Soapdish (1991) Directed by Michael Hoffman. Sally Field, Kevin Kline, Whoopi Goldberg (97 min).
A long running soap opera queen schemes both in front of and behind the camera to keep her top spot on “The Sun Also Sets.” Wasn’t her old co-star permanently written out of the plot when his character was decapitated? In daytime drama, nothing is forever. The crackerjack cast also includes Robert Downey, Jr., Cathy Moriarty, Carrie Fisher and Kathy Najimy. Written by comedy kings Robert Harling (The First Wives Club) and Andrew Bergman (The In-Laws) “Soapdish” is pure joy, a lemon-fresh spoof of daytime drama…it brightens as it lightens the days of our lives.” (Rita Kempley Washington Post).
Soap operas began on radio, some originally sponsored by Ivory soap manufacturer Proctor and Gamble. They aired during daytime hours, for housewives (and their children at home) and centered around romance, conflict, and connection within the biological or work family. Because they had a largely female audience, female executives were a powerful influence in the genre, particularly pioneer Irma Phillips, who created, produced, and wrote As the World Turns, Another World and the longest running soap, The Guiding Light (1937-2009). She created not just generations of characters and fans who considered their “stories” part of their own families, but a whole series of conventions lushly parodied in Soapdish. The parallel and interlocking stories, the pregnant pauses with music cues (perhaps to signal those in the audience who were using the program as background that something was about to happen), the cliff-hanging stories (which remained open ended sometimes for decades) and the dialogue heavy script style, because more complicated actions might require the dreaded Take 2.
In the beginning, there were few male characters, which provoked the disdain of radio executives and sponsors like P&G. The audiences (and no doubt by extension the characters) were deemed, “unrealistic, vulgar, and distasteful. In reality, her female characters were depicted as strong women with options, education, and personality” (Wikipedia). Phillips drew on her own difficult family experiences for her dramas. The youngest of 10 children, her father died when she was 8 leaving the family in straightened circumstances. Phillips became pregnant at 19 and, deserted by her boyfriend, gave birth to a stillborn child. She supported herself as a schoolteacher, while occasionally acting on and eventually writing for radio. In 1930, she created a serial drama, Painted Dreams, based on her mother’s struggles. She wrote by narrating stories in different voices, while stenographers noted it all down. At one point she was writing six soaps at the same time, 2 million words a year. Throughout a long career, Phillips became known as Queen of the Soaps, mentoring younger women who would continue her legacy of female executives in daytime drama.
There were three comedies centered on soaps, all made during a single decade, Tootsie (1982) Delirious and Soapdish both 1991. Although all reference daytime drama, the latter two also seem to reference popular nighttime soaps, Dallas (1978-1991) and Dynasty (1981-1989) which was when this style of drama attracted a more diverse (meaning male) audience. Making Mr. Right (1987) also contains a subplot about a self-centered soap actor. Tootsie, while genuinely funny, is not exactly a parody, like the other two films. It has serious reflections on what it is to be a man or a woman in society, the actors’ life and a touching romance, with the complication of the lead character playing in drag. The recent updated musical version of Tootsie is much more p.c. about gender issues, while staying firmly centered on the trials and tribulations of Michael Dorsey.
Delirious is a John Candy movie, with all that entails. It has a bit of a Groundhog Day vibe, as a head injury leads Candy into believing he has accidentally awakened inside his own soap opera creation. While both Tootsie and Soapdish acknowledge women’s creativity in this genre, Delirious gives a male head writer center stage. He finds he can alter reality by typing it, and the characters must do his bidding. But, because the producers have hired a rival writer (also male) to punch up his scripts, he finds himself less in control than he thinks. This also means that not everything in the film makes sense, as two adversaries are pulling the characters’ strings.
Soapdish (beginning with a nice 60s style credit sequence) is much more about overacting as a style suitable for soaps, and luckily, comedies. It’s a soap opera within a supposedly “real-life” soap opera, which whirls within a tornado of outsized egos. Celeste, played by Sally Field, seems to have been inspired by the career of Susan Lucci, who played Erica Kane on All My Children for 41 years. Lucci was the highest paid actor on daytime drama and was nominated for the Best Actress Daytime Emmy 21 times, winning only once.
This film was made at the height of soap operas’ cultural influence. Julia Reed, an unabashed fan of the soaps, wrote in Vogue, “Twenty-seven million households watch the three networks’ daytime line-ups, about the same number who tuned into the network news during the gulf war and certainly more people than have ever seen Kevin Kline in a movie. Eight hundred and thirty-eight thousand homes tape All My Children. The ABC show is the third most recorded show on the air, daytime or nighttime, a statistic not lost on Scotch brands, which has developed a new videocassette All My Soaps especially for the home taping market” (Vogue).
