The Musical Moments of Postcards from the Edge

Mark Harris’s acclaimed biography Mike Nichols: A Life has brought renewed attention to the late director’s body of work and directorial style. As Harris describes in detail, Nichols directed with a keen focus on the subtle dynamics of relationships and character-revealing behavior. His 1990 film Postcards from the Edge, scripted by Carrie Fisher from her autobiographical novel of the same name, is in many ways representative of this attention to character and behavior. In this  character-driven comedy starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine, Nichols develops a complicated mother-daughter relationship with humor and intelligence. What makes this film unique in Nichols’s oeuvre is its musicality: three songs are performed by Streep and MacLaine’s characters, and each are turning points in the film’s narrative.

While Nichols directed two Broadway musicals – The Apple Tree (1966) and Monty Python’s Spamalot (2005) – Nichols never took up the genre in film. Postcards from the Edge is no exception: while it features songs performed by its stars, it is not, by definition, a musical. In her 2019 book The Movie Musical!, Jeanine Basinger marks a distinction between films that feature music and films that actually belong to the musical genre, defining the musical as “a stylized presentation of life, where ‘reality’ is presented not through the actions normally associated with everyday life, but through musical performance.” Basinger’s definition of a musical does not describe the essentially realistic Postcards, in which the narrative unfurls through behavior, conversations, and everyday actions; no torch song or dream ballet transcends the reality of the circumstances.

When Postcards demands the performance of a song, it is because musical performance is an ingrained part of its characters’ identities. Doris is a former star of MGM musicals, and Suzanne, immersed in her mother’s world of constant showmanship since childhood, has followed in her footsteps as an actress and occasional singer (Fisher based the characters on her mother Debbie Reynolds and herself). Both women understand their lives through the lens of performance, and their (firmly diegetic) musical numbers bear this out.

Early in the film, Doris throws a party for Suzanne, who struggles with addiction, and has completed a rehab stay with a film offer waiting for her – with the odd requirement that she live with her mother for the duration of production. At the party, an enthusiastic guest makes a demand: “Sing something, Suzanne!” She tries to wheedle her way out of it, while Doris latches on to the idea: clutching her arms and intently holding her gaze, she tells her to “sing one of your old numbers from my act!…something for your old mother.”

Suzanne relents and makes her way to a room seemingly designated for impromptu party performances, with a piano facing an expansive audience space. Streep commiserates with the pianist with her back turned toward the camera, and on the wall behind her, a small painted portrait hangs: MacLaine as Doris staring down the viewer, with white gloves lightly fingering the brim of a bowler hat.

Suzanne begins her song, Ray Charles’s bluesy ballad “You Don’t Know Me,” softly and still turned toward the pianist:

Anyone can tell

You think you know me well

But you don’t know me, no

When she turns forward, we see the portrait of Doris literally watching over her shoulder. As Suzanne builds in confidence, Doris catches her eye from the audience and mouths “take off your jacket,” a moment of stage management which Suzanne abides. For the rest of the performance, Nichols keeps the portrait in the shot lingering above Suzanne, and as she swells with emotion and vocal power, she occasionally sways with the music and blocks the portrait from the viewer’s sight. By the time she ends the song with an apologetic little tag, though, the portrait is back in full view.

Immediately following Suzanne’s song, Doris embraces her, and the same party guest implores that Doris sings. She doesn’t need convincing: she halfheartedly says that it’s Suzanne’s night, then  perfunctorily asks her permission (granted), telling Suzanne that “you sang for me, I’ll sing for you.” A beat, then to the pianist, “‘I’m Still Here’ in D flat.”

Stephen Sondheim, at Nichols’s request, rewrote the lyrics of “I’m Still Here” for the film. Originally a showstopper for a minor character in his musical Follies, with lyrics loosely based on the life of Joan Crawford, Sondheim wrote in his lyric collection Finishing the Hat that he retooled the song to reflect the lives of both MacLaine and Debbie Reynolds. The song is structured as a litany of events the singer has endured (Ten years of braces, / voice and tap, / touring in places / off the map), and eventually becomes a statement of triumphant resilience. The rewritten lyrics, in the context of the film, suggest that Doris revised them herself — for her aforementioned “act”, perhaps. Contrasting Streep’s emotive, wavering performance, MacLaine performs with gusto and clearly rehearsed choreography, giving the impression that Doris can pull this number out at any given moment.

