Postcards from the Edge is an obvious gay cult classic few of us recognize as an obvious gay cult classic. How has it slipped through the cracks with a pedigree that remains so sterling, and content so queer-friendly? It boggles the mind. Based on a 1987 novel – by the late, great Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia herself, who also adapted it for the screen), and starring the incomparable duo of Meryl Streep (!) and Shirley MacLaine (!!) – Postcards remains a pitch-perfect waltz between an ascendant actress in recovery (Streep) and her boozy mother, a beloved grande dame of Hollywood’s past (MacLaine). All the right elements come together to produce this seriocomic and camp-adjacent tale of addiction, celebrity and the frayed bonds of family.

The film is widely considered semi-autobiographical, with Streep’s character Suzanne Vale a substitute for Fisher and MacLaine’s Doris a stand-in for Debbie Reynolds. Fisher often played down such similarities between Postcards and her own experience. “It’s easier for them to think I have no imagination for language, just a tape recorder with endless batteries,” she once bristled, according to author Mark Harris in his recent biography of Postcards director Mike Nichols. Despite such protestations, Fisher’s later, official autobiographical work Wishful Drinking, a one-woman play she turned into a memoir, only bolstered suspicions that Postcards was a thinly veiled retelling of her highly publicized personal travails.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how much fact and fiction overlap. The film is an absolute riot, a forgotten gem of director Mike Nichols’ oeuvre, which includes Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate and The Birdcage. Streep, in her third collaboration with Nichols following Silkwood and Heartburn, portrays Suzanne as a supreme fuck-up that even an avuncular filmmaker (played by Gene Hackman) won’t have anything to do with. That is, unless she’s under the constant supervision of her seemingly stable mother Doris (the wonderful MacLaine), who is anything but well-adjusted (breakfast smoothies often include healthy doses of vodka). If this central premise instantly conjures a recent, buzzy Britney Spears documentary, it’s because meteoric celebrity often produces the same tragic story, rinse and repeat.

Postcards is punctuated and defined by three exuberant musical performances. The first two occur in the same scene, at a house party in the Hollywood hills. Meryl Streep sings a B-minus version of Ray Charles’ “You Don’t Know Me,” despite Suzanne’s inherent bashfulness. Shirley MacLaine – fully committed to upstage – follows with a thrilling, choreographed rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here.” It’s an iconic and effortless performance two times better than it needs to be. The movie concludes with Streep belting out the film’s signature and Oscar nominated “I’m Checkin’ Out” on a high note. Suzanne is hardly out of the woods, but her life is at least on the upswing.

Real life events have only added poignancy to the film’s already-heartbreaking central relationship. On December 23, 2016, Carrie Fisher suddenly stopped breathing on a flight from London to Los Angeles. She died four days later with traces of cocaine and heroin in her system. Debbie Reynolds followed her daughter the next day, allegedly saying, “I want to be with Carrie” before suffering a fatal stroke. Fisher’s ashes were eventually laid to rest beside Reynolds in a Hollywood cemetery. Though their relationship was infamously fraught, the two women were ultimately inseparable, a push-pull dynamic beautifully sketched in Postcards from the Edge, a film that’s totally not autobiographical.

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