One similarity all three films share, the way popular actors have been allowed to leverage their talents into the petulant demands of toddlers, which leaves the supposed grown-ups in the room scrambling to keep up. Here, the head writer is female, played by Whoopie Goldberg with an assist from the underused Carrie Fisher. Did some of Fisher’s scenes end up on the cutting room floor? Soapdish boasts an Oscar-heavy cast, with award winners, Sally Field, Kevin Kline, Whoopi Goldberg, Robert Downey, Jr. and Cathy Moriarty.
Tampabay.com published an interview with Sally Field, on her publicity blitz for the film. The author writes, “Soapdish came about out of Steel Magnolias. Bobby Harling (who wrote Steel Magnolias) penned the original draft of Soapdish as a way to do another project with Field. Soapdish director Michael Hoffman says he cast Field for the emotional baggage she brings to the screen. ‘The idea of Sally, as America’s sweetheart showing the dark side of her cuteness _ a brittle and neurotic woman _ is irresistible.’ ‘The overly emotional side of Celeste who is so pitiful offstage, a low puddle who feels nobody loves her _ that’s the dark side of me,’ she said. ‘Kevin and I felt we were revealing so much of ourselves, only exaggerated. There’s that side of Kevin, so concerned about the way he looks, always playing with his hair. We beat them down, control those sides of ourselves. But they are still there.'”
Field told the reporter she enjoyed the experience. “The primary colors, the mambo music _ that was all Michael. He played mambo music all the time on the set. At first we were baffled, but then we realized the music was the level of energy we had to achieve.” Field agreed to the madness of Soapdish because she always wanted to do a movie about actors. “Because what we do is so insane. Actors take themselves so seriously. I was worried at first about the way we portrayed actors _ as vain, silly and selfish. But then we thought “People like to laugh at actors. So let’s let them.’ “I tell you, I feel safer playing a Depression mother in Texas. With drama, it’s more shaded, some aspects can work while others don’t and it’s still okay. With comedy, there are no gray areas. Either you laugh or you don’t” (tampabay.com).
Hoffman suggested Field watch Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, George Cukor’s The Women and Doris Day’s Pillow Talk for inspiration.
Kevin Kline is the one member of the cast who is classically trained. Born in St. Louis, he studied theater at Indiana University and then honed his acting skills at Julliard, and he has won 3 Tonys for his stage work and many other awards for film, tv and theater. He’s acted extensively in Shakespeare and other classical works. He made his film debut in Sophie’s Choice in 1982.
“The role is a lark for Kline, who brings the kind of stylized dash to the screen that recalls early Errol Flynn yet doesn’t seem anachronistic or out of place. It’s a clever, comical reading of an actor’s impregnable self-consciousness, in which every surrounding manifestation of behavior and event is measured against his ego and his appearance…’It’s the easiest role I ever had to research,’ Kline said. Early in his career, he had a small role on the soap, Search for Tomorrow. ‘All I had to do was show up. It’s about the specific weirdness of the actor’s life, the time-honored look at the vain, self-absorbed child who’s allowed to capriciously indulge each emotional impulse as it comes along. I liken it to a ’30s screwball comedy’” (Orlando Sentinel).
Whoopi Goldberg had just won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Ghost in 1990. She was working constantly on film and tv, appearing at the same time on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and her own series, Bagdad Café. She played both serious and comic characters on stage and screen. Paramount signed her to a contract intending to develop an Oda Mae Brown spin-off movie to capitalize on her success in Ghost as the eccentric spirit medium. When this didn’t materialize, she was cast in Soapdish. Asked by Katie Kouric on the Today Show why she accepted such a small part, she said it was to be able to work with Sally Field and Kevin Kline. “It gave me the opportunity to add the word ‘and’ in front of my name on the poster. It says, you see it says, yeah yeah Sally Field, Kevin Kline, Robert Downey, Jr., and Whoopie Goldberg. That’s sort of like, yes, I won the Oscar, but I’m doing this anyway. That’s what that ‘and’ means” (Parish 230).
She was delighted to be dressed by Nolan Miller, who producer Aaron Spelling brought over from the nighttime soap, Dynasty. He too went on a cross-country promotional tour for the film, giving essentially the same interview to local newspapers. “I think Miss Goldberg had been dressed in films in the past, or dressed up for films, but it was always to make everyone laugh, to be funny. And this time she was dressed seriously as a woman. And I think it was a wonderful feeling for her, and she liked it.” She realized, ‘I could actually look any way I chose and be elegant. You know, all of those women (on the screen) who had great style and class—I could be a part of that if I chose to be.’ Miller also made the sleek black sequined dress in which she accepted her Oscar. She told him, “I’ve been through drugs and a lot of other stuff…Now I have a new obsession: Nolan Miller” (Sun-Sentinel).
