Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Produced by Paul R. Gurian
Written by Jerry Leichtling, Arlene Sarner
Cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth
Edited by Barry Malkin
Music by John Barry
American Zoetrope, Rastar
Distributed by TriStar Pictures
(1:43) Columbia TriStar DVD (Rewatch, 2x)
This doesn’t happen very often: You rewatch a movie you’d moderately enjoyed several years ago, expecting nothing more than a couple of hours’ diversion from the real (and frightening) world. Maybe it was a movie you’d mostly dismissed since viewing it all those years ago, only this time it knocks you to the floor, not just because it affects you on a personal level, but also because it’s so astonishingly good.
I first saw Peggy Sue Got Married in 1986, thought it was mildly entertaining, and moved on. I revisited the film this week and was completely overwhelmed. The film hadn’t changed, but I had. I don’t think a sense of nostalgia is totally responsible for my reaction. It’s certainly a part of it, but there’s much more going on here.
In 1985, Peggy Sue Bordell (Kathleen Turner), a woman with two teenagers and currently separated from her high-school sweetheart husband Charlie (Nicolas Cage), reluctantly shows up to her 25-year high school reunion, blacks out, and finds herself transported to 1960, her senior year.
If you haven’t seen Peggy Sue Got Married, you’ve probably seen other time-travel movies like it (most notably Back to the Future, released one year earlier). You know the tropes to be explored: What will Peggy Sue do differently this time? What will she do to change the future? How will she get back? The first question is the one the film is most concerned with. How does Peggy Sue, a woman in her 40s, behave with her parents, her teenage friends, and a world she’s moved away from? Or has she moved away from it?
Primarily, will she make the same mistake with Charlie, a man she thought she knew, who turned out to be the “Crazy Charlie” of a multitude of TV commercials and, more importantly, an adulterer? With what she knows now, maybe she’ll try to befriend the math/science nerd (Barry Miller) who will grow up to be a famous inventor, or perhaps indulge her fantasies of Michael (Kevin J. O’Connor), a cool, yet remote loner immersed in poetry and literature.
If you were watching this film in 1986, you probably - fairly or unfairly - compared it to the massively popular Back to the Future. Although both films are set in roughly the same era (1960 and 1955, respectively), Back to the Future is essentially a quest story; Peggy Sue Got Married is primarily concerned with character. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) just wants somebody to believe him so he can get back home. Peggy Sue is on a journey of self-discovery: Can she, should she, change things this time around?
As Peggy Sue, Kathleen Turner does a marvelous job of convincingly portraying a character in conflict with herself. Who wouldn’t want to go back to the best, most care-free days of their lives? How tempting it would be to simply give in to those desires and emotions, to simply revel in that world? Yet a mature Peggy Sue is able to look beyond the allure of nostalgia, having the advantage not only of knowing the future, but also of the complexities of the relationships (especially with Charlie) surrounding her. People tend to forget that Turner (who’s done mostly TV and voice work for the past 20 years) has tremendous range. Her comedy timing is superb and she can quickly bring you to tears with moments that will rip your heart out. Shortly after she’s arrived back in 1960, Peggy Sue knows she’s going to need something to get her through this, so she snatches a drink from her father’s liquor shelf, the results of which shock her parents, but present the audience with a wonderfully-constructed comedic scene. Yet later, when Peggy Sue receives a phone call from her grandmother - who in 1985 had been dead for years - it’s a stunningly powerful moment. (People also tend to forget that Turner was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for this role and won Best Actress from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures.)
As for Charlie, Peggy Sue’s return to 1960 allows her to see him initially as someone not to be trusted this time around. She knows what he’s going to do to her life, despite the lovable Fabian-imitating guy who takes nothing seriously except his desire to become a singing teen idol. She’s had 25 years to reflect on him, to see the genesis of where he’s going to take her, but is that knowledge also causing her to miss something important?
Peggy Sue Got Married forced me to ask several questions of myself. What if I’d told the girl that meant so much to me in high school that I loved her? What if I’d spent more time on writing instead of music? Did I allow what was a hobby to become a career? Would I still be the same person I am now? Though not specifically asked, Peggy Sue allows us to reflect on those and similar questions. Even more, it asks us to take our accumulated knowledge back with us and ponder just what we’d do with it. We might be tempted to think, “Yeah, I know exactly what I’d do differently if I had another chance,” but do we really? Teenagers often don’t think about the repercussions or consequences of their actions, and although many adults don’t either, 25 years of experience can (or should) teach you a thing or two.
Another remarkable moment occurs late in the film when Peggy Sue visits her grandparents. This is a tremendous opportunity that might make most people watching it jealous, yet we can enjoy experiencing the moment vicariously. I only knew one of my grandparents and I was so young when my grandmother died, I remember very little about her, but if I knew I could spend just 10 minutes with my Uncle Billy again, I’d do just about anything to get there. Of course, what we often fail to recognize is that we should treasure the time we’re able to spend with friends and loved ones right now. Obviously the pandemic makes that impossible for many of us. Maybe that’s part of why Peggy Sue Got Married hit me so hard this week.
I’m convinced there’s something inside each of us that’s longing for what was lost, something we could’ve changed, or perhaps something that was never there in the first place, but we wish had been. Those memories are strong and sometimes they make us laugh, cry, or simply reflect. By its very nature, a time travel story can do that, but it’s usually at the expense of the thrilling, adventurous aspects of the tale. We want the protagonist to come back having righted some wrong, changed history for the better, or simply to have made better choices this time around. But with Peggy Sue Got Married, we might just learn something important about ourselves.
I remember being disappointed with the film’s ending when I first saw it, and I think many other viewers felt the same way, but now - perhaps after having much more life experience - the ending somehow feels right. Life is rarely simple and the lessons we learn from it often don’t manifest themselves until much, much later. But as I always tell others, everything happens for a reason, even revisiting a movie from more than 30 years ago.
Photos: Golden Globes, The Rail of Tomorrow, Blu-ray.com, Brightest Young Things, Screen Slate