Out of the Celluloid Closet

There is literally nothing straight about Postcards From the Edge

We’re not even 15 minutes into Postcards from the Edge—Mike Nichols’ 1990 adaptation of Carrie Fisher’s 1987 novel—before we’re treated to a Judy Garland reference and introduced to a pair of gay lovers in rehab. “Ever since I was about seven I wanted to be you,” one of them says to Shirley MacLaine, playing Debbie Reynolds to Meryl Streep’s Carrie Fisher. From then on, it’s a battle of the wills: as in, will the well-meaning but overbearing stage mom stop micromanaging her daughter’s career, or will the troubled, fresh-out-of-rehab nepo baby finally get it together and stand up for herself? We don’t know, but like any messy gay with a penchant for Hollywood drama, we’re seated.

How could we not be? This is the ultimate mother-daughter showbiz movie, a gay-soaked story to rival Gypsy (it even comes with a Sondheim number!) But it’s not just the peripheral gayness of Postcards that makes it such an enduring watch. It’s a film about the trouble even cis straight people have getting through to parents who might love them, but sometimes fail to understand them.

On the surface, there’s nothing new about this struggle. But in Carrie Fisher’s case, the classic mother-daughter growing pains happened in the spotlight, as she tried to separate from her mother’s acting legacy by creating her own in films like the original Star Wars trilogy and When Harry Met Sally.

But as Hollywood nepo royalty in the 70s and 80s, she wasn’t protected from the darker side of the industry, which led to a series of addictions and a career that flagged after a few early successes. Postcards from the Edge was a fictionalized account of Fisher’s own attempt to come to terms with her unique position in show business. Suzanne Vale, the Fisher stand-in, knows she has it good. She knows just how lucky she is to be in a business that most people only dream of breaking into. But that just makes the guilt worse. “I came from nothing,” her famous mother tells her, “and you were born into everything.” The problem is, Suzanne knows it, and she can’t forgive herself for it. She’s stuck dating losers, like the smooth-talking Jack Faulkner (a very young Dennis Quaid) and trying to give a “relaxed” performance in the crappy cop movie she’s making without the help of any drugs, which is harder than it looks. Her mother keeps giving her bad advice that probably would have made sense if the studio system was still active, but it isn’t. Suzanne is a woman adrift: she has every privilege in the world, but she can’t help feeling like there’s just no place for her in an industry that doesn’t look kindly on folks with a history of addiction.

At the time, Postcards felt like Fisher’s way of reclaiming the narrative and talking honestly about what happened to her, with wit and dry-eyed wisdom. The film ends on a high note: you feel like maybe Suzanne—and by extension, Carrie—is going to be alright. She’s figuring out who she is, and she’s going to make this whole Hollywood thing work. But watching Postcards From the Edge today is an altogether different experience. We know what happened to Carrie Fisher, how she struggled with ageism, alcoholism, and mental health issues for years, and how she was cast aside by an industry that didn’t fully understand what made her special.

When Fisher passed away in 2016, her mother Debbie Reynolds died the day after. They remained attached, for better or worse, fighting their demons together, perhaps unable to break the trauma bond that made their relationship so close. To see a film that treats their painful relationship lightly feels strange: we want both mother and daughter to find themselves, perhaps even at the cost of their closeness. But we know that didn’t happen.

There’s still something sweetly hopeful about Postcards: Carrie Fisher didn’t get the happiest of endings, but she did persevere. She wrote about addiction and mental health before it was cool, and she helped others by sharing her story. She didn’t have to be so honest with us, but she did, and it’s that honesty that will survive her. Postcards shows that Fisher didn’t view her life as a tragedy: she saw it as a work in progress. By opening up about her demons, she let all of us messy gays see that you can do more than simply despair over your problems.

You can turn them into a camp classic for generations to laugh at—and with—for years to come.

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