When the 72-year-old icon appears onscreen, my skin is cleared, my eyebrows wax themselves, and my asthma is cured
Like God, or time, Cher is a concept so ineffable and expansive she cannot be fully encapsulated by the imperfect semiotics of human language. If Madonna and Lady Gaga and Kylie and Cyndi Lauper were playing football, Cher would be the stadium they played on, and the sun that shone down on them. Explaining his decision to cast Cher, 72, as the mother of Meryl Streep, 69, in Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, despite a mere three-year age gap between the two actresses, writer-director Ol Packer explained simply that “Cher exists outside of time”. A fascinating hypothesis. Perhaps she finally found a way to turn it back.
You’ll notice I referred to Cher as an ‘actress’. This is because there are two great injustices of our times: firstly, the machinations of late capitalism, which allows the labour of the weak to be exploited by a narrowing group of a global super rich elite, and secondly, the cultural tendency to acknowledge Cher merely as a ‘singer’ despite the fact she has appeared in several critically acclaimed film roles. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1987 for Moonstruck. Younger readers may not realise that in 1981, Cher actually played Meryl Streep’s lesbian best friend in Silkwood. Meryl Streep and Cher are very good friends off-set, and both are politically active – for example, together they recently ended homophobia with this red carpet kiss.
In fact, to many younger people – or at least to heterosexuals who have never heard “Strong Enough” played three times by three different drag queens in the same provincial gay bar – Cher is known not first and foremost as a human woman, but as a Twitter phantasm. Yes, in our modern social media age, the queen of comeback tours provides sharp and humorous commentary on politics in the age of Trump. Cher’s online presence is like that of a modern Pythia: wise and scathing, if occasionally a little hard to decipher. Many of us have some of her most iconic tweets printed and framed above our beds. These include: “whats going on with mycareer”, “something is amiss with ipad”, “ok just sent 100 desks”, and “can anyone c me”. In 2012, she told a Twitter user to “sit on his own damn face”. While this important body of work will hopefully be archived for posterity in the Cher Museum, it has certainly been no replacement for seeing Cher restored to her visual glory on the big screen in Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again this summer.
This is a review of Cher’s performance, and no one else’s, in Mamma Mia 2. Why? Well, frankly, if the internal logic of the Mamma Mia franchise can’t explain why Amanda Seyfried’s character, Sophie, has an American accent despite being born and raised on an island off the coast of Greece, why should I have to explain myself here?
Throughout the first 80 minutes of the film, Cher’s character is merely referred to in absentia by her daughter Donna (played by Lily James, in flashbacks to 1979, and Streep in the present) and by her granddaughter Sophie (Seyfried). We are told she is a professional singer, who has a successful career. She is notoriously unreliable – missing her daughter’s graduation from Oxford University, and judged by Sophie in the present day to not be worth inviting to the launch party for the Bella Donna Hotel, given the unlikeliness of her attendance. The Bella Donna Hotel has been renovated by Sophie in honour of her deceased mother, and is managed by the mysterious Señor Cienfuegos, played by Andy Garcia.
It is likely that some of the character is inspired by Cher herself, given that Ol Packer admits he wrote her with Cher in mind, and would only have considered Cher for the role. She is, we learn, a glamorous single mother who earned her own living. Given that she eventually gatecrashes her granddaughter’s launch party in a private helicopter, it is evident she is professionally extremely successful – much like Cher herself. In 1996, Cher gave an interview in which she said “I love men, I think men are the coolest. But you don’t really need them to live. My mom said to me, ‘You know sweetheart, one day you should settle down and marry a rich man’, and I said ‘Mom, I am a rich man.’”
But back to the film. Cher arrives in a helicopter, and we first see her foot.
Already, Cher’s foot, emerging from what appears to be a white suit trouser leg and adorned by a metallic open toed platform heel, is commanding the scene and threatens to be a show-stealer. Up until this point, the burden of bringing some glamourous aesthetics into the franchise has fallen on Christine Baranski alone. The quiet chic of Meryl Streep in dungarees aside, the fashion in Mamma Mia is generally questionable – all boho skirts and bardot “gypsy” tops that make everyone look like they’re on an all-inclusive timeshare holiday in 2002. Cher’s foot cuts through all of this. It’s a triumphant return to the screen, in her first acting role since 2010’s Burlesque, where she uttered the memorable line “How many times have I held your head over the toilet while you threw up everything but your memories?” At this point in the film, I can’t wait to see more of Cher’s body.
