Rethinking ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’

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*Editor’s note: I originally wrote this on Tumblr but never published it. It stayed in my drafts for years. I have since consequently deleted my Tumblr account. I also talked about this film on a podcast I did in 2013. If you’re interested in listening to that podcast you can find it here.  Also, I realize this isn’t horror-related but hey, I like film and not always blood-splattered ones. 

Sometimes, when you talk about a film, you talk about yourself. It’s often revealing to dissect a movie because you are essentially deconstructing things while also deconstructing yourself along the way. Art is life – life is art and it is both delightful and painful to re-watch movies you have not seen for some time, but it’s an experience I recommend; especially if your memory of a film is either one of either great joy or disgust. Why? People mature.

I’m paraphrasing Roger Ebert here but the way in which you view a piece of art changes over time, or at least that’s the way it’s supposed to work. More often than not, when you re-watch a movie, you will discover new things about it, the story line and, more importantly, yourself. Sometimes these things will throw you for a loop if enough time passes.

Take ‘Peggy Sue Got Married,‘ for example, released in 1986 and directed by Francis Ford Coppola of all people. Now, I was never a huge fan of this film as a kid. In fact, I hated it. I couldn’t relate to it at all and promptly forgot about it. For one it’s an extremely “White” film, which is fine but it teeters on the surreal, a la Leave It To Beaver meets The Twilight Zone, but that’s kind of the point. Long story short, I watched it decades later and was surprised how much I enjoyed it.

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For one thing, it’s a time travel flick, but it’s not a typical time travel flick where you focus on the science and technology to achieve such a thing, nor the inherent paradoxes that come with. I read a review that called this film a melodrama – which makes a lot of sense because it does tug at the so-called heart-strings throughout most of the movie (credit to the score for that), but you need the right kind of eyes (and ears) on to see/hear them, otherwise it’s just hokey.

To put it another way; this was not a film made for children who lack experiences of being removed from the glory days (see: daze) of high school by decades, parenting and marital/career problems. Coppola made it for people thick in the throes of middle age who wonder what it would be like to do it all over again.

Here’s the story line (from IMDB):

“A 43-year-old mother and housewife who’s facing divorce is thrust back in time when she attends her high-school reunion. Given the chance to change the course of her life, she finds herself making many of the same choices.”

Simple enough premise, right? Peggy Sue is also an 80’s film, but it never feels like an 80’s film, nor does it look like one. I attribute this magic to it being a period piece (early 60’s) but also to masterful cinematography, set design, costumes, score and also its direction. Peggy Sue Got Married is a very well-put-together film (Oscar nomination-worthy), and yet this film is almost 30 years old, which gives it a surreal feeling considering the main characters goes back in time herself 25 years…

Which brings me to my next point: It’s a Francis Ford Coppola film!

This really surprised me. It shouldn’t but it did. Coppola, responsible for such gritty and hard-hitting classics as Apocalypse Now and The Godfather, sort of just “fell” into this screenplay after more than a few people passed on it. It never feels like a Coppola film, however.

The ending bothered me this second time around. I felt cheated. I had no memory of how the film ended so I was kept in suspense to see what happens to Peggy Sue…

I left Kathleen Turner embracing Nicolas Cage on the screen, like a burned negative from a film roll over exposed, while I considered the possibilities.

At first, I felt that this was the wrong ending and that Coppola made a mistake. Or maybe the studio pushed for this bleak and hurried resolve to the film? Not so. After some reading and careful thought, I decided that the ending, while bleak, was the most probable. Why?

What would you do if you were transported back to your senior year in high school? What would you do differently? I ask this question as a person pushing forty and direct it at those of similar age or older. In the film, Peggy Sue goes back 25 years in time. That’s important to the premise and detrimental to being able to relate to the film.

This was not a kid’s film. Coppola knew that. It came out within a couple of years of  the wildly successful Back to the Future movie, which seems juvenile in premise compared to Peggy Sue. It was also close to The Terminator…imagine Peggy Sue goes back to destroy Skynet only to be chased by Ahnold…never mind. 

I read somewhere that Peggy Sue is a more “personal” version of Back to the Future (see: melodrama) that confronts the 80’s nostalgia for the 50’s/60’s and exposes the emptiness there. That’s a huge point, in my opinion, and possibly greater than the film’s obvious question of: what would you do?

I believe this is relevant now more than ever because we still have a nostalgia for that era, only it’s a political agenda these days, i.e. “take our country back!” and Leave it to Beaver politics (see: No Brown/Black people in sight on Beaver’s and Wally’s block).

I often dream of time travel and ask myself what would I do if given the opportunity? It’s a maddening question if you ponder it long enough but it is universal. What is not universal is the realization that the past was not all that we remember it to be. Peggy Sue learns this the hard way and we learn it with her.

Most of my personal time travel fantasies revolve around trying to help people avoid catastrophe or doing things over in my own life, knowing what I know now, which is the point of Peggy Sue. Thing is, she decided to play her cards the same way and I realized that I’d probably do the same. Maybe…

And that’s the killer thing about the ending –  it seems bleak at first until you realize, there’s no place like home…hello Wizard of Oz, Dorothy made it home and everything on the farm is just fine…Again, this film delivers on many levels but you have to be able to see it. And I realize that some people will probably still find it hokey and corny but such is life.

High School, I’ve learned, impacts many things years and years later, some more obvious than others. People rarely break those social molds, which is a creepy truth that Peggy Sue learns not once but twice. Given the chance to do it all over again would I choose differently? I honestly cannot say but man, it would be a blast to experience it again.

Or maybe it wouldn’t.

What say you?

 

 

 

 

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