Despite its critical and box office success and a favorable IMDB rating, HBO Pictures’ 1985 Patsy Cline biopic Sweet Dreams lacks the staying power of Coal Miner’s Daughter and Walk the Line. In spite of its limitations, the film isn’t without its perks due to a memorable soundtrack dominated by Cline originals and a handful of great performances and memorable cameos.
Jessica Lange earned an Oscar nomination for her charming portrayal of a country music legend. Although the constant focus on Cline’s husband Charlie Dick is a weak point, it still led to one of the best overall performances by Ed Harris.
Despite a talented cast, the film falls way short of fully capturing the life and talents of Cline, showing her instead as the constant victim of a more fleshed-out character’s fits of drunken rage.
Cline’s family seems to agree that the film doesn’t do her justice, with past interviews lamenting the details skipped over by director Karel Reisz, producer Bernard Schwartz and writer Robert Getchell.
Love Gone Wrong
A majority of the film focuses on a turbulent and sometimes violent marriage, limiting its portrayal of the music business. Harris’ role as Dick establishes him as a heavy drinker who’s too charming for his own good. Lange’s performance captures just enough of that innate stubbornness necessary to see creative dreams through, but for the most part she just comes across as a means to put over how Dick’s issues impacted his loved ones.
Compare this limited view of Cline’s career to what’s briefly shown in Coal Miner’s Daughter. That film captures Cline’s fame and popularity among country singers, with Beverly D’Angelo’s portrayal showing her as a mentor and friend to Sissy Spacek’s Loretta Lynn. The film shows both women’s husbands as active participants in their careers despite their glaring flaws, not cold-hearted distractions.
A Hard-Luck Story
To be fair, the film does provide some sense of how unexpected circumstances limited Cline’s career trajectory. As Dick comes into the picture, her previous husband (Gerald Cline, portrayed by James Staley) provides little to no moral support for her musical ambitions. After Dick and Cline wed, he’s drafted by the Army and she becomes pregnant. Amid the couple’s stop-and-go marriage, a car wreck and a fatal plane crash caused by bad weather further the singer’s string of bad luck.
Glimpses at a More Complex Character
At times, the film does portray Cline as more than just a talented woman with horrible taste in men. For example, one scene that stands out is when she scoffs at manager Randy Hughes (played by David Clennon) when he suggests that she copy Kitty Wells’ persona. “I want to be Hank Williams!,” she boldly states, introducing an otherwise unexplored side-story about Cline blazing her own path as a woman.
An Underrated Scene-Stealer
While Lange and Harris did great with very limiting material, the true star of the film is Ann Wedgeworth. A Tony winner and television actress known for her role in such TV shows as Evening Shade, she plays Cline’s mother, Hilda Patterson Hensley. She has a loving yet contentious relationship with her famous daughter. During one argument, she blurts out a line that’d be famous if it’d been written for a better film: “You’re just too mean to live lately.” She’s the type of old-fashioned Southern mother that made viewers think fondly of their own difficult yet beloved relatives.
A constant stream of surprise appearances makes for a fun first watch. Dick’s portrayal called for drinking buddies, gifting us all with John Goodman’s jokey impersonation of Cline. Also, the real Stonewall Jackson introduces Cline as a newcomer to the Grand Ole Opry audience. When domestic violence lands Dick in jail, he interacts with an old hobo played by Boxcar Willie. Finally, before the campy-looking and historically inaccurate plane crash scene, obscure Texas country singer Charlie Walker appears as one of the accident’s lesser-known victims, Cowboy Copas.