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MOVIE REVIEW : Terms of Estrangement : Relationships: Though thinly written, Carrie Fisher's script for 'Postcards From the Edge' captures the competition and love between a Hollywood mother and daughter. Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine make the mixed emotions believable.

September 12, 1990|SHEILA BENSON | TIMES FILM CRITIC

"Postcards From the Edge"!? We should be so lucky. You can write something on a postcard. This is more like fortune cookies; pithy, expert zingers from the mother-daughter battlefield, Hollywood division: a star of '50s musicals (Shirley MacLaine) and her movie actress-daughter (Meryl Streep) struggling back from a drug habit that lifelong insecurity has built.

As Carrie Fisher has adapted her successful, somewhat autobiographical 1987 novel about the physical and psychological rehabilitation of a spirited, wisecracking, just-turning-30 actress, she has taken one of the book's more minor preoccupations, the mother-daughter stuff, and made it the movie's whole shooting match.

"Postcards" (opening citywide) is a puzzlement. It's possible to float out of it on the immense high generated by Meryl Streep's two final numbers--singing as affectingly as Bonnie Raitt. If it needed proving, it's clear now that there is nothing Streep cannot do, except, possibly, oral surgery and high-platform diving, and only a sucker would bet against either of those.

As director Mike Nichols speeds the movie by and Streep's Suzanne Vale gives behind-the-scenes Hollywood the benefit of her wry eye and bad mouth, it's a funny world to be let in on--hip, inside and deadly clever. Unsurprisingly, with this director and this writer, "Postcards" cuts close to the bone with its insights about the workings of old and new Hollywood--a past full of stars with ironclad images built by studios and nourished by fan mags, and an unsentimental and utterly forgetful present in which grosses alone are the measure of success.

But apart from Suzanne and her egocentric mama, MacLaine's Doris Mann, who can suck all the oxygen from a room with one dazzling, artificial smile, "Postcards" is amazingly thin. Its subsidiary characters, The Director (Gene Hackman), The Producer (Dennis Quaid) and The Emergency Room Doctor (Richard Dreyfuss) have the depth of shrink-wrap.

Defiantly underwritten, onscreen for mere minutes, these anemics get what clout they have from the sheer warmth and presence of their actors, a considerable amount in the case of Hackman and Dreyfuss. Quaid, playing a character so loosely sketched that it isn't clear whether he's a producer or Suzanne's fellow actor, still seems to be flailing away like Jerry Lee Lewis, although that song has ended.

As we first meet Suzanne, she's tailspinning, bluffing and snorting her way through a crummy-looking movie about Latin American intrigue, directed by Hackman. Next, she overdoses in the other half of Quaid's bed and finds herself in a detox center, headed by a no-nonsense therapist played by C.C.H. Pounder--her power reduced to slivers of scenes. Improbably brief as the detox section is, Streep gets memorable support from Robin Bartlett as her rehab roomie Aretha ("I think my parents were expecting someone black"), whose dry delivery and owlish take on life are the stuff on which lifelong friendships are made.

Doris, a whirlwind of compulsive bossiness, arrives at detox, too, so conspicuously self-effacing she's brought Woolite to rinse out a few of her daughter's things. It's also clear that though she's judgmental about drugs, she's a hard-working alcoholic herself, heightening the irony that, to work again, Suzanne must live with her "responsible" mother. Screenwriter Fisher further nails Doris when an ecstatic patient-fan burbles that he's wanted to be her since he was 7. Doris hits the radiance button, then, under her breath to Suzanne as they leave, says, "Sorry, but you know how much the queens love me."

With clear-eyed venom like this, or when they're characterizing slimeballs like Rob Reiner's unctuous producer, Fisher and Nichols are unmatchable. Best of all is the blistering irony behind MacLaine's musical high point, her own "Rose's Turn," when Doris allows herself to be pulled center stage to perform at the coming-home party she's thrown for Suzanne.

The number exposes every iota of support and competitiveness between mother and daughter: the bitterness of Doris' refrain in Sondheim's "I'm Still Here," and the ultimate professionalism of her delivery; the love and pride on Suzanne's face watching her--and her twinge as her mother exploits her daughter's drug problems in public. If Doris complains that Suzanne won't use her singing talent, there's no doubt why after mama's triumphantly brassy piano-top finale.

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