Writer-producer-actor and director Garry Marshall passed away on July 19, 2016. My regrets for this delayed tribute.
So, by now, most of us know that Garry Marshall has passed away. He died of pneumonia following a stroke at the age of 81. So sudden. After all, only a few months previously his Mother’s Day premiered, an ensemble piece that followed the pattern of interlocking multi-character stories that Marshall began with Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve. Mother’s Day featured a compelling performance by Jennifer Aniston as a woman bearing the slings and arrows of divorce aftermath, that is, when the spouse has already moved on to a new s.o. Frequent Marshall muse Julia Roberts appeared in the flashy role of a lifestyle guru not unlike HSN superstar Joy Mangano or even Martha Stewart. Of course, Marshall famously directed Roberts and Richard Gere in a pair of blockbuster romantic comedies, Pretty Woman–the movie that effectively transformed the actress from promising newcomer to full-fledged star–and Runaway Bride, the former in 1990 and the latter in 1999.
Before Roberts and Marshall’s 1990 smash, he had long established his credentials on TV, writing for scads of sitcoms and then coming into his own empire as creator-producer of such fabelled 1970s hits as Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and Mork and Mindy, not to mention his small-screen adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. In the 80s, he segued to feature films, directing and sometimes even writing (or co-writing) such films as The Flaming Kid, a less angsty, nice change of pace role for a then still young Matt Dillon that also featured what appeared to be a certain Best Supporting Actor caliber performance by Richard Crenna (alas, only garnering a Golden Globe nod rather than Oscar approval). The pre-Pretty Woman titles include such star-studded offerings as 1986’s Nothing in Common (Tom Hanks and Jackie Gleason), 1987’s Overboard (Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell), and 1988’s Beaches (Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey). Of course, not everything that Marshall touched turned to box-office gold, as was the case with Overboard (which nonetheless has its admirers) and Exit to Eden.
My favorite Marshall film is none of the above. I don’t necessarily hate Pretty Woman, but I find it a bit problematic aside from Marshall’s exemplary work with actors, and not just Oscar nominee Roberts, but also Richard Gere, Hector Elizondo, MVP of Marshall’s rep company, and even Elinor Donahue. I enjoyed it. Kind of, but once was definitely enough. I seldom stop and watch it if I happen to catch a glimpse while flipping channels. Nope. Not interested. Now, Frankie and Johnny (1991) is in a whole other category. Indeed Michael and I watched it on VHS, along with Rear Window and 84 Charing Cross Road, the night before we got married.
Frankie and Johnny, apparently more loosely–than tightly–adapted from Terence McNally’s two character play, Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune , is about two lonely New Yorkers who might very well find love in spite of setbacks that have left both of them, well, a little anxious. He, Johnny, that is, wants the world, and he wants it now. Why not? Just released from prison and estranged from his family, he wants to make up for lost time and somehow “correct” the mistakes he made during an early marriage. She, Frankie, on the other hand, is resolutely NOT looking for love, and while she notices something attractive in Johnny, his intensity curdles her faintest enthusiasm.
Consistent with McNally’s text, Johnny works as a short-order cook, and Frankie toils as a waitress. Unlike the original, McNally, credited as the sole screenwriter, reconceptualizes the story which originally unfolds in a single setting over the course of a one-night stand–and takes the audience into the daily lives of the characters and the world they inhabit, mainly the bustling Apollo Cafe, owned and operated by ever-reliable Elizondo as Nick. The rest of the cast includes Kate Nelligan as flashy waitress Cora and Nathan Lane as Frankie’s de rigueur gay neighbor . Also on board in a smallish though effective role as yet another waitress is ever-wry Jane Morris who, like Elizondo, frequently appears in Marshall’s films.
