Camp Classic

The Case for Soapdish as Gay Camp Classic

173311__hatcher_lThe time has come to correct a great injustice. Spurred on by President Obama’s lead in cleaning up the halls of justice, I too must take on the mantle of reformer to bring shameful period in American history to an end. My mission is simply this: to convince the world that Soapdish is a gay camp comedy classic that deserves even greater acclaim than it already has.

But, you may cry, we already think it’s pretty terrif’ and watch it when it comes on Comedy Central or TBS. Isn’t that enough, you say? And to that I say thee nay! It deserves so much than the occasional chuckle on basic cable. It deserves special Soapdish nights at gay bars. It merits deluxe-edition Bluray discs with outtakes and cast commentaries. And most of all it deserves your friends fighting over who gets to dress up as Dr. Monica Demonico and who goes as Nurse Nan on Halloween.

The 1991 flick certainly doesn’t lack for pedigree. Virtually every actor above the line either has an Oscar (Sally Field, Kevin Kline, Whoopi Goldberg) or has been nominated for one (Elizabeth Shue, Robert Downey, Jr., Sally Kirkland). Except for poor Teri Hatcher, but, hey! She’s got a Golden Globe, and I’m sure those things are swell.

The plot in a nutshell: Producer Downey and actress Kirkland plot to drive Field off of their soap opera by having her character stab a beautiful homeless deaf/mute, played by Shue’s character, and by bringing back her ex-flame, Kevin Kline. But this being a soap opera, Shue is secretly the love child of Kline and Field and the whole thing culminates in a live edition of their show, with the characters reading their lines off a TelePrompTer.

Watch the trailer here.

But, really, the niceties of plot don’t matter that much. What does matter is that it’s incredibly hilarious, in the best tradition of screwball comedies. Rapid-fire banter, arch dialogue and shameless hamming, that’s what makes this movie run. Consider this scene with Downey, Goldberg (as the head writer) and Field, complaining about the implausible new script:

The script is loaded with a buffet of deliciously bitchy lines that even the least bitter queens should flock to. A turbaned Sally Field complains that she looks like “Gloria fucking Swanson,” Shue, costumed entirely in canary yellow, declares she resembles the “goddamned Tweety Bird!” Or as Field is thanking her co-stars after winning an award, Downey, Hatcher and Moriarty all mutter under their breath “Bitch.” “Hag.” “I hate her so much.” So many terrible insults you can use to pep up your conversations with friends and family. It’s a cunty gold mine.

And then there’s Cathy Moriarty’s Montana Moorhead playing Nurse Nan, the “deranged bitch” of the show. There’s much I do not understand in this world: string theory, how airplanes stay up in the air, the appeal of Owen Wilson. But chief among these mysteries is why drag queens the world over have not flocked to Montana Moorhead as their sine qua non of female impersonation. Instead of the umpteenth tired Liza clone listlessly lip-syncing to “New York, New York,” we could have platinum blonde amazons from Boston to Seattle mimicking every catty insult and breathless threat Montana launches.

Indulge me, please, as I repeat what may be my favorite lines: “You want to know what my childhood was like? I had no friends! I wore too much makeup! All the kids around me thought I was evil!” This could be the pinnacle of drag kabuki, and, queens, you’re letting it slip through your fingers! Plus, Montana is actually transgendered! She was a he! Although, the fact that she tempts Downey with what she calls “Mr. Fuzzy,” should’ve been a tip off. Montana Moorhead is a stone cold evil bitch with a cute nurse’s outfit and a smoky rasp—it’s like the writers were begging you to make her a camp icon.

So, gentle readers, I charge you with a solemn task, much as St. Paul entrusted the Ephesians to spread the gospel or as Cher exhorted us all to believe in a life after love. Go forth and tell your friends, tell the owners of your local gay bar or cabaret, tell your neighbor. Do not allow this camp comedy classic to lay nearly forgotten for another minute, but instead raise it to the lofty heights of Mommie Dearest, Showgirls and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? For myself, I will not rest until I can sit in some bar on a Tuesday night—whether it be in WeHo, Hell’s Kitchen or the Short North—and watch as a room full of gays, tipsy off of dollar shots, shout along to the insults and fling copies of “Death of a Salesman” up in the air. Then, and only then, will I rest in my mission.–Dixon Trotter Gaines

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  • Qjersey

    Another movie I will always stop and watch when I come across it while channel surfing!

  • Jeff

    I thought its always been a given that it was a “gay camp classic”.

    Celeste Talbert: What I feel like is Gloria effing Swanson. I’m 42 yrs old, I don’t want to be dressed like a dead woman.”

