Movie Review – Peggy Sue Got Married

Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
Written by Jerry Leichtling & Arlene Sarner
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

To paraphrase Rick James, nostalgia is a hell of a drug. The fawning over past decades has reached a high-pitched furor in American culture at the moment. The 1980s seem to be evergreen. The fashions of the 1990s are rearing their heads again. Sadly, the austerity of the 1970s appears to be coming back too. Political movements like the crypto-fascist MAGA ideologies are rooted in delusions of the past. Look at how QAnoners are convinced that their favorite celebrities of their youth aren’t really dead and will come back. Boomer MAGA, like my mother, are lost in the insanity that believes JFK is still alive. Gen Xers and Millennials in the movement talk about Michael Jackson still living out there somewhere. It’s a rather widespread hysterical version of the Elvis sightings I remember hearing about as a kid. 

Nostalgia is seductive because it promises an escape from the complexity & gray reality of now to the “easy” and “simple” fantasy of the past. Now, any reasonable person understands this is a mental illusion. The past seems simple to us because we were less developed in our thinking and children, so we didn’t worry or realize how bleak things were. There can be some better elements; look at the cost of higher education and buying a home in the 1960s & 70s as compared to now. But the ideologues don’t ever touch on those facts as they are at heart anti-materialist, pushing a mystic way of thinking. Francis Ford Coppola doesn’t seem to lose himself in nostalgic fantasies and is more interested in going back to reveal those complexities most people ignore.

Peggy Sue Bodell (Kathleen Turner) is a 43-year-old woman whose life had not turned out how she imagined when she was a teenager. Her marriage to Charlie (Nicolas Cage) has resulted in a separation and likely divorce due to his infidelity. Peggy attends her 25-year high school reunion with her daughter Beth (Helen Hunt) and sees how different life has been for her old friends and acquaintances. Richard Norvik, the school nerd, is now the most successful person who has made billions as an inventor. Richard is ironically voted the “king of the prom,” while Peggy wins the award of the queen. Once on stage, she’s overwhelmed and faints, only to wake up 25 years earlier as a high schooler again. Peggy retains all her knowledge of the future and isn’t sure if she’s having a mental breakdown or if this is real. She decides this is her opportunity to redo her life and tries to break up with Charlie so she can spend her twenties being independent, but it comes with more complications than she realizes.

The film didn’t begin as a Coppola project. Instead, Jonathan Demme was hired to direct, and Debra Winger would star as Peggy. Demme couldn’t agree with the studio on a creative direction for the picture, so he left, and Penny Marshall was brought on board. The same thing happened with Marshall and the producers, leading to Winger quitting out of loyalty to her director. The producers went to Coppola, who was still working to pay off his debts, and they thought it might bring back Winger. Instead, they had to cast someone new, which was Kathleen Turner. Coppola brought along his nephew Cage, who’d had small roles in almost every movie he made in the 1980s. Sofia Coppola also pops up as Peggy’s sister; playing the little sister was something she’s done opposite Diane Lane in Rumble Fish. 

My favorite thing about Coppola’s approach to nostalgia here is that the purpose of our lives is not to solve every problem that comes up as we go about our existence. Instead, we must learn which problems we can accept & deal with and which we must let go of. He is communicating the idea that love cannot conquer all but that love is what makes the rough parts of life tolerable & good. While Back to the Future presents an unrealistic idealism where Marty can literally change the timeline, Peggy Sue is a movie about understanding why something is difficult now by looking back to the roots of the problem. You cannot uproot things, but you can develop a way to process disappointment & betrayal so that you can keep living. For Peggy, she understands that changing things would mean her children wouldn’t exist, which is intolerable. Charlie is a complete doofus, but he’s not a bad person; he’s also dealing with the disappointment of unrealized dreams and making bad choices.

Both Peggy Sue and Back to the Future focus not on changing the significant events of the period (e.g., The JFK assassination) but on the stories of regular people. History may be framed as large-scale conflicts between “great men,” but what we experience is something completely different. Wars and upheavals are backdrops for small, quiet stories of people. Having foreknowledge would undoubtedly make all of us live out our pasts if we were sent back. I will often think about how much better I would do in college now with my work ethic and how much better my writing has developed. However, I contemplate if making these choices would lead me down such a radically different path. For example, I might have never met and married Ariana, which is unacceptable. So, should I accept the struggles I’ve had as a part of my development as a person? They were not my destiny, and not all of them were things I liked that happened to me. But would I still have the parts of me I do love without them? Maybe I would be happier? I can’t imagine that because the person I am with, the way things turned out, is the perfect person for me.

Nostalgia may feel good in moments; letting your mind drift back to the way things were and fantasizing about what you might change is fun. However, life is far more complex than that. Coppola clearly understands that and can deliver a fun, pleasant comedy in Peggy Sue Got Married. I didn’t find myself laughing too loudly, but it is a movie that makes me smile. More importantly, it squashes the idea that radically upending your past would result in a better life. We have no destinies, just experiences; what we do with those is up to us.


One thought on “Movie Review – Peggy Sue Got Married”

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