revisited – ‘frankie & johnny’ (1991)

Garry Marshall’s Frankie & Johnny is a film that conveys the authenticity behind what occurs when a man pursues a woman for love, when her love isn’t reciprocated, due to her fear of commitment and contentedness in life. For Michelle Pfeiffer’s Frankie, love is so scary that she’s got an iron shield of a guard up against the relentless attention she receives from Al Pacino’s Johnny, who’s just been released from serving an 18-month sentence in prison for fraud. The on-screen chemistry between Johnny and Frankie radiates a glow as they reprise their romance nine years after the release of their romantic acting duo in Brian de Palma’s Scarface (1982), in which they shined as the stunning couple, Elvira and Tony. Except here, these two prominent actors portray realistic characters in everyday life who long for love. Johnny’s love chooses Frankie’s soul, but her punctured heart has been conditioned to push him away, no matter how much care and attention he throws her way.

In the opening sequence, Frankie barrels into an upstate town from New York city on a Greyhound bus to become a Godmother amid a baby’s baptism. Johnny, the best cook in his cell block, is released from prison. Johnny gazes at the sunset behind the New York City skyline with the Manhattan bridge in the background. The guitar medley on the musical score in this scene sets the film’s theme of loneliness, followed by Frankie’s waterfall of tears dropping from her lonely eyes as she takes the Greyhound bus back to New York City – clearly not the happiest person in the world. Director Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman) does an incredible job of setting up this much backstory amid the opening credits, in a film written by Terrence McNally – based on his stage play Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune. This film is about two lonely souls: one fearlessly in love, and the other so scared by love that she’ll do anything to push it away.

Frankie is a waitress at Apollo’s Greek Café in New York City and like all New Yorkers, she pounds pavement through the citizen infested sidewalks and halts upon the site of an item advertised for $199.00 in a store window, a VCR. This video cassette recorder that plays back magnetic tape with recorded films, becomes it’s own character throughout the film, considering Frankie’s wish to purchase one so that she can be comfortably alone every night by ordering takeout and watching movies, as opposed to settling down with a man since her experience of love has been somewhat tarnished. Johnny strolls into Apollo’s Greek Cafe to apply to an open position as a short order cook.

“Empathy is the sympathetic vibration between two humans. You don’t have to know somebody to feel empathy for them.” Johnny says, as he practically begs to go out with Frankie on a date. He relentlessly woos her, pursues her, courts her, and doesn’t take her refusals and rebuttals to heart. Johnny knows she wants love and won’t stop until he convinces her to become one with him. Frankie’s baffled and antagonistic toward his burning desire to start a life with her. She feels that Johnny’s deprived and needful, constantly putting him to the test while having a problem with everything he says. Her heartbreaking romantic past has caused her to prematurely retire from dating when she’s only thirty-six years old. She’s mad because she was messed with as an adult, by another man, in her previous relationship. Another man broke her heart, and now she’s got a huge guard up as a shield of protection. She’s extremely reluctant to let Johnny permanently into her life, even after he’s proven to her their true love through intimacy, companionship and their commonalities; like when Johnny buys Frankie a corsage and doesn’t know how to put it on her, and Frankie guesses that he, too, didn’t go to the high-school prom. Johnny explains why he comes along so strong with Frankie, because chances for true love come once in a lifetime and if you don’t take it, you end up marrying the wrong person. Frankie is a hurt soul who’s trapped in her own comfort zone of loneliness, but Johnny can see right through it. Johnny knows he’s not the problem. He knows she loves him, but can’t come to terms with conquering her own fears.

This is a great film that depicts the way love can sometimes be. Love isn’t always pleasant. It’s scary. And as the log line on the film poster says: “You don’t choose love; love chooses you.” This couldn’t be closer to the truth in terms of the theme of this film. Johnny’s love chooses Frankie. Frankie doesn’t choose love. She avoids it. Johnny brings love to her through his passion, infatuation and perspective on life. Frankie is caught off guard since she’s accepted a life of solitude. Johnny comes along and wants to change that forever, shaking up Frankie’s false expectations for her own future. She knows their love is real, so she pushes Johnny away, as hard as she can. But his thick skin continues to engage her until she finally caves in. Frankie & Johnny is a unique love story that depicts an authentic side of romance that’s rarely seen in cinema. Love requires courage, regardless if you’re the one giving it or receiving it. Love isn’t represented by intimacy or companionship any more than it is by brushing your teeth together.

True romantic love is scary. It takes determination and bravery to engage in a true romance. Frankie & Johnny is a true portrait of what happens when a man loves a woman who is afraid to love him back. It’s a movie about perseverance, patience and never giving up. It’s a film that displays the evolvement of men and women based on their age and experience in life. Johnny soaked up a wealth of knowledge in studying books while serving time and knows better than to give up on Frankie’s constant refusal of his requests in courtship and marriage. Since he knows Frankie is afraid to be loved so wholly and unconditionally, Johnny loves her even more, until the point where she’s convinced that it’s their destiny to be together. What makes this film so special is the way Johnny is forced to pursue the wonderful character of Frankie; a beautiful and complicated soul with barriers that need to be broken down in order for her to let a man in her life. If you want a woman like Frankie as your wife, you have to be like Johnny; patient and persistent while fixed with an unwavering appetite for her love. You continue to pursue her until she’s finally convinced that your intentions are pure and not carnal. And of course, the film closes out in its climax with arguably the most beautiful song ever written, the composition of ‘Claire de Lune’ by Claude Debussy, putting the cap on a raw, romantic, visceral and vibrant film that is Frankie & Johnny.

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