    Celeste Talbert: – I don’t feel quite right in a turban. What I feel like is GLORIA FUCKING SWANSON! What am I, 70, David? Am I 70? Why don’t you just put me in a walker? Buy a goddamn walker and put me in it!
    David Barnes: [to Tawny] You’re fired.
    Tawny Miller: Oh God.
    David Barnes: I’m just kidding.
    [into PA system]
    David Barnes: Attention: no turbans for Miss Talbert!

  • Bill S

    Who’d Sally Kirkland play in that?
    I loved this movie, but I do have one objection: the fate of Montana after her secret is discovered. I think it would have been funnier-and a sharper bit of satire-if it wound up making her a bigger star and she pretended she was just waiting for the right time to come out with her secret.
    It’s got tons of quotable lines, a great cast and over the top costumes.
    Plus a pre “One Tree Hill” Paul Johansson in a towel. Toasty.

  • gayvirgo

    Um….I think you mean Cathy Moriarty, not Sally Kirkland. Though I am on board with the ‘make it a classic’ drive, your credibility as a rabid fan is seriously undermined by your lack of cast knowledge! :)

  • Josh

    OMG! This movie was my LIFE when it was in theatres. (we shan’t talk about my age but I’m wearing a yellow turban with a bright canary feather as I type). I dragged all my friends and well-wishers to see this movie at least 5 times.

  • Motard

    I think there’s a key criterion that Soapdish fails at, in order to be a true camp classic: It’s trying to be campy.

    In my book, it can still be a good, entertaining movie. But looking at the canon of true camp classics, what makes them really stand apart is the earnestness with which they take themselves.

    I mean, cummon. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? It was meant as a psychological horror/suspense flick. Mommie Dearest? Christina Crawford wrote it autobiographically, to expose her mother’s inhumane abuses. What’s made them camp is that they’ve been repurposed. In their original modes, they’re not very good movies. They’re only good, when you read them through a camp sensibility.

    Soapdish was meant to be read through a camp sensibility. Which instantly disqualifies it as camp, itself.

  • CondeNasty

    From IMDB…Not Kirkland

    Cathy Moriarty … Montana Moorehead

  • Nick Name

    I freaking love that movie.

    “Hi, I’m Monica DelMonico, the neurosurgeon.”

    “He left it on the machine Rose! ON THE MACHINE

  • Attmay

    “How am I supposed to write for a guy that doesn’t have a head?”

  • CHIP

    Nothing beats Whoopi and Terri spilling the beans about Nurse Nan…”Montana Moorehead used to be Milton Moorehead from Syosset, Long Island – Hello!”

  • David

    It’s Hysterical. After talking about renting it for months (my fiance had never seen it), we just watched it Saturday night.

    “Will you be having wine with dinner?”
    “I think we’ve found our waiter!”

    Carrie Fisher is great too!

  • Toby

    I don’t believe it; I just do not believe it! All these years I have loved this movie, but thought nearly no one got it. I’ve never heard it raved about in gay circles, and it got a luke warm reception during its release, but I have spent years declairing its comedic virtues. Finally, this morning I discover a discussion here among other gay folks who also have a great appreciation for it! This is so very cool.

    From the moment that Sally Field strolls around her Manhatten abode, watering her truant boyfriend’s plants with bleach, I fell in love this this film. Thank you for the swell posting!

  • nuflux

    OMG – SERIOUSLY underappreciated movie. Brilliant writing and performances, especially by Robert Downey, Jr.

  • headbang8

    @Motard: Motard, you raise a really interesting point. What if they had handed the script to a bunch of B listers who played it straight? What if, for example, Downey played his character–with almost the same lines–as a heroic young producer battling to keep the show alive? What if David Marshall had intoned his line about being paid one million dollars a year to make tough decisions, melodramatically rather than cynically? Would it have been even more brilliant, or less?

    As it is, though, the conceit of the film is simply that of a “backstage soap opera”; what if the actors’ real lives were as melodramatic as their screen lives? The funniest moments come from the non-actors, who struggle to maintain their dignity as the planet sized egos rotate around each other–Cathy Moriarty and Whoopee Goldberg are classics in these roles.

    But to mymind, Robert Downey Jr. absolutely steals the show as the childishly selfish and cynical producer. My favourite bit is when he fakes a fainting fit in a clumsy dramatic move that mirrored something Celeste would do. And the bit where he compains to the airline about upgrades is priceless.

    To my mind, Sally Field is the weak link.

  • Rikard

    Motard has a point, albeit technical and tiresome. The context and cast of this movie are what DOES make it worthy of cult status. Whoopie, after years in stand up broke out in an Oscar worthy drama (Purple), Sally, after decades in sitcoms had been nominated and won for dramatic roles (Heart & Norma Rae), Downey may have been clean, but was unproven as a sober actor, Klein, Shue and Hatcher had baggage too. What is there to say about Moriarty? The rest of the cast were taking risks, but her performance and the material should qualify her as an Icon (that’s a cap I bitches).

