Carrie Fisher’s “semi”-autobiographical 1987 novel, Postcards From the Edge, with its pill-popping heroine, was bound to be adapted into a film. And there was no better person to write the screenplay for it than Fisher, who, with the help of director Mike Nichols created one of the best movies (other than Pretty Woman, Goodfellas and Mermaids) to come out in 1990.
With Meryl Streep in the role of Suzanne Vale, the “loose” interpretation of Fisher, we’re given a glimpse into the tumultuous life of a daughter of cinema, born into the character of Doris Mann’s (Shirley MacLaine) “lesser” progeny. Although Suzanne is famous in her own right, Doris’ iconic status (especially among the queens) serves as a detriment to Suzanne, who feels she can never be herself without being somehow outshined by her mother.
This is, ostensibly, one of the primary reasons that Suzanne is addicted to sleeping pills. Fisher’s script begins in the meta sort of manner that immediately connotes the mindset of someone on drugs, as Suzanne’s reality is rarely real, considering she’s acting in a film most of the time. In fact, the audience is convinced for the first three minutes of Postcards From the Edge that the movie might be about a mistress of a government official posing as an average tourist in a Spanish-speaking country. It isn’t until Suzanne fucks up her line by saying, “There isn’t enough mommy in the world to cure a cause like yours,” that the scene stops and we realize the story hasn’t even really begun yet. The Freudian nature of Suzanne’s misreading of the line isn’t what concerns director Lowell Kolchek (Gene Hackman), but rather the overtness of her being under the influence of cocaine. Although he acts pleasant to her about the mistake in front of the crew, he soon after warns, “You fuck up my movie, I’m gonna kill you. I don’t care what you do to your body on your time, but this is my time. I don’t intend to have some spoiled, selfish coked up little actress ruin my movie.”
From there, Nichols cuts to Suzanne overdosed next to a producer named Jack Faulkner (Dennis Quaid), who ends up dropping her off at the emergency room and leaving quickly without informing the front desk of his name. Suzanne’s blackout state makes her nonplussed about getting her stomach pumped as she goes into a nightmarish reverie wherein she’s walking through the hallway of a hospital with pictures of all the pillhead greats–Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Dandridge, John Belushi and Sammy Davis Jr. When she gets to the end, there’s a tantalizing array of pills in jars that she tries to sneak into her pocket, only to find that her coat has no pockets.
When she awakens, a woman named Julie Marsden (C. C. H. Pounder) informs her that she has been admitted into rehab for her problem–her mother also well-aware of the issue. Disheartened and perplexed, Suzanne goes along with the treatment, using the detox time as a means to take a break from the pressures of acting. In spite of Julie’s recommendation to “deal with her feelings” by having open conversations with Doris about their relationship being a factor in her need to turn to drugs for comfort, Suzanne can’t seem to do so. Talking to Doris feels impossible to her, particularly since she can’t even have a conversation with her mother in rehab without a gay couple flocking to pay Doris a compliment.
Feeling useless, Suzanne decides the best thing to do is act in another movie, regardless of how hackneyed it might be. Even though Doris warns her against doing something that’s beneath her, Suzanne has no other way of coping with her demons. Unfortunately the producers’ condition for allowing Suzanne to partake in the film as a result of her highly publicized addiction (which affects the insurance company’s willingness to cover her) is that she stay with her mother while working on it. Extremely reluctant to do so, Suzanne finally gives in, even though she knows it could be the undoing of her rehabilitation to move back in with Doris.
As expected, from the moment Suzanne enters Doris’ lair, it is nothing but fanfare, with Doris throwing Suzanne an unwanted welcome home party with myriad guests from her past that she barely remembers existed in attendance. Toward the end of the celebration, Suzanne is coerced into singing something–she chooses, appropriately, “You Don’t Know Me” by Ray Charles. When she’s finished, Doris is far more easily cajoled into performing a song, in her case Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here.” The differences between the two women could not be more glaring as a result of these two specific musical choices and modes of expressing the lyrics physically and vocally. Where Suzanne is demure and uncertain of herself, Doris is assured, bawdy and even overconfident.
It seems that Suzanne’s lack of self-assurance is vexing the producers as well, with all three of them giving her their two cents about how she can improve her performance. Her overhearing a catty conversation between the director and the costume designer about how much weight she’s gained and how washed up she’s become doesn’t exactly help Suzanne with wanting to resist the temptation of taking a pill or two. Her re-encounter with Jack–who she fails to remember was the one who took her to the emergency room when she overdosed–while she’s leaving the set adds to Suzanne’s mounting problems. Though she knows better than to give in to his line about being in love with her, she succumbs to his charms, only to find that he was with a bit actress (Annette Bening, in her debut) from her movie earlier the same day. The breach of her trust sends her into a frenzy, especially in her already fragile state.
Doris’ constant need to say “I told you so” as she hypocritically drinks from yet another glass of wine adds to Suzanne’s torment. Moreover, the bad news keeps coming when Doris informs her that her business manager has disappeared, taking with him all of his clients’ money. The contention between Doris and Suzanne reaches a crescendo at this point, causing Suzanne to snap and tell Doris that she was the one who started her on sleeping pills when she was nine. The veracity of the emotion in this scene is something one can imagine Carrie Fisher going through with her own mother, Debbie Reynolds (incidentally, Maclaine has known Reynolds for years, which undeniably aided in the genuineness of her rendering). The need for mother and daughter to compete is unavoidable, yet in the end, Doris admits, “I think I’m sort of jealous of you. And that is because, well, it being your turn and all. I think I find it tough to face that mine is almost up.” The honesty of her revelation is what ultimately helps relieve the tension in their heretofore tempestuous dynamic.