‘Soapdish’ was a sweet ensemble comedy until a sour last note — Ultimate Movie Year

“Soapdish” was never funny enough to remain in the public consciousness like other 90s comedies, but if you’re a fan of the stars of the film, you’ll find great pleasure in their performances.

“Soapdish”
Released May 31, 1991
Directed by Michael Hoffman
Where to Watch

One of the fun things about deciding to watch a set of movies from a specific period — like the summer of 1991 — is that you’ll come across a film that sounds great on paper and has a loaded cast. While there’s no guarantee it will be great or even good, the odds are strong that a talented ensemble cast have enough to play off each other to make it a easy watch.

And for the first 95 percent of “Soapdish,” they succeed until the ugly cultural norms of the time cast a shadow upon the movie. That’s not the fault of the incredible cast here: Sally Field, Kevin Klein, Whoopi Goldberg, Robert Downey Jr., Elisabeth Shue, Cathy Moriarity, Carrie Fisher, Garry Marshall, Teri Hatcher, and Kathy Najimy. Their characters are all involved in producing the fictional daytime soap opera, “The Sun Also Sets.” Field plays Celeste, the star of the show constantly worried about being too old to play the lead. She’s right to be paranoid; co-stars Moriarity and Hatcher are among the supporting actresses looking to take the spotlight, partially with the help of a producer played by Downey. He tracks down Celeste’s former co-star and lover, Jeffrey (Klein), who’s playing Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” in the kind of dinner theater that forces him to bus tables mid-performance. Celeste is also surprised by her niece, Lori (Shue), who lands a part on the show playing a homeless mute. One of the people trying to make sense of all this is the show’s head writer, Rose (Goldberg), who remains protective of Celeste.

The farce of the movie is revealed when the outlandish behavior and plot twists of soap operas infect the behind-the-scenes dynamic of the show. Celeste stalks Jeffrey, especially after socially meeting with Lori, and finally explodes when Downey’s character forces Jeffrey and Lori to kiss on the show.

Director Michael Hoffman, whose prior experience was making independent features, took on a studio comedy because he enjoyed the script.

“I went back and looked at the ’30s and ’40s screwball comedies,” he said in 1991. “Once you have that groundwork established, you break all the rules of good directing — louder and faster. You keep turning up the heat until it boils.”

The movie turns up the heat to a final episode, where Celeste, Jeffrey, and Lori are put in a scene together to decide which of them will be written out of the show. However, the actors don’t receive the scripts before the shoot and have to read their lines off the teleprompter while on the air to maintain the surprise. What the producers didn’t think of is that Jeffrey is nearsighted, and therefore can’t read his lines off the prompter clearly.

It’s legitimately the funniest scene in the movie, but it’s a short-lived moment. There’s a black mark on the film, and it’s a final climactic reveal. It is grounded in a transphobic joke in such poor taste that it becomes a blemish for the preceding 90 minutes. “Soapdish” isn’t the only early 90s movie to put transgender people at the center of villainy and mockery from the characters in the film and audience, but as the years go on and society gains a greater understanding of what it means to be empathetic to all people, situations like these age as horribly as the blackface trends of classic Hollywood. What makes this moment especially damaging is that it wasn’t a throwaway joke but a key plot point in the finale of a movie, making us all recontextualize the entire film.

The movie received mixed reviews upon release, earning a 71 percent approval rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes and 63 percent from audiences.

‘“‘Soapdish’ is pure joy, a lemon-fresh spoof of daytime drama that does the dishing and may even soften your hands,” wrote Rita Kempley in The Washington Post. “An uproarious look behind the scenes of a fictional soap opera, it soaks the conventions of the genre with unfailing zest to leave a shine so bright you can see your face in it — art mirroring life and all that. Considering the intricacy of the plot and how easy comedy is to belabor, ‘Soapdish’ is amazingly streamlined and coherent. A new and improved approach to summer comedy, it brightens as it lightens the days of our lives.”

“Soapdish” was a modest success at the box office, grossing $36.5 million on an estimated $25 million budget. The movie debuted in second place for the weekend with a $6.7 million gross, sticking around in theaters for just over a month before newer blockbuster films like “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” knocked it out of the weekend rankings.

“Soapdish” was never funny enough to remain in the public consciousness like other 90s comedies, but if you’re a fan of the stars of the film, you’ll find great pleasure in their performances. Field seems to be playing up and off her famous Oscar speech, “You like me!” Goldberg just won an Academy Award for her role in 1990’s “Ghost,” and Klein, one of the top mustache looks ever, is in top comedic form. If anything, the biggest surprise is seeing Downey hold back and not play the hyper-intelligence that made him an icon as Tony Stark in the Marvel movies.

Even with that cast, the last few minutes are a heartbreaker.

At the Box Office: The winner of Memorial Day weekend, “Backdraft,” was the top box office draw for a second week in a row, earning $9.1 million to bring its total earnings to $28.2 million. “Soapdish” wasn’t that far behind with its $6.7 million opening, closely followed by “What About Bob?,” earning $6.4 million, and “Thelma & Louise,” remaining in fourth place with $4.2 million. The John Candy comedy “Only the Lonely” maintains its spot in the top five with a $3.6 million gross during the movie’s second week.

In the News: One of the most notable NBA finals in history is about to kick off as Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers play Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in a best of seven series; President George H.W. Bush denounced a Democratic civil rights bill designed to protect employees from job discrimination; Forces in the country of Angola sign a peace treaty, ending a 16-year civil war; Mariah Carey retained her top spot on the Billboard charts with her single, “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” but Extreme was rising through the charts to second place with their song, “More Than Words.”

Next Week: “Jungle Fever”

Originally published at https://www.ultimatemovieyear.com on May 28, 2021.

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Mark Ciemcioch

Mark Ciemcioch

Movie enthusiast. Follow and subscribe for exclusive content!