ANGIE, I Says
On the surface, Martha Coolidge’s Angie — which was released on March 4, 1994 — seems like a strange film to choose to talk about from a watershed year that also gave us Pulp Fiction, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Last Seduction, Amateur, Crooklyn, and many of my other all-time favorites. In 1994, I was fifteen going on sixteen. I loved movies. I’d gotten very serious about them, writing a couple of terrible scripts, and watching as many movies a week as I could, usually around ten, most of them rented from my neighborhood video store or borrowed from the library. I loved the things you’d probably expect a fifteen-year-old boy in the nineties to love: Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, especially. The thing is, though, Angie was shot in my neighborhood, and it’s loomed large in my imagination since for that reason.
I grew up on the border of Gravesend and Bensonhurst in Brooklyn. The chase scene from The French Connection was filmed under the El on Eighty-Sixth Street. Then there was John Travolta’s double-slice strut outside Lenny’s Pizza at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever. That was all before I was born. Angie was shot on streets I knew intimately and recognized as they were then. It was the first film where I was able to stand on the sidelines and watch the cast and crew work. I remember them filming at a market on Eighty-Sixth Street across from the Brooklyn Dungaree Warehouse, Geena Davis as tall as a god. I remember them filming outside of the Loew’s, the theater I went to most frequently until it closed in 1995 (Davis and three future cast members of The Sopranos are waiting to see Stallone’s Cliffhanger in the film; I saw Angie there in ’94).
Angie wasn’t very well-received, from what I remember. I think, in fact, it bombed. That didn’t much matter to me. At the time, I liked it. I liked seeing my neighborhood up on the big screen. I loved Davis. I mean, this was an actress who was coming off a holy trifecta: Quick Change, Thelma and Louise, and A League of Their Own. She dominated the era. I liked seeing James Gandolfini, who had been great as thug henchman Virgil in True Romance, in his first big role. I liked Stephen Rea, who’d been terrific in The Crying Game. Those were the main feelings that lingered these past twenty-five years. Angie was a conversation piece: “They shot that in my neighborhood. I saw Geena Davis and James Gandolfini — this is before he was a star — right there under the El.” I knew Martha Coolidge as the director of Real Genius, Valley Girl, and Rambling Rose, but I suspect I made more of that in passing years than I would’ve then.
And so I re-watched Angie recently with some sense of nostalgia for my neighborhood as it was when I was growing up, but also with the hope that it would surprise me, that watching it would be about more than just thinking it was cool to see places I knew so well in a film. I am, at forty, a much different person than I was fifteen. As a viewer, I’m certainly bringing new things to the encounter; how and what I watch has changed considerably in the last twenty-five years. Angie did, in fact, surprise me in some very unexpected ways.
My first thought, only a few minutes into the film, was that it would’ve fit neatly as a part of The Sopranos film festival that Matt Zoller Seitz recently curated at the IFC Center. Angie boasts Gandolfini’s first big starring performance, as well as supporting turns by Aida Turturro and Michael Rispoli. In fact, those three performances are a big part of what makes the film work really well. I could imagine other actors having made caricatures of Gandolfini’s Vinnie, Turturro’s Tina (who has a stray “Fuhgettaboutit” early on), and Rispoli’s Jerry, but they bring real heart and authenticity to the roles. You can see Gandolfini doing so much of what makes his performance as Tony Soprano immortal. He’s full of fire, feeling like a stage actor swallowing up the theater in every scene, part Welles and part Brando.
But the movie lives and dies by Davis, and she’s wonderful. It must’ve been an easy decision for the studio to make Angie in the early nineties given the then-recent success of films like Moonstruck and My Cousin Vinny, but Davis — as incredible a career as she’d already had — was certainly no Marisa Tomei (born in nearby Midwood) and, thus, wasn’t an obvious choice to play Angie Scacciapensieri from Bensonhurst. Davis’s A League of Their Own castmate Madonna was originally slated to play the part but had to back out because of a conflict with Abel Ferrara’s Dangerous Game. Davis nailed it. It’s a performance that was praised by critics but garnered very little attention otherwise and was, in some way, the beginning of the end of her career as a leading lady. Speechless, Cutthroat Island, and The Long Kiss Goodnight (a movie I love deeply) would all tank in the following couple of years, and Davis, approaching forty, would be left out in the cold by Hollywood.
