The Archivist #65: Cheers for Cheers! [PALMETTO and DROP DEAD GORGEOUS]

Celebrate the 35th anniversary of an iconic sitcom with a pair of titles featuring two of its most loved stars.

The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and Blu-ray discs (which, unlike the DVDs, are factory pressed rather than burned). Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!

This year Cheers, one of the greatest sitcoms ever made, celebrates its 35th birthday. Originally debuting in dead last place in the ratings, the sitcom’s axing seemed like a strong guarantee. Then came Emmy time, where the sitcom found itself nominated in virtually every category it was eligible for (taking home a couple in the process). As audiences discovered the show in summer reruns, Cheers became a hit for the then-fledgling NBC network. By the end of the series’ run, the show was a mainstay in situational comedy, and characters such as Sam, Norm, and Diane were all household names, a legacy which has continued in the two-plus decades since the it’s 1993 finale.

While a number of the show’s cast members tried their hand at making it in feature films, none of them ever really managed to sustain long-term careers on the big screen. That’s not to say there wasn’t success awaiting them after they left that Boston bar. Ted Danson left all traces of Sam Malone behind, successfully reinventing himself in the long-running sitcom Becker, while Kelsey Grammer carried Dr. Frasier Crane to sitcom gold with Frasier (a classic in its own right). Yet it was Woody Harrelson as Cheers’ resident yokel Woody and Kirstie Alley as Rebecca, the bar’s queen of neuroses, who proved to be the two true post-Cheers breakout stars and the two cast members who have had the most notable post-Cheers careers to date. In this edition of The Archivist, we’ll take a look at Harrelson’s 1998 atmospheric thriller Palmetto and Alley’s outrageous 1999 comedy Drop Dead Gorgeous, two titles which more than proved there was still life after after the bar closed.

Palmetto (1998)

In Palmetto, Harrelson plays Harry Barber, a recently-released ex-con who returns to his former sleepy Florida town and into the arms of his old girlfriend (Gina Gershon) with the intent of starting over. However, trouble soon finds Harry in the shape of the trophy wife (Elisabeth Shue) of one of the town’s wealthiest men. She proposes a plan to Harry: her step-daughter (Chloe Sevigny) is going to pretend to be kidnapped in order for the two to swindle the old man out of a huge wad of cash. All Harry has to do is call up pretending to be the kidnapper and then collect the ransom money, for which he’ll be handsomely rewarded. Harry agrees, but almost instantly the plan becomes to unravel as people turn up dead and all fingers seem to be pointing straight at Harry.

Not many saw Palmetto when it came out in early ‘98 since its release was overshadowed by the stupefyingly popular Spice World. But those who did bother to check out the noir-infused film found themselves with an undeniably slick and entertaining crime tale featuring a great Harrelson performance at the center of it. Palmetto’s thrills aren’t on the same level as those which could be found in most ‘90s suspense entries, but the film works mainly because its makers know the genre well enough that care is taken to ensure the film operates on every level. There’s plenty of steamy sensuality between Harrelson and his female costars as well as a number of compelling twists and turns which work in tandem with the movie’s gentle pace. The sense of place is also one of Palmetto’s biggest attributes, with its hot, southern Florida small town setting showing itself to be the perfect sleepy haven with menace lurking within. As the film’s lead, Harrelson was already a proven box-office draw with hits such as White Men Can’t Jump and Indecent Proposal to his name. The actor was fresh off an Oscar nomination for The People vs. Larry Flynt when Palmetto came along. While that might cause some to assume the film is the sort of post-Oscar fare most stars jump at in order to showcase their versatility, the exact opposite is true. In Palmetto, Harrelson inhabits the complete flip side of his Cheers persona by bringing out Harry’s moral ambiguity and his panic-filled tension in one of his finest turns on screen.

Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)

Alley enjoyed her last great big-screen role to date with the hilarious mockumentary Drop Dead Gorgeous. In the small town of Mount Rose, Minnesota, a number of high school girls compete in a local beauty pageant for the title of Miss American Teen Princess. The most sure-fire winner is Amber (Kirsten Dunst), a good-hearted girl with a talent for tap dancing and dreams of becoming an anchorwoman. However, standing in Amber’s way is Gladys Leeman (Alley), the pageant’s official chairwoman, who would love nothing more than to see her picture perfect, gun-toting daughter Becky (Denise Richards) take home the title.

Christopher Guest may be the reigning king of the mockumentary, but Drop Dead Gorgeous certainly gives him a run for his money. The laughs come at rapid fire speed, with much of the humor drawn from some good-natured ribbing towards Minnesota culture. The totally over-the-top premise of girls getting knocked off in an effort to win a pageant where one of the prizes is a scholarship to “the Vo-Tech of her choice” speaks to the film’s willingness to not take itself seriously in the slightest. The cast is loaded with recognizable faces including Ellen Barkin, Allison Janney, Brittany Murphy, Will Sasso, Adam West, and Amy Adams (making her film debut as a dimwitted cheerleader), all of whom play their roles with complete sincerity in truly hilarious mockumentary fashion. Yet it’s Alley, unquestionably the film’s most seasoned comedic pro, who steals the most scenes. Gladys has little in common with the eternally-hopeless Rebecca, but the role still plays to the actress’ plentiful gifts. Alley fully embraces her character’s desperation as well as her maniacal need to have everything perfect as Gladys believes she’s responsible for an event as important as Miss America. Unlike Harrelson, Alley’s film successes with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Look Who’s Talking already made her a favorite of movie audiences by the time the series ended. Though she would work with directing pros such as Woody Allen and John Carpenter post-Cheers before returning to TV at the end of the decade with Veronica’s Closet (a hilarious sitcom which lasted three seasons due to the actress’ popularity), Drop Dead Gorgeous remains Alley’s most side-splitting turn in the movies.

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