By almost any standard it should have been forgotten. It had no studio. It had no stars. It was not a huge hit. And it was about women — Portuguese-American women, no less — coming of age in a seaside Connecticut village. Mystic Pizza should not be a touchstone film, and yet, 25 years after its release, it’s still the beloved comfort food of a generation.
Set in Mystic, the film, directed by Donald Petrie (Miss Congeniality), follows the Arujo sisters — industrious, Yale-bound Kat (Annabeth Gish) and her beautiful but aimless older sister, Daisy (Julia Roberts) — and their best pal Jojo (Lili Taylor) as they struggle into adulthood while slinging slices at a joint famous for its secret sauce. Over one summer, Jojo will have to decide whether to marry her boyfriend (Vincent D’Onofrio), Kat will have an innocence-shattering affair with a married man (William R. Moses), and Daisy will discover that getting the hell outta Mystic on the arm of a rich boy (Adam Storke) ain’t worth the sacrifice of her self-respect.
Movies about women were still routinely ghettoized as ”chick flicks” when Mystic Pizza hit screens in 1988, but that year proved to be a quiet watershed for female-centered films. Though Rain Man and Die Hard dominated the box office, Working Girl, Gorillas in the Mist, The Accused, and Beaches filled out the 50 highest-grossing films of the year. Roberts and Gish had each made only two movies before, and Taylor’s résumé featured just one credit: ”Girl at Medical Lab” in She’s Having a Baby. (Mystic is also notable as the first screen credit for Matt Damon, who has one line in a dinner scene.) ”Looking back now, from the ripe old age of 42, it’s astonishing how young we were,” Gish says, laughing. ”Young and round.” Critics were charmed — most notably the legendary critic Roger Ebert, who wrote at the time, ”I have a feeling that Mystic Pizza may someday become known for the movie stars it showcased back before they became stars.”
On a bright September morning, those stars realigned at a photo studio in Los Angeles to exchange baby pictures and share memories of the little film that launched their careers. The women arrived first: Gish, followed by Taylor, and then Roberts, who immediately began doling out huge hugs and whoops of joy. After the men arrived, everyone got to sit down between photo sessions to talk about beer, black mousse, and stolen golf carts.
What’s it like to all be back together?
Julia Roberts [Daisy] I’ve been excited for a week!
It’s like a high school reunion.
Roberts But better.
This film came along so early in your careers. What do you remember about the audition process?
Annabeth Gish [Kat] I was very naive and green, living in Cedar Falls, Iowa, with my professor parents. I remember flying to New York to audition for Donald Petrie. That script just had all the right elements. It was so rare to see a coming-of-age story that was so authentic and honest.
Lili Taylor [Jojo] We got lucky that they didn’t want name [stars] for this.
Vincent D’Onofrio [Bill] I first saw Julia at an audition. I went to meet the director and there were tons of kids there Julia’s age, and I remember meeting Julia in the lobby and going, ”Wow, who’s that chick?”
Roberts I had gone in for a reading and the casting director had said, ”You can’t be blond when you see the director.” I had never colored my hair before, so I went to Lamston’s [five-and-dime store] and bought black mousse. Do you know how much mousse it takes to cover your whole head? And my hair was massive. And really black. So I did the reading and I was all excited, and I’m walking to the train station and it starts raining. All of that black starts running, just pouring… [Laughs] I must have looked like I had come out of a haunted house.
Adam Storke [Charlie] Hair was a big deal on this movie. I had to dye my hair white and then put a rinse in it every day. Julia’s hair was big one day and small the next. I think [the filmmakers] had a hard time focusing on exactly what they wanted.
You shot the movie in and around Mystic, Connecticut. Did you all stay there together?
D’Onofrio Adam and I rode up there together in a car. He slept in the front and I slept in the back. We became friends on that ride.
Gish We all stayed at the Mystic Hilton.
D’Onofrio Annabeth was the baby. She was staying there with her mom.
Taylor I was just thinking what another world she was in.
Gish I was 16 and a half, I think. I was the only one who had to have a guardian, so there was a marked separation because my mom was there. I never felt left out, but I’m sure they did things after hours that were…uh, how do I not incriminate anyone? [Laughs]
Taylor I remember we stole a golf cart.
William R. Moses [Tim] [To Storke and D’Onofrio] That was you guys, right?
Taylor We were young. We were on location. We couldn’t drink, but we still got access to booze somehow. Julia, you weren’t drinking age at the beginning of the movie, right?
Roberts I turned 21 [later]. And then did the suds flow. [Laughter]
D’Onofrio I was flirting with everyone. They were all just so beautiful. To me, they were just these angels. I adored being around them.
Did any romances develop off screen?
D’Onofrio No, but I was smitten. Lili was already this premier actress. I had never acted with a woman on film before, and to start with her was awesome. Annabeth was so young and so exciting to watch — when I was 16, I was still bumping into walls and drooling. And then, of course, Julia, who was just this firecracker. You knew she was going to be this huge star.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Julia thinks Adam’s character is cheating on her and dumps these huge barrels of fish into his convertible at the country club.
Moses I remember that Julia said, ”You should come [watch] tonight. I’m really good in this scene.” I said, ”Okay.” So I went and I was like, ”Wow. She’s really good in that scene!” [Laughter]
Roberts Vince and I were always fighting with each other, bickering, and I remember thinking that Adam was such a mysterious puzzle. You could never get any information from him. It was like Jenga.
Storke I had just come out of this play in New York and here I was in this movie, clearly a woman’s movie, and I kept thinking, ”How am I going to find my way, tell [the men’s] story and be truthful?” So there was this constant need to shed self-consciousness in that environment. And Julia was so fearless.
Annabeth, you were still in high school when the movie came out. That must have been a strange experience.
Gish I was very far removed from it all because I had gone back to Cedar Falls, where nobody knew what the hell I did. I remember, for the publicity tour, they had to fly me on a private plane to New York so that Julia, Lili, and I could do the Today show, and then I had to fly right back because it was my prom that same night. [Laughs]
For all of you, the women especially, this film was pivotal for the careers you went on to have. When you look back, how do you feel about it now?
Gish I feel very tender toward our younger selves. Whatever alchemy it was that put the three of us together, it was so fortuitous…. I’ve had a quieter career, but I find some real grace in that.
Taylor I did not think this movie would stick around. I don’t know why. But there’s something pure about it. We were all sort of innocent. Open. Willing. Maybe that spirit came through.
Roberts [Regarding Taylor and Gish] I love hearing their two voices. I feel like I’m in a time capsule. [Laughs] I think there’s something to be said that 25 years later, none of us is unemployed, and that speaks to what Lili is talking about. We were just…happy. Happy to have jobs, happy to be working hard, and enjoying each other’s company.