It’s not uncommon to see a movie or some other artistic work and recognize where art is imitating life. What can be a surprise is when the lives of those in the movie are imitating the art they are a part of, and sometimes the result can be outrageously funny.
Celeste Talbert is a soap opera queen. She has more Daytime Emmy Awards than any other actress. Sadly, practically everyone on the set hates her and wants to see her removed, not the least of which is producer David Barnes and fellow soap star Montana Moorehead. The lines between art and life start to blur even further when Celeste’s lover leaves her to go back to his wife, her “niece” suddenly appears on set and has been cast as a homeless extra for the show, and her character’s ex-lover returns from the dead only to torment her life even further. What follows is a wild ride where family secrets are revealed as well as the true nature of the relationship between Celeste and the actor who played her character’s ex, Jeffrey Anderson, comes to light. When all is revealed even the show’s head writer, Rose Schwartz, responds with “Why can’t I write sh*t like this?”
Daytime soaps are nothing new. They have existed almost since the advent of the home television, so naturally, the idea of a soap opera parody was ripe for the making. ABC had the comedy series Soap and there was also the TV mini-series Fresno that made a mockery of such nighttime soaps like Dallas or Dynasty. However, the genius of making a soap-like movie about a daytime soap opera had never been attempted, making the self-referential Soapdish one of the best comedies to come out in 1991. In addition to making light of these characters’ real lives in the movie, the storylines that are presented in “The Sun Also Sets” are so outlandish that it forces viewers to look at the soap opera industry with a slightly more scrutinizing eye. Also, the lines these characters speak are beyond absurd. Celeste Talbert, as Maggie in “The Sun Also Sets” has one of the most hilarious lines where she says while in prison, “Yes, yes, yes! I am guilty! Guilty of love in the first degree!” With lines like these, deliberately written to highlight the over-the-top drama soap operas are famous for, how can a movie like this go wrong? The answer is simple. It doesn’t. However, if there is a downside to this movie is that it is somewhat ignorant regarding transgender characters. One might regard it as transphobia, but in 1991 the world was largely ignorant of the facts regarding transgender people, so this issue needs to be taken with a grain of salt given the year that it comes from.
The cast for this movie is also a jewel, starting with veteran actress Sally Field as Celeste. Field is no stranger to both comedy and drama, and both of those skills are put to excellent use here. She shines as both Celeste and Maggie, and if her presence as Maggie in “The Sun Also Sets” was given greater screen time I would be hard-pressed to say which role I like the best. Suffice it to say, she truly is the star of this madcap all-star movie. However, she has plenty of other amazing actors to play off of, including Kevin Kline as Jeffrey Anderson. Here is another actor who has amazing comedic chops, but never plays it the same twice. He always manages to create something new from one movie to the next, and you can believe him when he first appears as a washed-up actor playing Willie Loman in some tragic dinner theater venue. His scenes with Field are hilariously funny allowing both of them to show some serious comedy.
In a surprise move, the role of head writer Rose Schwartz is played by the extraordinarily talented Whoopi Goldberg. She is famous for crafting plenty of outrageous characters for movies, but here she plays it fairly straight in favor of Field’s more comedic moments. In a move that is not surprising, Goldberg shows what a true professional she is, and even as the “straight” character, she has some delicious moments on the screen.
Catherine Moriarty plays the terrifying Montana Moorehead. Moriarty is a formidable actress and she plays that strength to comedic heights that should otherwise steal the movie. We also have Elisabeth Shue as Celeste’s “niece” Lori Craven. Shue has such an innocence about her that it comes as no surprise when a turn of events launch Lori into the spotlight making her quite the star for this fictional soap opera. Lastly, of the main actors, there is the always brilliant Robert Downey Jr. We’re all familiar with the talent this man has since he first appeared on the screen as Tony Stark, but this movie is a wonderful reminder that he has always had that incredible talent and his skill at playing comedy can almost make one forget the more dramatic roles that he would take on later. Rounding out this cast with the likes of Teri Hatcher, Kathy Najimy, Paul Johansson, and Carrie Fisher, you end up with a movie with some of the best actors in the business.
This movie from Paramount Pictures should have gone on to greatness, but for reasons unknown, it was never a box-office hit. In fact, it barely grossed more than its budget. And yet, when I saw it opening weekend back in 1991 I remember thinking that this was one of the most brilliant comedies I had ever watched and the fact that I can watch it today and still laugh out loud at it is a testament to the quality of the writing and the cast.
If you want to relax with a comedy that is funny purely for funny sake then sit back and relax with Soapdish. You’ll never look at soap operas the same way again!