Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. For April, we revisit both the game-changing hits and low point misses of Francis Ford Coppola. Read the rest of our coverage here.
As Gena Radcliffe laid out in her keynote, Francis Ford Coppola’s work most often reflects an ambition to blow out plot points to near-operatic proportions. Coppola makes it literal in The Godfather series, but one can observe it throughout his career—in Harry Caul’s outsized paranoia, the psychological horror of Apocalypse Now, the costuming of Dracula (and everything else come to it), the teen and gang dynamics of both The Outsiders and Rumble Fish and so on.
In Peggy Sue Got Married, however, we see a rare Coppola, one who takes themes of existentialism and time travel and boils them down to the everyday. In arguably the most humanistic work of his career, Coppola forgoes the epic in favor of the personal.
Peggy Sue Bodell (Kathleen Turner) has plenty to be proud of in her life—two great kids, her own business, and as the people around her make sure to tell her over and over, she looks great for being 43 years old. On this night, however, she is struggling to feel any of that. Her marriage to high school sweetheart Charlie Bodell (Nicolas Cage) is effectively over and she has only begun to recover from that pain.
Unfortunately, it is her 25th high school reunion and everything seems to be conspiring to remind her of those past happy days and the choices she did and didn’t make. Then the figurative trip down memory road becomes literal and Peggy Sue wakes up back in 1960 as her 18-year-old self.
The whole film doesn’t feel animated so much by a sense of regret as it is by bittersweet appreciation.
Almost immediately, the film marks itself as different from similar “visiting my past self” films by how gentle Coppola, along with first-time screenwriters Jerry Leichtling and Arlene Sarner, is with the characters. In other films, Michael Fitzsimmons’s (Kevin J. O’Connor) pretentious would-be writer would be held up as a figure of ridicule. In Peggy Sue, he gets more of a gentle smile. He is a bit of a figure of fun, but the movie also takes his earnestness at face value. He’s trying to be a character as much as we all are in high school, but the film is kind towards that searching.
He’s not the only one: all of the kids and their grown-up incarnations, save class gossip Delores Dodge (Lisa Jane Persky), seem unjudged by the text. In fact, the only time the movie seems to cast a disapproving glance towards characters is where they are cruel, most commonly to the nerdy (and future success story) Richard Norvik (Barry Miller).
As a result, the whole film doesn’t feel animated so much by a sense of regret as bittersweet appreciation. Time and again, Peggy Sue makes the point that “these moments were bad (or disappointing) and I wouldn’t trade them for the world.” Peggy Sue is never pollyannaish about the lost potential of youth; it knows life loses things along the way—opportunities, love, trust—but always nudges the scale towards “and could you imagine it any other way?” However unintentionally, Peggy Sue makes an interesting companion piece to 1983’s The Big Chill.
By taking questions and concerns that could easily be massive—existentialism, a life’s regrets, time travel—Coppola immediately differentiates Peggy Sue from his other works.
Still, Peggy Sue still shows some of Coppola’s fingerprints — namely, his attention to detail. By casting actors largely in their late-20s through mid-30s (Jim Carrey playing class clown/future dentist Walter Getz is the notably young exception), the film gives us characters that are easy to read at both eras.
That said, the makeup is subtly impressive, especially on the Turner. The way the camera casually reveals her face going from showing some small wrinkles and a bit of crow’s feet to the lightly bumped skin of a teen just moving out of her acne phase is impressive. Again, it is taking Coppola’s tools and impulse towards the large and shrinking it down to capture the smallest of details just right.
Discredit where discredit is due, the hair work on all the men is rough. If it leaves you thinking about the ‘baby powder in the hair’ trick high schools employ every year to make their teen actors look middle-aged or older, well, you aren’t alone.
There’s also a sort of shaggy sense of things being not quite done around the edges that marked several Coppola films of this time. As with One from the Heart, The Cotton Club, and The Godfather Part III, it’s clear that the cut of Peggy Sue Got Married viewers got was not the full expression of Coppola’s vision. In particular, Rosalie Testa (Lucinda Jenney) shows up in the present-day sequences and is clearly one of Peggy Sue’s closest friends alongside Maddy Nagle (Joan Allen) and Carol Heath (Catherine Hicks). However, Rosalie disappears entirely when Peggy Sue goes back in time, her storyline excised.
While not worth getting as up in arms about it as Jim Emerson did back in 1988, it does needle at you a bit in the watching. By editing her out of the past but not the present, Coppola and Barry Malkin create this gap that is at once inconsequential and yet impossible to ignore. In one possible reading, they’ve backed into one of the most frustrating realities of life—we’ll never really know our own stories in full, never mind anyone else’s.
In arguably the most humanistic work of his career, Coppola forgoes the epic in favor of the personal.
Any review of Peggy Sue Got Married is incomplete without speaking to the performances at its center. Cage is odd and awkward in a way that makes him memorable but never overwhelms the picture. For fans of Cage, it’s a wonderful bit of work, evidence of how he can modulate himself to be unique while still making space for the true star to shine.
And shine Turner does. It doesn’t make sense to argue it as her best performance; Body Heat, War of the Roses, and Romancing the Stone still exist, after all. It is, however, Turner at her most down-to-earth, her most human. One can’t watch Peggy Sue and not recognize yourself or people you know in her performance. She somehow feels both ideal and like your algebra classmate that sometimes made you laugh.
All of that comes around to the most important thing to know about Peggy Sue Got Married. Almost everyone famous here—Coppola, Turner, Cage—you will see better (and more quintessentially themselves) in other films. However, you’ll rarely see them be as human and humane.