When I was first assigned Soap Dish, I thought, cool, I saw that in the movies. I don’t remember anything about it, but I remember seeing it. I asked my wife about it and she didn’t remember even seeing it. Then she saw that Whoopi Goldberg was in it and she remembered that we did, indeed, see it in the movies. Neither one of us could remember what it was about, though. Usually, if I’ve seen a movie, I recognize it sometime while watching it again. That didn’t happen with Soap Dish, even though I had vague recollections of things that were about to happen. I remembered that Cathy Moriarty was in it and that she was good, which I remember surprised me at the time, even though she’d cracked me up as Vikky in Raging Bull. I remembered that she was the best thing in the movie. But I still didn’t remember the movie. About halfway through watching the movie for the second time in a row, and not remembering anything about watching it the first time, I realized: Soap Dish is an incredibly forgettable film. Even now, moments after watching it the second time through, I’m having trouble remembering what happened, and I’m looking at notes.
The plot of Soap Dish is simple enough. Sandwiched between two Daytime Emmy Award shows, Celeste Talbert, soap star on the show The Sun Also Sets, wins the gold-plated Best Overactress statue, while her costar Montana promises Moorehead to a producer, David Seton Barnes, if he’ll make the audience hate the “menopausal hag.” Celeste has been having a bad week that started when her boyfriend went back to his wife and kids in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh. Celeste drowns her sorrows in Stoli. The show is doing so bad “Quiz shows are beating us. There’s a lady making sausages who almost tied us.” Because they’ve been reduced to showing “Jamaican homeless people sucking soup” which is “depressing and expensive,” two words producers hate. They prefer peppy and cheap. To boost ratings, the producers suggest the star go into a coma, but “actors don’t like to play coma, it limits their range.” Rose Schwartz, the head writer, takes care of Celeste. Takes her to the mall and points her out to the shoppers so they can mob her for autographs. Looking out for her friend’s future she suggests Celeste take that six month leave to go to Tibet and see the Dalai Lama, who’s in L.A., so they visit Fernando Lama. The producers settle for letting Celeste kill a deaf and dumb (“No head. No lips. No vocal cords. No lines.” If she doesn’t have lines, she doesn’t have to get paid) homeless woman, played by soap newcomer Lori Craven, who happens to be the daughter Talbot had with an actor she got fired from the soap years ago, Jeffrey Anderson. On their “fourth date. One more date and we would’ve had a Greek tragedy on our hands.” The producers let the stars’ lives blend with their characters and it turns the show around. Celeste steps in front of a bus and signs more autographs. Montana turns out to be a guy named Milton and Craven goes on to win an Overactress award herself.
Soap Dish has an all-star cast, headed by Sally Field. The aging surfer girl with something extra was flying high as a nun with multiple personalities because she unionized, dumped Burt Reynolds and found a place in Hollywood’s heart. Everyone in the movies liked her. We know they liked her because she told us they did. She had a box of chocolates to prove it. In 2007, Field was horribly censored for an insensitive call to peace during her own Emmy appearance. As Celeste Talbot, Field is playing against type and into it. Talbot has destroyed the lives of the people she loves most and she did it without even realizing it was happening or that it had anything to do with her. She is conniving and confused, manipulative and charming, over the top and around the bend and she gets to cry in almost every scene at least once. That’s also how she bullied her frail-boned way into Lincoln. It looks like she wanted to have fun making Soap Dish, it looks like everyone made this for the fun of it. But, like any party where you have too much fun, you don’t remember it in the morning.
Kevin Kline had done his time in soaps as Woody Reed on Search for Tomorrow. He overcame the stigma of the being “America’s Olivier,” having Sophie’s Choice as a debut film, reinvigorating the western and chilling apartheid before sniffing his own boots and embracing his inner ham as Jeffrey Anderson. And Kline’s ham comes with a lot of cheese. It’s not the government cheese that he doled out in January Man, but a fragrant limburger of bitter quickies and Collins Avenue early bird dinner theater leftovers. This after he’s “Seen things in Europe. European things.” Soap Dish remains the only place to see Kline scream the part of Willie Loman in the American theater classic, “Death of a Salesman.”
I can’t be sure of my details, but I remember seeing Whoopi Goldberg in 1983 in a late-night club in Chelsea working out the material I later saw on HBO. I remember she was able to build joke on joke and then add that one social element that made you choke on your laughter. That was the punchline, you almost felt bad for laughing. Almost. Whoopi hasn’t come that close to the edge in years and Soap Dish was one of the files that dulled the claws of her attack. Whoopi telephoned this in. Even Clara didn’t have the Heart to tell her that Rose Schwartz was a ghost of her former self.
Robert Downey Jr. has been acting since he was five. A lot has been said to lay the blame of his substance abuse problems to lax and liberal parenting, but when they sentenced Downey to treatment, it was for Soap Dish flashbacks. Six gallons of water and 5,000 ccs of vitamin B a day doesn’t clean David Seton Barnes out of your system. He was one year away from a roll of great roles that started with Chaplin, but this sad clown didn’t play well without the grease paint. Cathy Moriarty was an early hit as Robert De Niro’s young wife Vikki in Raging Bull. Her attitude matched anything he had to throw at her. She cracked wise and sexy as Ramona in Neighbors with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. She’d go on to star with Andrew Dice Clay in Bless This House on CBS, which TV Guide ranked number 48 on their list of 50 Worst Shows of All Time.
The writers should wash out their mouths with the scum on the bottom of the Soap Dish, not for cursing or pushing boundaries, which they don’t, but for wasting Gary Marshall and Carrie Fisher. Gary Marshall only ever does a few minutes in any movie he’s in, and he usually makes the most of those moments. It’s better that he gets no screen time than unfunny screen time. The same could be said of Princess Leia. Carrie Fisher has always been a soap opera. She was born a soap opera. She was the daughter of a soap opera romance and she turned her soap opera life into the book, and later movie, Postcards from the Edge. As Betsy Faye Sharon, she gets meager moments, a couple wise cracks and they’re done with her. Leaving her to do some Wishful Drinking.
Elisabeth Shue was The Karate Kid’s girlfriend and earned pocket cash with Adventures in Babysitting before finding Oscar territory after Leaving Las Vegas in 1995. She is intent on acting as Lori Craven, while everyone else is performing. Lois Lane herself, Teri Hatcher, plays Ariel Maloney who plays Dr. Monica Demonico and who wants to play with Jeffrey Anderson (He notices her beautiful eyes and she says “they’re nothing compared with my tits,” which as any Seinfeldian can tell you: they’re real. and they’re spectacular.”) The put-upon costumer Tawny Miller was played by Kathy Najimy, the voice of Peggy Hill on King of the Hill. Before going into the movies she teamed with Mo Gaffney as the duo Kathy and Mo in two great Off Broadway shows.
Talk about a soap opera. When he was eight, Aaron Spelling was bullied and psychosomatically lost the use of his legs and was sent to bed for a year. He went on to become a cheerleader at Southern Methodist University. Doesn’t it usually happen the other way? It’s Spelling I blame for the adult onset ADD that came over me while watching this movie. Spelling was made to sell soap. The Rookies just came out of the wash and Charlie’s Angels doused their T-shirts, even the undercover hippies on The Mod Squad looked scrubbed and shampooed. He’d go on to sell acne cream to former teenagers on Beverly Hills 90210. His sheen is all over Soap Dish. He’s also famous for his “What if she can’t act? That’s never stopped us before” school of casting.
Soap Dish is one of many frantic Hollywood attempts to make fun of itself, so why should I bother? Because I get paid: It’s a labor of self-loving, self-referential in-jokes that tries too hard for its own or anyone’s good. It shoots out jokes like an Uzi shoots bullets but never really takes the care to aim and most of them get flattened against the fake movable walls of the daytime drama’s set. Almost the entire cast of Soap Dish had nude statuettes on their mantel shelves and each of them is slumming here. Soap operas are supposed to sell soap. They’re supposed to make domestic caretakers feel steamy and dirty and smelling of sex. I didn’t even need to gargle.