Saturday, March 2, 2013

Neglected Gems #35: Soapdish (1991)

The 1991 Soapdish is consistently inventive and high-spirited. The script by Andrew Bergman and Robert Harling takes us into the world of daytime soaps – a delectable subject for burlesque that Tootsie (released nine years earlier) didn’t come close to exhausting. Soapdish lacks Tootsie’s polish and style, and it doesn’t offer the same kind of emotional satisfaction, but it has its own teeter-totter, whirligig pleasures.

Sally Field, parodying herself good-naturedly, plays Celeste Tolbert, the reigning – and grasping – queen of the soaps. Star of The Sun Also Sets for the last couple of decades, she wins the daytime Emmy years after year (yes, the script includes a Sally Field acceptance speech, though it’s tamer than you’d hope). But her love life is going to pot. And though she doesn’t know it, she’s in danger of having her throne usurped by Montana Moorehead (Cathy Moriarty), who plays “Nurse Nan” on the program and is fed up with being stuck in the background. Holding sex at arm’s length like the fruits the gods tempted Tantalus with, Montana entices the show’s horny young producer, David (Robert Downey, Jr.), into helping her oust Celeste. Working around the head writer, Rose (Whoopi Goldberg), who’s also Celeste’s best friend, he dreams up a scheme for having “Maggie,” Celeste’s character, stab a homeless person, assuming that act will lose her the audience that adores her. His plan is short-circuited, however, by Celeste’s discovery, on the set, that the extra cast as the homeless woman is her own niece, Lauren (Elizabeth Shue), who ends up joining the show as a regular. So David casts around for alternative attacks and decides to unseat Celeste by hiring the last person she’d want to play opposite: her one-time lover, Jeffrey Anderson (Kevin Kline), whose character she had written out of the show nearly twenty years ago.

The director, Michael Hoffman, keeps the plot moving very quickly; there’s so much going on that you don’t linger on the scenes that don’t work, or on the over-broadness of Hoffman’s technique in others. (Hoffman‘s later movies, especially A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Last Station, show astonishing grace and sophistication; it’s fun to return to Soapdish and see him at the beginning of his career.) And, except for Shue, who’s rather bland, the cast performs with all the gusto and finesse of a first-rate improv troupe. Goldberg is low-key and dry-witted. Downey, underplaying masterfully, shares the screen with statuesque Moriarty, who plays Montana as a kind of sex-doll monster; their scenes are classic farce encounters. Garry Marshall, in an uproarious cameo, is the station’s head of programming, who complains when The Sun Also Sets gets either too depressing or too expensive. Carrie Fisher shows up as the casting director who always has the muscle-bound young men she auditions remove their shirts – a reversal on the cliché about male casting directors who ogle nubile young actresses. Hoffman has a good eye for casting himself – Sheila Kelley from the TV series L.A. Law appears in one scene, Phil Leeds (he played that Jewish leprechaun Nathan Pesheles in Enemies, A Love Story) in another.

Sally Field and Kevin Kline in Soapdish
As Jeffrey, Kline is smart enough to use the self-conscious actorishness of some of his previous dramatic roles as the moving target in a freewheeling skeet shoot. The vainglorious actor isn’t a new comic creation, but it’s pretty funny when Jeffrey talks about his concept for a one-man Hamlet where all the other characters are inside Hamlet’s head. And Kline and the writers work a fabulous variation on the type: the actor who’s spoken so many banalities in his career that, when he comes face to face with a real-life situation calling for a genuine emotional response, he can’t manage it without a rehearsal.

The movie’s full of good scenes, like the one where Rose, to cheer up Celeste, takes her to a suburban mall so the shoppers can besiege her for autographs, or the one where David tracks Jeffrey down in a dinner theater in Florida, where he’s playing Willy Loman to the hard-of-hearing crowd. The prize sequence, though, is a live telecast on which, for reasons too complicated to go into, the actors haven’t seen the script in advance and have to read their dialogue off the teleprompter. Jeffrey, too vain to wear his glasses, can’t decipher all the words and Celeste has to keep correcting his halting, mixed-up version. This interlude may not be quite in the category of the Singin’ in the Rain preview-night scene (which it calls to mind), but I was laughing too helplessly to worry about making the comparison.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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