Used People (1992): Soap Opera, Starring Jessica Tandy, Kathy Bates, Marcia Gay-Harden–and Mastroianni

The success of Steel Magnolias, featuring an all-star cast headed by Sally Field, Julia Roberts and Shirley MacLaine, and this year’s two sleepers Fried Green Tomatoes, with Kathy Bates and Jessica Tandy, and the British comedy Enchanted April continues to prove that there is a viable market for small, intimate movies about women. Melodramatic in nature, these narratives also provide good, “meaty” roles for female stars in an industry still dominated by action adventures, male-oriented pictures, and male stars.

How else could you explain the release of three movies this week, all centering on women’s problems and emotions: the comedy-melodrama Used People, John Sayles’ Passion Fish, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s star vehicle Love Field. Regrettably, all three movies are disappointing, though for different reasons.

“Relationships” and melodramatic trappings also dominate Used People, a three-generational comedy-drama that in many ways is a throwback to the kinds of films made–and enjoyed–in the 1950s.  Still, it is hard to dismiss completely a movie that shrewdly cast some of the American cinema’s best–and oldest–actresses. Watching this all-star confection, I was relieved when Shirley MacLaine, who has given some of the worst performances of her career since she had won an Oscar Award, was not overacting as she did in Madame Sousatzka and Steel Magnolias.

If Sayles’ Passion Fish is a soap opera without tears, Used People is a grand soap opera–with plenty of suds.

Set in New York’s Queens in l969, the narrative stars MacLaine as Pearl Berman, a middle-aged Jewish widow and matriarch of an extended family consisting of her commonsensical mother (Jessica Tandy) and her two “problematic” daughters: Freida (Kathy Bates) and Norma (Marcia Gay-Harden).

The dysfunctional family is thrown off its already shaky balance, when a charming Italian widower (Marcello Mastroianni) proposes marriage to the very Jewish Pearl. Need I go further and tell the rest of the story and how it resolves Suffice is to say that the movie contains all the familiar stereotypes about Jewish and Italian sub-cultures.

British director Beeban Kidron, whose Antonia and Jane was one of the funniest comedies last year, unabashedly goes for caricature and easy laughs. I had a few laughs watching Marcia Gay-Hayden emulating–not unlike Michelle Pfeiffer in Love Field–pop culture icons Marilyn Monroe or Barbra Streisand and enacting Anne Bancroft’s great seduction scene from The Graduate.

Rachel Portman’s score, which may remind you of Italian movie music (Nino Rotta and company), helps to unify the highly disjointed, TV-like movie. Still, the level of acting is pretty accomplished overall, though the most impressive acting is rendered by that old trooper, Sylvia Sidney, as Jessica Tandy’s friend and companion, in a witty, well-written part.

In a year, which is not exactly great for female performances, some of the actresses in the three aforementioned movies, Passion Fish, Love Field, and Used People, are bound to receive Oscar nominations and perhaps awards for their work.