In a sparkling red gown, MacLaine shows off her legs, bangs on the piano and shouts (“I. Am. Still. Here!”), poses with a full-length portrait of herself, and on the lyric “I got through all of last year,” holds Suzanne’s head in her hands, implicitly acknowledging Suzanne’s struggles with addiction – in closeup, Streep’s face falls following this public performance of what should be a private moment. Doris’s number is received rapturously, with a shot in the middle of the song showing the entire party gazing on in admiration, and cheers from all at its close.

While we have already been introduced to Suzanne and Doris’s wobbly relationship at this point in the film, their performances deepen what we know about them. Suzanne sings meekly at times, and passionately at others, about being misunderstood, with her mother both symbolically and literally monitoring her the entire time. Doris’s performance, on the other hand, exemplifies her white-knuckled commitment to maintaining her showbiz persona, all the while walking a thin line between committed self-reliance and careless egotism.

Above all, it shows the viewer that Doris, immersed in musical performance and stardom since adolescence, sees her life as a musical: her studied, “spontaneous” performance and her narrativization of her own life through song tells us as much. Suzanne’s performance, then, indicates the extent to which she has walked in Doris’s shadow, wanting to stake a claim on her own life but unable to separate herself from her mother’s influence.

In the film’s final scene, Suzanne finally does stake her claim. Over the course of the film, Suzanne comes to terms with her own struggles and her relationship with her mother – and the climactic turning point in her growth is a musical performance. Working with a director who has become a confidante, Suzanne films a performance of the defiant country song “I’m Checkin’ Out,” written by Shel Silverstein. Nichols forefronts the production of this film: on a soundstage, we see a makeup artist touch up Suzanne, the crew prepare to shoot, and finally, the clapperboard click in front of Suzanne’s face. Her face dimly lit, she softly begins: “Pull back them dark and dusty drapes / And let in some light.” As she sings the first verse, her spotlight steadily brightens and the tempo accelerates, until her face is fully illuminated at the chorus: “Just tell ‘em / I’m checkin’ out / of this heartbreak hotel.” As the song continues to pick up in tempo and volume, Streep’s voice grows and she physically lets loose, giving the impression that Suzanne is finally confident and in control.

Halfway through the song, the camera pans across the soundstage, taking in each extra and crew member, all enrapt, and eventually reaching Doris, who watches with a broad smile from the rafters. We see the full audience response at the song’s close, too – after Suzanne’s vocally virtuosic finish, the camera cuts to a wide shot of the soundstage, showing everyone on set jumping out of their seats with applause and cheers.

Both of these shots echo the views of an adoring audience in Doris’s performance of “I’m Still Here”: by foregrounding an engaged audience and eruptions of applause in both performances, Nichols draws a direct line from Doris’s command as a performer to Suzanne’s. And just as Doris narrativized and performed her life in “I’m Still Here,” Suzanne does the same in “I’m Checkin’ Out,” a song about emerging triumphant from heartbreak. By asserting herself as an individual through a confident musical performance, Suzanne both escapes from Doris’s shadow and reveals all that they still have in common.

Mike Nichols did not direct a musical with Postcards from the Edge (nor did Carrie Fisher write one), but instead showed characters who use music to process their own lives. Doris’s MGM-musical panache dictates her self-image, and while Suzanne sets out on an individual path, she inherits Doris’s commitment to a showstopping number. Their songs allow the viewer to see these aspects of Doris and Suzanne on full display — without them, we’re only getting part of the picture. The deft inclusion of songs in Postcards ultimately mark it as a sterling example of music as a formal technique: regardless of whether or not a film is a musical as a genre, musical performance in the right film can not only be enlightening, but essential.

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