BEGIN WITH a smart script, add two stellar performances and smooth direction, and you've got ''Postcards From the Edge,'' one of the best films of the year.
Shirley MacLaine and Meryl Streep are the stars of the film, one that is based on a script by Carrie Fisher, author of the book on which the script is based.
The book was four ''stories'' in one, but the portion Fisher and director Mike Nichols have chosen to dramatize is not too much like the movie. There are some similarities, but the book was a kind of stream-of-consciousness thing, and the film is not. The film has Streep playing the daughter of MacLaine, and of course we are free to assume that the MacLaine character is based on Debbie Reynolds, mother to Fisher.
Fisher says it is not, not completely, and we'll go along with that. We'll also go along with the assumption that Fisher and Nichols play, in part, on the real-life experiences of MacLaine and Fisher. Fisher did begin her career with her mother (they appeared together in Reynolds' concert at the Painters Mill Music Fair), and Fisher did do drugs.
That's more or less what ''Postcards'' is about, drugs. Someone had said that the film does not preach, but it doesn't have to. This is no Cheech and Chong movie. ''Postcards'' does not glamorize drugs. It does, however, use them as a source of comedy. Fisher calls it gallows humor, and it may well be.
Fortunately, ''Postcards'' is not all about drugs. It is also about relationships, those between mother and daughter and daughter and lovers. Dennis Quaid plays one of the lovers, a man who beds with two women in the same day. Richard Dreyfuss plays the doctor who treats Suzanne (Streep) when she overdoses. Gene Hackman also appears in the film, as the director of a film Suzanne is doing. It's good to see stars of this stature play supporting roles in a major film.
''Postcards From the Edge'' may remind you of the 1950 ''All About Eve,'' not so much in plot but in tone and quality. ''Postcards'' is primarily a talk film, but it's an exceptional one. Suzanne does not hate her mother. She doesn't blame her for anything. Suzanne, in fact, shows great patience. Her mother, an actress, is well meaning but overbearing. Suzanne, however, brings all her grief on herself, and she admits that. The point is made time after time.
When Suzanne does a film in which she is a cop, the humor is rich. All the action in ''Postcards'' takes place in Los Angeles, much of it on sound stages where Nichols plays a movie trick or two on his audience. He doesn't, however, overdo.
Both the stars get to sing. MacLaine does ''I'm Still Here'' from ''Follies,'' and Streep does ''I'm Checkin' Out'' as a closer to the film, and if you are not aware that this woman can really sing, ''Postcards'' proves it, once more.
Streep is quite remarkable. She looks old enough to be MacLaine's sister, but she makes us believe she is this woman's child. MacLaine, meanwhile, allows herself to be photographed without wig and makeup.
''Postcards From the Edge'' may not be recommended to all. It is, however, fully recommended to those who enjoy the literate, bright talk movie, one that includes a few references to MacLaine's and Fisher's past. Look closely and you will see the Life magazine cover of MacLaine and her own daughter, Sasha. Look again, and you will see the posters Reynolds used for her concert show.
''Postcards From the Edge'' opens here today. Both women will probably be nominated for Academy Awards.
''Postcards From the Edge''
**** Actress mother and junkie daughter come to terms in Hollywood.
CAST: Meryl Streep, Shirley MacLaine, Dennis Quaid, Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfuss, Rob Reiner, Mary Wickes, Conrad Bain, Gary Morton
DIRECTOR: Mike Nichols
RATING: R (language)
RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes