Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Frankie and Johnny–twenty years on


Twenty years on – and “Frankie and Johnny” has arguably improved with age. This is because it deals with the rawest human emotions and vulnerabilities and shows that when life is tough the need for community is greatest. Even if, maybe especially if, the members of that community are as dysfunctional and scarred as we are. For many of the characters in this movie life has been very tough indeed. The restaurant where Johnny gets a job, and where Frankie works, is at the centre of the lives of many of its regulars. It does not have “Community Centre” on a sign above the door – but this is, in effect, what it is. The tolerant proprietor, Nick, sympathetically portrayed by Hector Elizondo, has built that community and he is as protective of his customers as he is of his staff. Nick is a Greek-American and it is subtly suggested that the customers and employees at his little restaurant are a sort of extended Greek family - although in fact they are as ethnically diverse as New York can be.

“Frankie and Johnny” is above all about loneliness. Frankie has a real family – we see them at the beginning at a christening – but it is clear that they have their own lives and that Frankie, partly out of choice, is not really part of that world. As the film develops we start to realise that Frankie’s introspection and the barriers she erects around herself are attributable to a couple of failed relationships in the past. In one her partner left her for her best friend and in the other she was physically abused to the extent that she cannot have children. Johnny is equally damaged. We see him released from prison but it is not until quite late in the film that it is revealed that his crime, whilst serious, was a one-off fraud and that he is no serial offender. In prison he learned to cook and that is now more than just a job to him – it has become a passion. Johnny was married but his wife left him and took their two children into a new relationship. There is a brief poignant vignette when Johnny watches his children with their mother and new “father” in an American dream suburban family scene – complete with white picket fence. He leaves without revealing his presence.

From early in the movie it is clear that Frankie and Johnny are made for each other. Despite the wounds they carry (actual physical wounds to her head in Frankie’s case) they are good caring people – albeit that like Nick they do this without wearing a “Social Worker” badge. Frankie has a moving relationship with a Gay neighbour, Tim (Nathan Lane) that manages to avoid being patronising or clichéd. Similarly her bonding with her fellow workers is natural and important to them all – not least Cora the archetypical strong, no-nonsense New York woman who, deep down, is as lonely as she is. Like all the characters Cora is deeper than, and different to, her veneer. When a woman heavily pregnant with twins comes to the restaurant she touches her belly and says “People think I'm a tough bitch, but it ain't true. Shit like this chokes me up.”

That Frankie and Johnny will eventually end up happily together seems obvious form the start, but that doesn’t always happen in the movies does it? Along the way they battle, largely out of fear on Frankie’s side. Johnny ardour is declared early on and we don’t doubt that it is genuine. Frankie is more circumspect – unsurprisingly given the extent that she has been damaged by her last relationships. So whilst the romance is strong a happy ending is not certain and when it happens we are grateful because it is uplifting to think that even if the barriers are high they can sometimes be removed in the interests of true love.

The casting of Frankie and Johnny is very good and all the minor characters, however crazy they may be are utterly credible because they are so well played. As for the leads both Pacino and Pfeiffer give sensitive and credible performances although both of them are so devastatingly good looking that they do seem a bit out of place amongst the ordinary New Yorkers who are very “West Side” in appearance rather than Upper East. Not many of them shop on Fifth Avenue whereas Frankie and Johnny do look a bit like people who habitually do this, except on dress-down day. Nevertheless although they are younger and lovelier than the characters in the original stage play (“Frankie and Johnny in the Clair De Lune”) this works fine and doesn’t detract from the heart and the humanity of the story.

A year or so after Frankie and Johnny was released the long running TV series Friends premiered. One of the central characters in Friends was, of course, Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston) who was initially a waitress in a Coffee House with a history of complex and damaging relationships behind her. Rachel Green is not Frankie – but there is a strong parallel not least because it is “friends” in both cases who provide the support when it’s needed. Frankie says at one point “I'm afraid. I'm afraid to be alone, I'm afraid not to be alone. I'm afraid of what I am, what I'm not, what I might become, what I might never become. I don't want to stay at my job for the rest of my life but I'm afraid to leave. And I'm just tired, you know, I'm just so tired of being afraid”. The message of Frankie and Johnny is that friends can reduce that fear. Love can take it away.


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