A quick search of social media shows that very few urban screenings of Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again have not featured a collective gasp from metropolitan gay men in the audience when Cher finally does appear in full.
The highlights of the Mamma Mia 2 screening:— Call Me By My @ (@NotAgainBen) July 18, 2018
1. The gays screaming when Cher arrived
2. The gays screaming when Cher started singing
3. The gays screaming when Cher’s name appeared in the credits
4. “I hope his wife is dead”
It is easy to see why.
Cher arrives in an all-white suit, with platinum hair, carrying a cane. The potential visual references are endless. Madonna, of course, famously wore an all-white suit and carried a cane in “Me Against The Music”, her 2003 Sapphic duet with Britney Spears. Lady Gaga, too, has recently combined platinum with a white suit. You don’t fuck with platinum blondes in white suits. The kind of confidence it takes to wear something so easily stained exudes the kind confidence we only see in icons. Cher was Big Dick Energy before big dicks were invented.
At the first close-up, it is clear that Cher’s face is entirely line-free, lacking even the gentle forehead creases of Amanda Seyfried, who is 40 years her junior. For any of us who have had Botox and fillers to paralyse our face into submission and then loudly pretended we just have a good Touche Éclat, Cher is a pioneer. Collagen-boosting treatments and Auto-Tune are two vital parts of modern culture we simply wouldn’t have without Cher. Her taut dermis hanging off her cheekbones is as important as any musical number she could belt. “Let’s get the party started”, she announces, and my skin is cleared, my eyebrows wax themselves, and my asthma is cured.
At this point, my mind starts racing – did Cher and Christine Baranski speak? Did they become friends? Was it the campest conversation alive? Baranski later confirms to the Guardian that they did “schmoozing and girl talk”. I am AGOG. CHER PROBABLY TOLD CHRISTIINE BARANSKI ABOUT TOM CRUISE AND ELVIS PRESLEY’S DICKS. My asthma, initially cured, has returned at the thought.
Cher mixes grandiosely with guests at the party, taking every compliment directed at her granddaughter for herself. Young Donna has previously recalled that her mother had her heart broken by a man in Central Mexico many years ago – a pattern that Donna herself recreates by travelling through Europe and repeatedly having unprotected sex with men until she is finally surprised to discover a pregnancy. When Señor Cienfuegos emerges, Cher shouts, “Fernando!” in surprise. Yes! She recognises him! Señor Cienfuegos’ first name happens to be Fernando, the same name as the single by ABBA which is about the war between Texas and Mexico that took place in 1835, and thus is very hard to place seamlessly into a completely different narrative set nearly two centuries later! What a coincidence!
Cher belts the song, her pipes utterly dwarfing Andy Garcia’s voice as he attempts to join with her in duet. Cher, Garcia, and the guests all proceed as if this is all perfectly fine, including the line “now we're old and grey Fernando / Since many years I haven't seen a rifle in your hand”, which makes no sense given that Cher and Fernando met when Cher was on a package holiday in New Mexico some time in the 60s or 70s.
As Cher performs one of my favourite ABBA songs, we reach critical gay mass in the cinema screen. Suddenly all the holes in Mamma Mia 2’s plot become irrelevant. How did Meryl Streep die? Don’t care. Why has it taken two generations of women in the same family about 40 years to renovate one hotel? Don’t care. Why did Young Donna start living in a Farm House that wasn’t hers without permission? Don’t care. Why did Young Donna not alert anyone for medical attention when she went into labour? Don’t care. Why don’t I get to have sex with Young Bill (Josh Dylan)? Don’t care. Why does Lily James have better tits than me? Don’t care. Why did I leave university saddled with debt that made it impossible for me to sleep around with men on an eternal holiday in Europe? Don’t care.
Cher ex machina has transcended everything about this ebullient but bonkers film. By the end of “Fernando”, there is more to go. Mamma Mia 2 has to tie up the final ends of its ludicrous, beautiful story. But I am spent entirely. Cher has wrung every emotion out of my queer little heart. At 72, she has shown us all, yet again, how to be an icon and steal an entire show – this is a woman in her prime. That’s what’s going on with hercareer.