my name is mayukh sen and i'm a student at stanford university studying film, history, and creative writing (or something like that). i happen to like jane fonda. a lot. CONTACT: email@example.com
SHELLEY LONG IS THE BEE'S KNEES
Monday, September 19, 2011 1:07 PM
Shelley Long's been on my mind these days. A little channel around these parts called ReelzChannel has been syndicating Cheers lately. Historically, Cheers was a show I hadn't seen but didn't imagine I'd much care for, and this had much to do with my (grossly misinformed) preconceived notions of it. I thought it was one of those tired sitcoms with the stock humor American television has in spades today. But I happened to catch an episode of it just weeks ago, and I was stunned. I understood the hoopla. It's a brilliant show. I find it a humanist, profoundly sensitive piece of work. The first episode I saw, actually, was from the show's Kirstie Alley days. I was totally taken with her. Mind you, my view of Ms. Alley had been limited to her Jenny Craig commercials and ads for Fat Actress I caught in middle school, but I felt, watching that episode, as if I'd discovered in her a totally captivating, striking screen presence. She reminded me of Kathleen Turner, only one who was slightly less put-on – her voice, her hair, her eyes. I want her to read the phone book to me. It'd be fascinating. She's ravishing in a non-lewd way, in the vein of those careerist types Hepburn and Russell played in the forties. The kind of woman who wishes she was turned on more by work than sex, and one who wears that bearing, but is really vulnerable to the bone.
A few days later, though, I caught episodes of the Shelley Long seasons. Kirstie Alley may have gotten me hooked on the show, but she isn't Shelley Long. I'd never before heard of this actress (or, rather, I had only heard of her in passing), and I regret that. That shows that she hasn't had the career she, and her talents, probably deserved; my generation hasn't been properly exposed to her, save Modern Family (which I don't watch). And it's a shame. I hate superlatives like this, but I firmly believe that Diane Chambers is one of the finest pieces of acting committed to television.
Only after seeing the first five seasons do I realize how much Cheers regressed in quality. Rebecca Howe was an interesting creation but the writers didn't know what to do with her. She just sort of drifted in and out of each episode, and the interactions between her and the rest of the cast were limited and, quite frankly, not very interesting. Alley projected a sense of self-loathing and wounded pride that was in service of a character who was progressively becoming more and more of a non-entity. The dynamics between Rebecca and the rest of the group weren't well-defined. Kirstie Alley certainly had talent and presence but she didn't have what Shelley Long had. What made Cheers just a little more special than the other sitcoms of its era, I think, was the careful, witty banter between Sam and Diane. (I heard that Lisa Eichhorn, an actress I like, was almost cast as Diane until the casting directors realized how wonderful the chemistry between Danson and Long was.) On a show whose basic asset was, in its glory days, its ability to carefully sketch out complex, nuanced human connections, I'm afraid that Cheers ultimately began to wane on that level.
But the first five seasons are golden. The way the show is written, the way it's directed, especially the way it's acted – it is all so sensitive. The camera seems to probe into every character. It's interested in each one of them. Flaws become virtues. The director is compassionately invested in everyone's reactions, and the actors deliver. Another sitcom would've limited these people to individual quirks and idiosyncrasies, but Cheers goes a step further. Each character has so many shortcomings, but these shortcomings are painfully human. They possess hateful qualities – Carla's dismissiveness towards Diane, Sam's misogyny, Frasier's neuroses – but I never dislike any one of them. They're such sympathetic, complex creatures, and they're treated with warmth and respect. Just think of the unabashed schmaltz-fest "I Do, Adieu" could've become had it not been pulled off with such honesty by that cast.
And I feel that Shelley Long was the one whose presence illuminates the flaws, hopes, and desires of these other characters. Shelley Long had charisma. Look, for example, at the way she raises and lowers her voice with each sentence, or how her lower lip quivers – she somehow reveals the profound insecurities and false self-estimations of her character. And through subtle, telling glances, she projects a basic sincerity that makes her character's vulnerability tremendously affecting. It helps, of course, that her comic timing is genius. Her intelligence is luminous. Diane Chambers is a character of excess. She's kind of full of shit and she knows it. I don't doubt that she has a genuine love and passion for the arts, literature, philosophy, what have you, but you know that she uses it all as a crutch. No matter what her hoity-toity pretensions and literati leanings may suggest, she was just going to end up as unhappy and lonely as everyone else.
This is what I love about the show – the very subtle, and astonishingly unsentimental sense of sadness that runs through each episode. It's pretty much an accepted axiom that life doesn't turn out the way anyone wants to in that world (much like real life, of course). Nothing works out for anyone. And the characters have all seemed to tacitly, quietly accept that. I'm glad that the writers didn't betray the show's basic thesis with that finale. Diane and Sam weren't supposed to end up together; it shouldn't have been that easy.
Bottom line is, I have a huge crush on Shelley Long. I'm not hetero but I do. She brought controlled emotionalism and boundless charisma to a show, and a cast, that worked well with an anchor. Cheers was a pretty damn good show without her but it was astonishingly harmonious when she was around. Some see her as obnoxious and maddeningly neurotic and I don't get it. Just looking at her, I think Woody Allen could've done wonders with her neurotic urban persona. Everyone gives Shelley flack for leaving Cheers but I don't really care. Her subsequent mild success in films just shows that the show's thesis had firm roots in reality – shit falls into place for some of us; most of us aren't that lucky. I just watch this show and think that this woman didn't get the roles she deserved in cinema. Though I wasn't alive in the eighties, I'm guessing that she brought a lot of people joy when they watched that show. Diane Chambers was a beautiful, enchanting creation – passionate, graceful, sensuous, caring, a little dangerous, and sad as hell. I am discovering this character for the first time and I am captivated.
BEST ACTRESS 1986Kathleen Turner, Peggy Sue Got Married
Sigourney Weaver, Aliens
Sissy Spacek, Crimes of the Heart
Jane Fonda, The Morning After
Marlee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God
(SOME OF) MY FAVORITE BEST ACTRESS LOSERS, POST-1970Julie Christie, McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Penelope Cruz, Volver
Judy Davis, A Passage to India
Jane Fonda, Julia
Valerie Perrine, Lenny
Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City
Liv Ullmann, The Emigrants
Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman
Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment
CreditsLayout by daphne/cadmium.
Banner/Icons by collapsingnight.
Winona drawing from Fanpop.