  • getreal

    @Bill S: Co-sign

  • GranDiva

    Umm, Jessica Lange, Terri Garr, Dustin Hoffman, Bill Murray, anyone? Oscar winning?

    Tootsie, for fuck’s sake!

  • Motard


    I’m reminded of The Young, the Gay, and the Restless from a few years back. Granted, we’re talking sub-D list production here, so it’s hard to make a comparison. Anyways, what made that particular flick so abysmal was that the material itself was weak, if it took itself seriously, and even weaker if it was meant as parody, which ostensibly, it was. That flick failed the Camp test, if only because it was passable as neither parody or self-serious.

    The What-If scenario you propose is an interesting one, but offers up one missing variable it seems. The performances would have to be so self-serious and over-the-top, as to be potential career-ending. Are you listening, Elizabeth Berkeley?


    Ouch. I see your point, but I have to stand by my opinion. I’m certainly not saying that Soapdish isn’t a great flick, but it’s a great flick that isn’t traditional Camp. The very definition of Camp is subversion. It’s hard to make a case for outright parodies and satire to really qualify as Camp — I don’t think anyone would make the same claim for Airplane! or Dr. Strangelove.

    I think it more than semantics. What makes a Camp movie is that ownership of the text has been subsumed by the audience. That Showgirls was ostensibly made for a masturbatory, adolescent, masculine audience — and yet has found its home somewhere else.

    Let me rephrase the argument with TV: compare Designing Women versus Murphy Brown. I’d argue that, for all the similarities between the two shows, one counts as Camp, whereas the other doesn’t. Corky Sherwood versus Suzanne Sugarbaker? Check. Candice Bergen versus Dixie Carter? Check. Professional women in a workplace environment? Check.

    Even in intention, the two are not dissimilar. And yet Murphy has an earnestness in its approach, that may still make it quality television, but not Camp. In contrast, Southern Belles working in a traditionally female profession, and yet still finding ways to upend societal convention? That’s camp.

  • junior

    No, I completely disagree with you Motard. I feel like “SoapDish” has been taken by people to be something outside of its original text. I think, yes, it was made to be outrageous, but it was supposed to be a send-up of soap operas, soap operas to the extreme. The fact that makes it campy has nothing to do with the soap element it was intended to lampoon. Instead it’s all of the lines and costumes and little things that make it draggy and campy that have nothing to do with the intended idea.

    I seen people dress up as Montana Moorehead. Maybe that was the filmmakers point, but prolly not… And will there be one of these posts for “Adams Family Values” soon… Or has there already been.

  • littleBIGchris

    Cathy Moriarty, queens! What the hell kind of die-hard SOAPDISH fan are you??

  • Motard


    I’m all for agreeing to disagree. It’s mostly that I find it hard to see text that isn’t on the surface with Soapdish. What’s there is hilarious, but my argument is that’s not what makes Camp. Lines and costumes weren’t enough to make To Wong Foo particularly campy, and it was trying its dear little heart out. Although big ups for Stockard Channing — fierce!

    It’s more than academic, I feel.

    Although, I’m coming to admit that in the present day, when gay sensibilities don’t have to be coded through subtext as much anymore, perhaps there is less need for the appropriation aspect of traditional high camp. It’s just that — for me, that subversion is the big punk rawk fuck you that makes traditional definitions of camp so worthwhile.

    It pains me to still encounter references to the Joel Schumacher Batman movies as “campy”, for instance. It’s those sorts of misuses that dilute the point of it.

    Soapdish may not be one of those misuses fortunately, but it still falls into the same category of movie where the writers and directors are in on the joke.

  • Amanda Hugginkiss

    @littleBIGchris: Apparently ones that can’t afford a fact checker.

  • HaplessOrphan

    @Jeff: Agreed. This has always been the case with that movie!!

  • mb00

    I love this movie. My ex-bf took me to see it on one of our first dates. It was sssooo funny. And I remember this really old man and woman that where sitting in front of us, and I mean like REALLY really old. Anyway, they were laughing so hard that I thought they would choke on their dentures. Ahh…the little things in life I choose to remember.

  • Vered

    Yeah seriously… fact check?

    This is one of my very favorite movies, and Dixon Trotter Gaines and Queerty ought to be hung out to dry for making such a colossal mistake as the Moriarty/Kirkland swap. Seriously. You can’t seriously do a PR boost story for a film if you don’t even know the central cast.


  • TANK

    Literally one of the most boring movies ever made. I remember my mother renting it when I was young, and falling asleep with my tab in hand.

  • The Milkman

    There’s no question that this schlocky movie should be a camp classic. I’ve committed large sections to memory.

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