To see Davis here is to see an actress in her prime, giving complexity to a role that could’ve bordered on cartoonish. She could’ve gone too far with the accent. She could’ve gone too far with everything. But there’s no camp, only sincerity. And the character is, ultimately, not very likeable, which led to me liking her even more. She’s selfish and angry, and she feels trapped in the neighborhood. Davis’s nuanced performance gets this across in spades. Her Angie is “unlikeable” (or, to be more accurate, complicated in very human ways), but you’re with her. I am, at least. Audiences in 1994 must’ve rejected this unlikeablility as wholly undesirable. In the throes of a rom-com resurgence, they wanted their women bubbly and fun and easy to root for. What they got with Angie was a character who made bad, impulsive decisions, many of which a real world audience might’ve been hard-pressed to accept as feasible (though most people make such decisions often and with great fervor). Pregnant, Angie leaves her boyfriend Vinnie for an affair with Rea’s pretentious Noel. She picks fights with her stepmother and idealizes her mother, a woman originally from Texas who disappeared when she was a child. When Angie’s own baby is born with a birth defect and refuses to nurse, she rejects it and leaves Brooklyn for Texas to find the mother who abandoned her.
Like I said, as a viewer, I also brought new knowledge to the film this time around. Stuff I couldn’t have possibly seen at fifteen. The last few years have found me getting particularly interested in Pre-Code films, “women’s pictures” of the 1930s, and 1950s melodrama. Viewing Angie through this lens made me appreciate it more than I thought I could. Davis’s performance reminds me of Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas, for one. (And that’s a comparison that could go further. Davis is Stanwyck-ish in many ways. It’s hard not to imagine all that we’ve missed out on by Hollywood’s refusal to allow her to have the same type of rich and varied career.) Pre-Code films and “women’s pictures” were not afraid to have their characters make questionable decisions; the best of such films relied on complex, multi-dimensional portraits of morally-challenged women. Angie is looking for happiness outside of her small existence. When an affair doesn’t bring it and when being a mother doesn’t bring it, she hits the road. Like someone on the lam from a crime, she cuts her hair in a bus station bathroom in Tennessee. When she gets to Texas and finally tracks down her mentally ill mother, she is left without answers. An emergency drives her back to her newborn, and she must face down the consequences of her own decisions. Angie traces the exact moral arc of those exemplary and unconventional early films, marked by the tumultuous plot developments of the best melodramas, and I was all in, all the way, happy to exist in this gray area where it wasn’t exactly easy to cheer for Angie or to predict what her next move would be. Unlikeability is just so much more interesting.
As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, I was also inundated with stories about characters coming to New York City, and I was fairly obsessed with the notion of it as a place you could escape from. I loved the idea of Angie’s mother being from Texas, of Angie wanting to get to her, seeking some center that has not and seemingly will never exist for her in Bensonhurst. It was something I myself felt. I dreamed of the rest of America as a place I could run to, a place that would teach me something new. What Angie realizes in the film, ultimately, is simple but important: you can escape a place but you can never escape yourself.
Angie is an unjustly forgotten film. Coolidge’s work behind the camera deserves way more attention, as do the performances by Gandolfini, Turturro, and Rea. It would’ve been terrific to see it paired with something like Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge, another understated ’90s gem, at The Sopranos film festival. It’s hard to imagine that David Chase wouldn’t have been familiar with it, and even influenced by it, as he set out to cast The Sopranos. But it’s Saint Geena Davis, in all of her glory, to whom we should give our full attention. She’s one of our best actresses, and she’s been beyond neglected these last twenty-five years. Critical reappraisals have deservedly been kind to The Long Kiss Goodnight, in which she inhabits the role of action star, but in Angie she’s doing something in such a different register — a place where emotional turmoil and dark humor come crashing together — that it’s hard to believe her performance here has gone mostly unrecognized for so long.
I’m glad to see that Kino Lorber reissued Angie on Blu-ray and DVD in 2018, with extras that include a commentary from Coolidge, a featurette, and a deleted scene. I also recently picked up the book that the film is based on, Angie, I Says by Avra Wing, which is, in turn, an unjustly forgotten New York novel. In the end, I don’t think Angie is a film for everyone. It’s the kind of film that’s disarming in its unpredictability. The audience that it seems to have sought is the same one that made Sleepless in Seattle a huge hit for Nora Ephron in ’93. But this is no romantic comedy. It’s the story of a desperate woman on the ropes. It’s the story of a flawed woman who’s trying to understand who she is, what her blood is really made of. It’s a film built on its complex emotional commitments: what does it mean to be a daughter, a mother, a girlfriend, a friend, and where do you find yourself in all of that? There are no easy answers to be found in Angie, no easy message to take away, which is really what I like best about it.