The movie adaptation is famous for two things, maybe three. First, it was reportedly the first major motion picture to shoot in New York City after a strike shut down production in 1990 though exact documentation is hard to locate. At any rate, Marshall plunks his cast right in the thick of things, including playing handball on street corners and alleyways and a stop at the flower market, a lovely sequence that includes one of the all-time great “reveals.” While Marshall sometimes overplays his hand at portraying New York as a cold, fearful place, it is also busy and colorful, somehow more diverse than the affluent Manhattan often depicted in the films of Woody Allen.
Secondly, Frankie and Johnny is notable in its casting, especially the role of Frankie. Kathy Bates portrayed the insecure waitress in the play’s original off-Broadway production but lost the movie role to Michelle Pfeiffer. It was the second time in only a matter of years that Bates, a seasoned, vital character actress with plenty of stage cred, saw one of her signature stage roles go to a more conventionally youthful–dare we say thinner and/or prettier–Hollywood star. The first indignation came when Sissy Spacek was cast as the suicidal epileptic in the 1986 screen version of Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer winner Night Mother, for which Bates had earned a Tony nomination.
I’ll be the first to admit that I was originally one of those skeptics. I’d long been a Bates fan, thanks to her supporting roles in the likes of Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (in which she was an eerie ringer for someone I happened to know, since deceased), The Morning After (1986), and Men Don’t Leave (1991), spot on as the no-nonsense proprietor of a gourmet deli in the latter, and I wanted her to have greater opportunities. Plus, the idea that she would be overlooked because she was no longer ingenue material–if she ever really was–seemed disgraceful. So, I truly didn’t think I would enjoy seeing Michelle Pfeiffer as Frankie, but the trailor hooked me–good job–and I gave the movie a look.
Pfieffer won me over, and in doing so she also reminded skeptics, like me, of a point that we might have not considered. In real-life, good looks–like Pfeiffer’s–aren’t everything. The truth is that in NYC and points all across the map, there are plenty of attractive young women who do not aspire to be models, actresses, or TV personalities, and these same lovely people toil in tons of non-glamorous jobs, such as waiting tables. Of course, they do. Their lives are not carefree. They might even be burdened by the expectation that because they are so attractive they would want to aspire to more, but maybe they enjoy what they do. Insecurities, disappointment, and living paycheck to paycheck aren’t necessarily the exclusive dominions of folks who might not live in a state of perpetual camera-readiness. That’s the unvarnished truth. Pfeiffer’s Frankie doesn’t necessarily want to be a waitress for the rest of her life, but she’s good at it, and it pays the bills… …for now.
This is one of my two favorite Pfeiffer performances, the other being that bravura turn as Selena Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman, in 1992’s Batman Returns. This character, in spite of her confusion and misgivings, seems fully-realized, like someone any of us might want to hang out with after work, especially if we all worked at a diner. She reminds me just a bit, but a significant bit, of one of my best friends, a woman I know who used to be a waitress and despite having teen-tiny wrists was the go-to person for opening exasperatingly tight jar lids. Pfeiffer seems to inhabit Frankie so fully that I wouldn’t be surprised if she had actually worked as a server at some point in her past–and why not? A lot of actors and actresses do that very thing while pursuing acting gigs, always scouting for the next big break. She also, I’ll freely admit, reminds me a bit of myself, especially the part of her that sometimes just wants to grab some take-out on the way home and plop down in front of the TV and watch a movie–the same as I used to do on Saturday nights in my 20s when The Facts of Life and The Golden Girls were staples after a grueling day of selling tickets at the box office window. (For some reason, however, I think Frankie’s routine is intended almost as indictment of her fragility, and I take an exception to that.)
