Frankie and Johnny Is Garry Marshall’s Most Underrated Film

Why the 1991 misery-loves-company rom-com was Marshall's best movie

With the passing of Garry Marshall yesterday, Hollywood has lost one of its defining comedic voices. Though his acting credits in projects like Soapdish or Murphy Brown made him a recognizable figure right up to the end of his life, as a director, Marshall is probably best rewarded for his megahit Pretty Woman, best known for his holiday-centered movies like New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day, and best loved for his TV work on shows like Mork & Mindy and Laverne & Shirley. But despite a career filled with successes on both the big and small screens, the best movie Marshall ever made has eluded audiences since its release in 1991.

Frankie and Johnny was adapted by the playwright Terrence McNally from his play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. It was a two-person play that took place in one apartment, following a diner waitress and chef on their first date. She’s insecure about her looks, she’s been hurt before, and she’s planning to treat the experience as a one-night stand. He thinks she’s the love of his life. And as the play goes on, they reveal themselves to each other bit by bit.

The movie version of Frankie and Johnny came out the year after Marshall’s massive success with Pretty Woman, but it was a flop at the box office and dumped by critics. Maybe the premise that charmed theatergoers was a turn-off for mainstream moviegoers: a down-on-her-luck waitress finding love with an ex-con isn’t quite the Cinderella story of an adorable prostitute settling down with a real-estate baron. Maybe it was that the press was frustrated over the choice to cast Michelle Pfeiffer over Kathy Bates, who originated the part when it was still a play on Broadway. But as a movie, Frankie and Johnny doesn’t bother trying to imitate the stage in any way. The movie expands to include Frankie and Johnny’s lives at the diner, and Johnny’s courtship takes place over the course of days and weeks instead of just one night. Where the play was a duet, the film offers a full opera. A chorus of diner workers and neighbors — played by an all-star cast that includes everyone from Nathan Lane to Kate Nelligan to Marshall stalwart Hector Elizondo — harmonizes with the loneliness of the movie’s principals. And Garry Marshall is their conductor, cutting the melancholy with jokes and the jokes with melancholy.

This isn’t a politically correct romance — Al Pacino’s Johnny comes on too strong, too hard, and too fast. He ignores Frankie’s boundaries; he’s sometimes condescending. As Frankie puts it, “You’re too needy for me.” And Frankie herself has a lot of needs. She’s been used and abused by the men in her life. She doesn’t want to be alone or work in a diner forever, but she has also learned the risks of abandoning her control the hard way. Frankie and Johnny as a movie isn’t a first chance love story, or a second chance or a third. This is a film about two lonely people who have spent so long trying to find someone to connect with and who have been disappointed so often that it seems like maybe connection isn’t worth the effort anymore. This is what a romantic comedy looks like when it’s being built on scar tissue.

“I’m looking for somebody who will take care of me this time.”

In some of his movies, the most recent holiday movies especially, Marshall’s reliance on jokes and gags draws attention to the artificiality of the characters. You watch and wonder why the movie was made, and start to resent everyone’s attempts to make the emptiness funny. But in Frankie and Johnny, Marshall shows perspective on the way comedy fits into life. Frankie jokes to distract attention away from her feelings, her friend Cora just doesn’t give a shit anymore, and fellow waitress Nedda has a natural inclination to disaster that makes her funny even when she isn’t trying to be. When people bring up realism in movies, they usually mean you should expect a lot of mumbling and improvisation, but there’s a kind of emotional truth in the funny loneliness of Frankie and Johnny. In this movie, as in life, joking passes the time, it’s protection, it’s self-expression when you have no time for a creative outlet, it’s a comfort. Marshall was criticized in his career for making too many princess fantasies, but misery is a fantasy too — when faced with life’s hardships, most people at least try to laugh about it.

In the time since Marshall’s death, friends and co-workers have rushed to relay to the public what a kind and loving man he was, and how much he’ll be missed. Frankie and Johnny is a cinematic document of Marshall’s kindness. In the film’s final scenes, Marshall could close the movie with just Frankie and Johnny’s resolution, but instead he leaves them, and finds the rest of his cast. There’s Nedda, alone and perfectly happy feeding her turtles. Nick’s kids rush into his bed with his wife in the morning. Cora wakes up after what is presumably yet another one-night stand, alone even with the man still in her bed. She lights a cigarette and shrugs; it’s just another day, no use getting miserable about it. Claude Debussy’s "Clair de Lune" plays over Frankie’s radio — the most beautiful song in the world, according to Johnny. According to Garry Marshall, it’s a song that belongs to everyone, not just the people who feel comfortable in concert halls.