bad” in a completely different way because she is a high-strung, egotistical actress and (perhaps) a bad person.

All the parodies or soap operas we see are spot on. I actually wish that Soapdish featured more scenes from the soap opera The Sun Also Sets. As a very small child, I remember watching my Mom’s soap operas with her (she called them her “stories”). She favored The Doctors (“dedicated to the brotherhood of HEALING”) and Days of Our Lives (“Like sands through the hourglass, so ARE THE DAYS OF OUR LIVES!”) All the aesthetic choices soap directors make on a daily basis are parodied in The Sun Also Sets: the exotic locales that are obvious studio sets done on the cheap, the special lighting that only exists to flatter aging actresses, and the ubiquitous “slow tracking shots to dramatic close-up” before every commercial.
Roger Ebert once described a “Kevin Kline’s Moustache” theory that suggested when Kline was playing comedy, he sported a moustache (The Pirates of Penzance, A Fish Called Wanda, I Love You To Death, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream), but when he was playing at drama, he went sans moustache (Cry Freedom, Grand Canyon, The Ice Storm, and Life As A House). This theory has either been nullified by the passage of time OR it proves conclusively two completely different theories I have always entertained—that Sophie’s Choice is actually a raucous, no-holds-barred comedy and that Wild Wild West is actually a probing, angst-filled drama.

For what it is worth, Kline sports a moustache in Soapdish. He proves himself here to be an effortlessly graceful physical comedian and the film features some of his best physical comedy turns. As my lovely wife commented during a recent viewing, “Kline’s the whole movie.”

There are also great supporting performances in the film: Robert Downey, Jr., (who, I must confess, I watched very carefully, wondering whether this was one of his chemically altered performances), Whoopi Goldberg (who should play more supporting parts), and especially Garry Marshall (who in Soapdish, Lost In America, and a few recent episodes of Louie proves he could have made a career of playing funny, overly-earnest corporate types.)

FULL DISCLOSURE: Soapdish does feature the bilious trope of people falling down or fainting out of frame reacting to a surprise. In the film’s defense, it only happens twice. It is the narrative equivalent in Hollywood movies of that goddamned “record scratch” sound (“….she’s THE MAN!”) in Hollywood trailers.

Soapdish often features funny things going on in the background or the periphery of the frame (like the early Mad magazine or Airplane!). Most contemporary comedies can’t even come up with funny things in the foreground. One of the best running jokes involves both Celeste and Jefferey’s homes being decorated chiefly with pictures of themselves.

Sure, there are some things that date the movie: the saturated color palette of the costumes and sets; the costumes and sets themselves; and the horn-heavy, on-the-nose score by Alan Silvestri. Elizabeth Shue sports ginormous eyebrows. “Ah!,” I hear myself sigh while watching Soapdish, “the early ’90s!”

I think we tend to forget how famous this cast used to be: Kevin Kline had won an Oscar for A Fish Called Wanda, Whoopi Goldberg was fresh off her Oscar win for Ghost, Sally Field had just appeared in Steel Magnolias, Downey was just gearing up for Chaplin and his first stint in rehab, and Carrie Fisher (Oh, yes… Did I mention? Carrie Fisher is in Soapdish too!) appeared in When Harry Met Sally and was poised on the brink… of rewriting all of Julia Roberts’ Tinkerbell dialogue in Hook.

Soapdish is available on Netflix Instant and is yet another fine film from 1991. Did I just mention 1991? Say… Isn’t there an All Twitter Film Festival coming soon that is, in fact, devoted to 1991? I seem to remember reading something about it…


  1. One of my first dates was seeing this movie in the theaters. I didn't expect much from the advertisements, but I found myself being carried away by his lunacy. This is a truly inspired comedy with everyone acting at just the right level. Unsung indeed.

  2. Hmmm.. weird...just saw a post from "Anonymous" that disappeared right after I made that comment.