Frankie’s emotions are all over the place, and Pfeiffer hits all the targets, you know, the weepiness and frustration. She’s great at all that, but those aren’t necessarily the most lasting or insightful aspects of the performance. For example, she delivers a zinger of a line in response to a well-meaning, if also dunder-headed and snoopy, question posed by Pacino’s Johnny. Additionally, she puts a great spin on a painfully icky moment when Johnny, again, makes an abrupt and incredibly awkward request. Most of us probably want to look the other way as soon as Pacino utters the words, but, luckily, McNally gives Frankie a speech as a distraction, and she milks it for its full value. Finally, and this is truly best of all, Pfeiffer is great at reacting. You know the old saying, “all acting is reacting.” That’s what she does. She listens, and that is sometimes when her confusion is most apparent. Along with that, she’s great at bits of business that underscore whatever she might be thinking. At one point, Johnny tries to sweet talk her while hanging out behind the diner–and notice, if you will, the way Pfeiffer’s Frankie chews the lip of her paper cup in the process. Perfect. Almost magical work, this, but no Oscar nomination though the Hollywood Foreign Press saw fit to nominate her for a Golden Globe in the Musical or Comedy category. She lost to Bette Midler’s over-hyped For the Boys, a high-profile labor of love that nonetheless flopped–and flopped hard, but the HFPA and the Academy were a forgiving lot that season. But I digress.
Kate Nelligan and Hector Elizondo both deserve praise as well. The former, a Canadian whose biggest successes have often been on stage, fully delivered a cinematic one-two punch back in 1991, what with her role as the outwardly rollicking waitress Cora in this film as well as Nick Nolte’s domineering mother in Prince of Tides (in which she plays the character as both a young woman clawing her way out of a bad marriage and a refined, if ice-cold, aging matriarch). The appeal of Cora is not the bawdy, good-time gal stuff–though it presents a contrast to the the performance in Prince of Tides–but those moments when Cora carefully lets down her guard, such as a from the heart, post-coital pep-talk to a recent conquest. In that season’s awards derby, Nelligan won a British Academy Award (supporting) for Frankie and Johnny. She also claimed honors from the National Board of Review. She came in third place among the New York Film Critics Circle for both this movie and The Prince of Tides, ultimately scoring a Best Supporting Actress nod from the Academy for the latter. Mr. Elizondo, meanwhile, brings warmth, understanding, and maybe even love to his role as the owner-operator of the jumpin’ diner. Though sometimes uncredited, Elizondo has actually appeared in 17 Marshall movies, going all the way back to 1982’s Young Doctors in Love. Among those, he is probably most loved for his role as Pretty Woman‘s decorous hotel manager, an elegant performance that did indeed net a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor–and how great is that? For if Elizondo in Pretty Woman is not the epitome of what it means for one actor to support another actor, then I don’t know what is. That noted, I think I prefer his work in Frankie and Johnny. He’s somehow looser and seems to be enjoying himself. Maybe he’s just having fun with the accent, but he is as different in this one from Pretty Woman as he is from either in Nothing in Common, in which he steals scene after scene. Good stuff.
Marshall’s talents in this film extend beyond his grace with actors, as he also works wonders creating the characters’ environment, especially the café itself. It may very well be the most fully realized depiction of what it’s like to work in such a setting. At least in my experience. Have I ever worked at a bustling diner in NYC or anywhere else? No. But I spent my late teens and early twenties working in fast-food outlets: two years at one location, a year and a half at a second. I have fond memories of both. One was more suburban with a hearty bunch of breakfast regulars and a close-knit team of workers who definitely aimed to please. The other place was closer to downtown Dallas, and while I don’t remember anything special about our breakfast brunch, I know we saw a little bit of everything on a daily basis, and, again, my co-workers and I were great pals, often hanging out during the down time in our split-shifts. This day-to-dayness is what Marshall captures so accurately. Everyone at this diner is always in motion. Even when they stop to chat, they are still doing something, and activity swirls around them. Look how they move. They’ve been working with each other in tight quarters for so long they’re attuned to each other’s rhythms. They communicate silently as is the case with Frankie’s aforementioned knack for opening jars. They also get on each other’s nerves, too, and that’s also okay. I want to add that one character, a slightly older waitress played by Goldie McLaughlin, reminds me oh-so-much of a woman who was a fixture at one of the places, a tiny thing who charmed customers but took no guff. She had worked there so long. Everyone loved her, she was untouchable, but the signs of affliction were always there. To clarify, the actress looks like nothing like my real-life counterpart–nothing–but their stories are so similar.
