Soap operas are the dirty secret of the entertainment world; watched by millions of loyal viewers, they have no aim other than to provide disposable entertainment to the masses. There’s few boxed sets or greatest hits; it’s all one and done, captured, broadcast and forgotten, the fish and chip paper of today’s digital world. Cinema aspires to immortality, and so making a few cracks at the expense of tv’s most popular balm is understandable; Michael Hoffman’s Soapdish attempts to parody the genre with a knowing script by Andrew Bergman and an ideal cast.
Robert Downey Jr is arguably the central role here, playing tv impresario David Seyton Barnes, and responsible for the content of a daytime soap called The Sun Also Sets. Barnes has problems with diva Celeste Talbert (Sally Field) who has just welcomed her daughter Lori (Elizabeth Shue) to the set, with the other cast and crew-members unaware of their connection. Things get complicated when Barnes brings back pretentious actor Jeffrey Anderson (Kevin Kline) who had a thing with Celeste back in the day. Jeffrey homes in on Lori, not realising that she is his own daughter. Will Jeffrey commit incest unknowingly? Will Celeste and Lori’s relationship survive? Stay tuned after these messages…
There’s quite a bit else going on here, with Whoopi Goldberg as a script-doctor, Carrie Fisher as a casting agent, and Garry Marshall and Teri Hatcher to boot; Hoffman’s film is a petri-dish of talents at various stages of their careers. Fortunately, everyone seems to get the joke; while The Sun Also Sets never quite ascends the heights of the soap featured in Tootsie, the final scenes are pretty funny, with Kline reading myopically from an autocue as his character attempts surgery on his lover in a restaurant. Soaps are ridiculous enough, but Soapdish at least has a take on the material, and gives Kline a memorable role to send up the pretentions of his profession.
An unwise transgender slam at the end makes Soapdish more than a little problematic in 2021, where it’s promoted on Amazon Prime UK, but that’s just one more of-its-time element of the myriad of vanities deflated here. It may not be a popular classic, but Soapdish is funnier than most industry lampoons and in-jokes, and makes sure cast and audience alike get to wash their faces.