The 1991 film Soapdish was made less than thirty years ago, but the state of the daytime soap opera could not have been any more different then than it is now.
Still popular with college students, not yet besieged by massive competition from cable, the internet, social media, and more sophisticated prime time soaps, it was the major networks’ cash cow.
Soaps had also morphed from romantic/family dramas to adventure stories that included globe-hopping (and on-location shoots) as well as wacky stuff such as mad scientists, space aliens. and witchcraft.
As the 90s progressed, all the aforementioned competition, not to mention the lengthy O.J. Simpson trial, resulted in the fortunes of daytime drama steadily cratering. Soap actors who were given multi-million dollar contracts were either let go or given massive wage cuts. Set budgets were slashed. Game and talk shows were cheaper and more profitable. Today, only four daytime soaps remain on the air.
But there was a period of time, from the late 1970s (the beginning of the General Hospital Luke & Laura craze) to the mid-90s when soaps crossed over into the mainstream as a cultural phenomenon.
Soapdish savages that phenomenon by parodying, not only soap operas themselves, but the backstage goings-on that sometimes seemed like a soap in and of itself.
Celeste Talbert (Sally Field) is the star of a soap opera called The Sun Also Sets, and, yes, a bit of a diva who needs constant reassurance from her fans during visits to the shopping mall. On the show since she was a teenager, she is finding her status tenuous because she is now middle-aged. Younger actresses, such as Montana Moorehead (Cathy Moriarity) and Ariel Maloney (Terri Hatcher) plot to bring her down so they can have their time as stars of the show.
Producer David Seton Barnes (Robert Downey, Jr.) is sexually obsessed with Montana and does her bidding when it comes to sabotaging Celeste. Rose Schwartz (Whoopi Goldberg), the show’s head writer, is Celeste’s best friend and tries to protect her from those who are out to get her.
One of Montana’s plots features bringing back to the show Jeffrey Anderson (Kevin Kline) who was Celeste’s boyfriend when they co-starred on the soap. A down-and-out actor forced to play dinner theater to senior citizens, he leaps at the chance to return to the show. Celeste’s niece Lori (Elisabeth Shue) talks her way into a part as an extra on the show. To Celeste’s horror, she realizes Jeffrey and Lori are attracted to each other.
Just like on a real soap opera, Celeste harbors many secret sorrows over the past relationship. It all literally explodes in front of the camera (and reporters from Entertainment Tonight) as Celeste confesses that Lori is really her daughter by Jeffrey.
This movie is totally over-the-top, but it works because it plays to what we expect from soap operas: tons of melodrama. All of this is played by a top-notch cast. Clearly, Celeste is based on actress Susan Lucci (though she wins way more awards than Lucci ever did). Robert Downey, Jr.’s comic timing is impeccable as a man torn between his sexual desire and toadying to the higher-ups out of fear that he will lose his job. Elisabeth Shue, still very young here, holds her own with the seasoned professionals. There are brief appearances by Carrie Fisher and Kathy Najimy as the casting director and head of wardrobe on the soap.
Gary Marshall is a scream as a network executive who is trying to get The Sun Also Sets better ratings than a game show.
“I would like to voice my strong concern about this show’s spiraling decline in ratings. David, ever since you took us to the Caribbean, it’s been Jamaica homeless people sucking soup, and a big wave outside that cost a hundred thousand dollars. That’s depressing and it’s expensive, two words I hate. You know the words I like? I like the word “peppy” and the word “cheap”. Peppy and cheap.”
Rose has a rant when told to bring back a character who had been decapitated 20 years before:
“How am I supposed to write for a guy who doesn’t have a head? He’s got no lips, no vocal cords!”
(As a soap viewer of long standing, I have no doubt that many head writers over the decades have had similar rants when told to bring back characters from the dead, even when it made absolutely no sense.)
Then there is Kevin Kline, who is always funny, but almost steals the whole thing during a live soap opera broadcast where he can’t read the teleprompter without his glasses.
Soapdish may feel like a throwback because of the way soaps have declined, but it’s still an enjoyable parody of the genre. Where else are you going to get dialogue like this:
“Sudden speech, the last sign of brain fever. She could blow at any moment!”