The diner does not look like a set, not at all, but it could be. Whatever it is, it works, so props to the production design team led by Albert Brenner along with Carol W. Wood and Kathe Klopp. Pfeiffer’s apartment, on the other hand, is clearly a set, looking somehow cramped yet just a little too spacious, all things considered. Still, the furnishings look suitably eclectic, and that bathroom, well, we’ve all seen it and lived it. I know I have. Marshall also sets Johnny up for a kind of Rear Window moment as she has a up-close view into neighboring buildings and sees things that occupants assume are private, but that’s part of city life when everyone is bunched up right next to and on top of each other. I’ll even give a shout-out to the wardrobe and makeup staff (too numerous to list here) for not trying too terribly hard to “drab-down” Pfieffer and make her look homely. Her waitress uniform is what it is, and when she isn’t working, she looks like anybody else one might find on the streets or at home doing housework. Her party frock, selected by her gay neighbor, isn’t such a knock-out, and may very well look just a tad…too…cheap. (Not tacky, exactly, but probably cheaper looking than it needs to be.)
With so much to praise, what about Pacino? Why have I avoided writing about his performance, that is, praising him? Of course, he’s Pacino, and he’s always worth watching. Indeed, he has many watchable moments in Frankie and Johnny, but that might be part of the problem. Watching Pacino as Johnny is like watching a wonderful actor act wonderfully. Sure, it’s entertaining, but it’s entertaining as a performance rather than as a portrayal, a characterization. In other words, there is seldom a moment in which I actually believed that Pacino was anything other than Pacino, whooping it up and wearing his considerable heart on his sleeve, all good, all well and fine, but not dipping too far beneath the surface like his co-star. Again, he has many tender and engaging moments, but Johnny is almost too good to be true. Maybe the problem is the way the character is conceptualized because Johnny is one pushy guy, yet he is somehow supposed to be endearing–the way a saviour is endearing–in spite of that. Luckily, as fans of Brian De Palma’s cult classic Scarface already know, Pacino and Pfieffer definitely have chemistry, such that she makes his brashness almost palatable.
Music fans will not be disappointed. The title inspiring classics are both present, that would be a rousing, rock-a-billy version of “Frankie and Johnny” by–no, not Elvis–James Intveld who, as I learned while researching this article, provided the singing voice for Johnny Depp’s titular character in John Water’s Cry Baby (1990). On the other end of the musical spectrum, no less than Marvin Hamlisch, credited as the score’s composer, plays piano on Claude Debussy’s stirring “Clair de Lune,” used to great effect in one of the film’s richest sequences. All that AND Rickie Lee Jones, alternately purring and wailing her way through “It Must be Love,” also to great effect.
Frankie and Johnny, if I have not stressed this point enough, was hardly a box office hit–even with the star wattage of its two leads and the fact that it was Marshall’s follow-up to the phenomenally successful Pretty Woman. Of course, the fall of 1991, when this film was released, was a particularly bruising period for movies. One possible factor can be attributed to no less than the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, televised in October of 1991 just as Frankie and Johnny arrived at movie theaters. This is not news, by the way, as Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly, and maybe even USA Today were all over it back in the day. National events definitely affect box-office as anyone who works at the movies can attest–look no further than the L.A. riots in ’92, and, of course, 9/11.
Thank you, Garry Marshall, for this thoughtfully produced and acted movie. I actually think of it as a gift because it was so unexpected. Nothing Marshall had done before it prepared me for its beauty. And I treasure it. Rest in Peace, Mr. Marshall.
Thanks for your consideration…
 – Clair de lune translates into English as “by the light of the moon” or “moonlight.”
 – Lane, well-known in theatre circles at the time for his roles in a handful of McNally’s plays, had yet to achieve marquee status, per Broadway revivals of Guys and Dolls and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the Americanized remake of French Farce La Cage Aux Folles, redubbed The Birdcage, and, of course, the smash musical incarnation of Mel Brooks’s The Producers.