#33 — Frankie and Johnny (Garry Marshall, 1991)
One of the widely agreed upon obligations for filmmakers bringing stage plays to the screen is “opening up” the action. The puzzle that playwrights need to solve is telling a wide-ranging story and developing compelling emotional journeys for characters with a single stage–therefore, often a single set–to work with. For the most skilled practitioners of the form, that confinement is no more problematic than the set pattern of a sonnet to a first rate poet. Still, it runs so contrary to the greatest strengths of movies–the ability to follow characters virtually anywhere, the grand scope of vividly realized worlds–that transferring a great stage effort to the screen with little tinkering runs the risk of making the story feel claustrophobic and boxed in, almost collapsing in on itself. The real challenge is maintaining what makes the play interesting in the first place while also expanding the material to make the movie feel like its own distinctive piece.
Frankie and Johnny accomplishes this difficult task remarkably well. Terrence McNally’s play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune includes only two roles, takes place in one apartment, and transpires across a single eventful evening as the title characters edge from one night stand to the possibility of a longer, more meaningful relationship. It is about the damage that people carry with them, and the need to push past the fear and tentativeness that it causes. It is about pain and healing. It is wryly funny and romantic in a way that jibes with the reality of how people tentatively come together. In adapting it for the screen, McNally keeps all of this, most crucially the tone of barely eluded total resignation. He also adds a complete, bustling life around the two main characters. There are coworkers and neighbors now, and the film spends as much time in the diner workplace shared by Frankie and Johnny as it does in her apartment. Every character is well thought out and wisely rendered. With efficiency, the film provides a strong sense of the hopes and disappointments of nearly everyone onscreen, all of them united by the quiet struggles they endure, mostly alone. The prominence of the workplace is significant as well. As the waitstaff contends with problematic patrons, the cooks juggle orders in the kitchen, and the two groups interact with barbed familiarity, the film develops a pointedly accurate depiction of working in the service industry. As opposed to many films where the character’s professions are at best an incidental detail, the people in Frankie and Johnny are believably working jobs, and tough jobs at that.
I don’t usually find Garry Marshall to be a particularly inspired or inspiring director. He has a point-and-shoot blandness that betrays all those years in rapid-fire television production. It’s a different matter here. It’s as if the quality of McNally’s script made him focus in a way that he doesn’t bother to do otherwise. He smoothly pulls together all the film’s moving pieces while giving his actors room to find and relay the inner bearings of their characters. When Frankie and Johnny was released, there was some snippy chatter about Michelle Pfeiffer being too pretty to play the emotionally fragile Frankie, but she proves the naysaying nonsense with a sterling, resonant performance. She embodies the film’s themes, and transforms them from theory into something genuine, something that leaves a mark. With kindness and empathy, she drives him the film’s most moving idea: gloomy as things may seem, there’s always a chance that hope can crack through the darkness again.