Director Francis Ford Coppola spent the majority of the 1980’s taking on for-hire film work featuring commercially-viable stories as a way to erase the debt suffered by 1982’s box office disaster ONE FROM THE HEART. Unfortunately, most of these films were hit-or-miss themselves, and the infallible talent that gave us THE GODFATHER (1972) and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) now seemed to be washed up, all of its promise drained.
The year 1986 saw a brief respite for Coppola, in the form of a feature film called PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED. While not a particularly great film, it was enjoyable and channeled a certain nostalgia for midcentury Americana to modest box office gains. Indeed, the film’s upbeat, optimistic tone mirrored the fact that things were looking up for Coppola, for the first time in years.
PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED is a dramatic comedy about a faded beauty named Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner), who is anxious about attending her high school class reunion after a bitter divorce from her appliance baron husband Charlie Bodell (Nicolas Cage). When she’s crowned reunion queen (that’s a thing?), she faints during the coronation. She wakes up, only to find that she’s back in the year 1960, and back in high school. Blessed with the knowledge of what the future will bring, she relishes the chance to connect with long-dead family members and tries to reconfigure her romantic life to avoid her eventual marriage to boyfriend Charlie. However, she learns that even a second chance at youth can’t change fate.
It’s a powerful question: if you had a second chance to re-live your youth, what would you do differently? Coppola’s cast gamely explores this conceit through wry characterization that must be presented differently in two distinct timeframes. As the central character, Turner changes gradually in a conventional arc, much like Jimmy Stewart’s character in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). The weary Peggy Sue starts the film as a shell of her former self, reluctant to engage old friends because of the natural life-comparison that occurs at reunions. Throughout the film, her dalliances with a mysterious young beatnik and a reconnection with her immediate family changes her outlook, making her cognizant of the true value of the people in her adult life.
Coppola continues his collaboration with his nephew Nicolas Cage, who plays Peggy Sue’s estranged husband Charlie Bodell. A complete goober of a man, Charlie is presented as a schlubby, has-been appliance tycoon, but the past sequences show an outrageously energetic, wildly-bouffanted young man that aspires to fame and riches as a doo-wop singer. Those who take delight in Cage’s eccentric characterizations will find themselves satisfied in PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED—Cage adopts a strange vocal inflection for his character that’s nasally and off-putting. Coppola almost fired his own nephew over the voice, but somehow Cage argued his case and it stayed. The jury’s still out on whether it actually works or not, however.
The supporting cast is filled out with a variety of fresh faces that have since gone on to fame in their own right. A young Helen Hunt and Joan Allen make appearances as Peggy Sue’s daughter and high school friend, respectively. The most interesting bit of casting is a young Jim Carrey, who steals his scenes as class clown Walter Getz. This is Carrey even before his IN LIVING COLOR days; that unmistakable gawkiness blessed with the elasticity of youth. It’s really quite wild to see.
PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED is one of Coppola’s most straightforward-looking films. Shot on 35mm film and lensed by legendary Director of Photography Jordan Cronenweth, Coppola paints his idyllic Americana setting in naturally saturated and bright colors. Camerawork is non-intrusive, objectively and sedately capturing Coppola and returning Production Designer Dean Tavoularis’ midcentury rockabilly aesthetic. One might say it’s bland photography, but it effectively sets the tone of the story and allows the performances to take center stage.
For the music, Coppola once again collaborates with Bond composer John Barry, who creates a lushly romantic score with traditional string instruments. Like 1983’S THE OUTSIDERS before it, PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED also boasts a selection of classic rock-and-roll hits from acts like Buddy Holly, who sings the song from which the film takes its name.
Overall, there’s not a lot to the film that classifies it as distinctly Coppola’s. The only dead giveaway is the inclusion of his daughter Sofia as Peggy Sue’s kid sister. There’s a distinct lack of experimentation, which gives a rather anonymous quality to the direction, but perhaps that is why the film was so well-received. The age of Reagan wasn’t a particularly progressive time, so it makes sense that a box office hit could be achieved by playing it safe. But in doing so, Coppola is able to zero in on what makes a film like this work—emotion—and scores his first bonafide hit in years.
PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED is currently available on standard definition DVD.
Produced by: Paul R. Gurian, Barrie Osborne
Written by: Jerry Leichtling, Arlene Sarner
Director of Photography: Jordan Cronenweth
Editor: Barry Malkin
Production Designer: Dean Tavoularis
Music Composer: John Barry