Mermaids & Beaches

makeover mermaids

I got sick again, which is what happens when you live with a five-year-old who brings home a fresh batch of germs every day. Also, it’s March in NYC, a miserable season when everyone collectively wonders why they pay such high rents to live in a place with consistently terrible weather. It’s the one time of year when New Yorkers admit that the weather is usually awful. It’s true: there are about 15-20 beautiful days, tops, and yet New York imagines itself to be a place with mild, sunny spring days and crisp fall afternoons. I blame all the movies set in New York, which do not convey the bitter winds, flash flooding, fallen branches, pot holes, sleety rains, and white-gray overcast skies that appear in winter and summer.

I had plans to see A Wrinkle in Time, but they were foiled by my cold, the weather, and my son, who came down with an ear infection. Instead I watched two movies from my own childhood: Mermaids and Beaches. I had a craving for them. It started when my husband and I accidentally watched Moonstruck a couple of months ago—accidentally because it was streaming for free and it was late, and we said, ‘let’s just watch the beginning…’ Suddenly it was almost over. In Moonstruck, Cher undergoes what may be my all-time favorite movie makeover. It’s really all about her hair. She takes it out of her bun and then lets her hairdresser dye the grays. All of a sudden she had the incredible head of thick curls. Her nails are bright red, her make-up is perfect—and her dress! A classic LBD. Basically, she becomes Cher. It’s not totally realistic but it works because the dialogue is over the top, too. (“You’re a wolf, Johnny!”)

After I watched Moonstruck, I noticed that Mermaids was also streaming—and this was a movie I remember really liking as a kid. It was released in 1990, so I would have been 12ish. A formative age for movies. For anything really. It was directed by a man, Richard Benjamin, but written by a woman, June Roberts, and is based on a novel by Patty Dann.

Mermaids is a mother-daughter story and I can see why it resonated with me because twelve is around when things start getting complicated between girls and their mothers. The story is set in New England in the early 1960s and centers on sixteen-year-old Charlotte Flax (Winona Ryder) and her mother, played by Cher. Charlotte also has a younger sister, Kate, (Christina Ricci), who has a different father from her. Neither Charlotte nor Kate have met their fathers. All they know is their young, charismatic, glamorous mother, who refuses to adhere to the rules of being a grown-up. She moves every time she gets bored or get dumped and she never cooks dinner—only appetizers! It’s sort of a proto-Gilmore Girls set-up. Like Rory Gilmore, Charlotte responds to her mother’s youthfulness by being very straight-laced. She refers to her mother as Mrs. Flax and dreams of being a nun, even though she’s Jewish, and even though she has a huge crush on the caretaker of the local abbey. She’s very confused, very naïve, and because she’s played by Winona Ryder, she’s also very beautiful, but in a low-key way that is the opposite of Cher’s beauty.

Rewatching Mermaids, certain scenes were so burned into my brain they seemed to flicker on screen. Most of them revolved around food or fashion. Like when Charlotte is preparing sandwiches for fishing trip and her mother sneaks up behind her and uses a cookie cutter to make them into heart shapes; or the heavy, ugly boots that Charlotte insists on wearing, in contrast to her mother’s high heels; or Mrs. Flax’s polka dot dresses, especially the pink one that Charlotte borrows when she decides to go out late one night to meet her crush.

Watching it as a kid, I identified with Charlotte’s confusion, but as an adult, I had a better understanding of Cher’s character, Mrs. Flax. Charlotte complains that her mother evades responsibility by moving frequently, but her real trick is the way she’s always performing adulthood, and especially motherhood. I love the scene where Charlotte borrows her mother’s dress and imitates her mother because it’s like you get a glimpse of what her mother might have been like when she was younger. Charlotte dressed as “Mrs. Flax” evinces all the vulnerability that her mother has learned to hide.


Like Mermaids, Beaches was directed by a man, Garry Marshall, but the screenplay was written by a woman, Mary Agnes Donoghue, and based on a novel by Iris Rainer. It came out in 1988 and so was another movie to hit during a very impressionable time. Beaches was never a favorite movie of mine, but two of my friends loved it and so I ended up watching it whenever I stayed overnight at their houses. I can see why we liked it as little girls, because the movie starts with two little girls who play at being adults. Then, when they grow up, their lives are so unrealistic that it’s as if they are still playing at adulthood—though as girls, we didn’t see that. We saw them sharing an apartment together and dropping in on each other at work and going to parties and fighting over boyfriends and getting married and redecorating their huge apartments and houses and it all seemed so marvelously grown-up. Re-watching it, I kept noticing how childish these women were, and I found it weird how the parents, husbands, and boyfriends—basically anyone else who might have been an emotional support—kept getting written out of the story so that the women would be together. It was almost like a fairy tale.

Bette Midler saves the movie again and again, and I think she was probably the real reason we loved it as kids. She’s such a goofball, and even though Beaches is supposed to be a tearjerker, she brings levity to every scene, sometimes with a musical performance (Otto Titsling, anyone?), sometimes with a line reading, and sometimes with her bright red hair, which goes through many incarnations and is even briefly blond.

In an interview, Garry Marshall he said he was drawn to the material because he wanted to depict a friendship between women. I don’t think Beaches is especially insightful about the lives of grown women, but it does seem to understand friendship between girls, and what’s important and entertaining to them. It makes me wonder what current mainstream “women’s movies” are being adopted by girls and giggled over at sleepovers.

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