The opening awards show is awash in 300 recycled costumes from Dynasty and other tv shows he had designed like Charlie’s Angels, Hart to Hart and The Love Boat. “‘The ‘Dynasty’ clothes were everyone’s fantasy, occasionally tongue in cheek, of what it would be like to be rich,’ said the designer, who was born in Texas in 1935 and now lives in Beverly Hills. ‘The clothes for Soapdish are a satire on top of that.’ He used the color red to emphasize her topsy turvy personal life, and created 30 changes for her in the tropical colors reflecting her role on The Sun Also Sets. ‘Sally has never been known for dressing up, and she resisted some of the glamour,’ Mr. Miller said. ‘She wasn’t too happy about wearing a turban, and she wobbled around on five-inch heels for a few days, finally declaring, ‘I guess I’ll get used to it.’ ‘ Goldberg was known for her casual attire. Mr. Miller considers his biggest achievement on the film ‘getting Whoopi Goldberg in high heels and a bra.’ Ms. Goldberg plays Rose Schwartz, Celeste’s best friend and the chief writer of The Sun Also Sets…Even in the scene where Rose and Celeste go to a mall, I wanted them to exude glamour,’ he said. ‘My kind of stars don’t wear shmattes.'” (NY Times).
Interestingly, Sally Field’s and Whoopi Goldberg’s careers shared similar struggles. Their talents were vastly underestimated by Hollywood producers, which basically boiled down to their not being f*ckable enough. Field, because she was a sitcom teen on Gidget and The Flying Nun, and Goldberg for her race and her eccentric dress and natural hairstyles. It took hard work, perseverance and Oscars for each of them to be taken seriously and exert a little more control over their long, distinguished careers.
Robert Downey Jr.’s part had been written for a 50-year-old man, but the director had worked with him before on a movie that ultimately wasn’t made and convinced the studio to cast him. “The studio at the time was a little bit like ‘really?’ Although this was in his heavy drug-use phase, supposedly he was clean on set, drinking cranberry juice, according to Cathy Moriarty, who said, “We worked very well together. I let him do what he wanted to do and for some reason we meshed well” (Falk). Downey, Jr. didn’t really know anything about the daytime drama world, other than that he had considered it as a fall-back if his career didn’t work out “I could work in New York, get an apartment, not have to work in restaurants” he thought (Falk). Designer Nolan Miller said of his character, he’s “a depraved little sex fiend,’ there are conservative suits and quirky, one-of-a-kind neckties, which were specially made with a ’40s look” (Greensboro.com). I particularly love the one that looks like a dart board.
Here is the dart board tie, and the spotted organza frock that Celeste wears to dole out soup for the homeless.
Soapdish was not originally a hit, only grossing $36 million; it would take repeated viewings to grant it a cult comedy status. “I remember when we went to the premiere, he (Downey) said ‘I’d like to rock the world with this movie.” Moriarty recalled. (Falk). It would take his next film, Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin, to change Downey’s status in Hollywood. Although similarly not well reviewed, or rewarding financially, the Oscar nomination he got for playing the title role would change his career. He worked again with director Michael Hoffman, on the underrated rowdy period drama, Restoration.
There are two cohorts of women named Laura. Those who are my age, named after Gene Tierney in the film noir of the same name, and women in their 30s, named after the soaps first supercouple, Luke and Laura on General Hospital. Although the center of my least favorite plot (woman falls in love with her rapist) there are so many Lauras in this age group it must be the origin. I’ve asked Lauras of this age about it and they all deny vigorously. But what do they know? They were babies.
The plots on the Sun Also Sets, both on and off camera, may seem extreme, but hardly challenge the fantastical world of actual soaps of the era. No longer concerned merely with an alcoholic spouse, doctor-nurse romances or struggling to make ends meet, as in the earliest days, 80s soaps featured “evil families devise plots to freeze the world, and women fall in love with good looking aliens (two plots from General Hospital). It is a world where women have out-of-body experiences with their ex-husbands in heaven, travel back in time to the Old West, and have a secret life in an underground city (One Life to Live).” They scrupulously avoided current events or cultural issue like abortion or same sex romance. “In soaps, as in life, evil earth freezers are much easier to deal with than constitutional issues or sex” (Vogue). Or the mistakes made with parents, spouses, children or friends.
Robert Downey, Jr: The Rise and Fall of the Comeback Kid by Ben Falk, In Pieces by Sally Field, https://www.oldradioshows.org/2011/02/11/irna-phillips-mother-of-the-soap-opera/ , https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irna_Phillips , https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soap_opera , Whoopi Goldberg: Her Journey from Poverty to Mega-Stardom by James Robert Parish, https://www.nytimes.com/1991/05/26/movies/soapdish-dresses-in-dynasty-style.html?searchResultPosition=1 , https://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/fl-xpm-1991-06-23-9103050176-story.html , https://greensboro.com/simply-smashing-soap-dazzling-duds-cover-the-stars-in-soapdish/article_e915d182-b15c-58bc-9d68-a6f6777b5dec.html , https://www.tampabay.com/archive/1991/05/31/gidget-grows-up/ https://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/os-xpm-1991-05-31-9105300420-story.html “Daytime Dramatics” by Julia Reed in Vogue, June 1991, pp 80-84.