Today is the 55th anniversary of the surprise death of country music legend Patsy Cline. In honor of her life, let’s learn more about it as we compare history with the 1985 biopic, Sweet Dreams.
About Sweet Dreams
It’s been 23 years since Jessica Lange has been nominated for an Oscar. Maybe that wouldn’t be true if she could be nominated for an Academy Award for her roles in American Horror Story or as Joan Crawford in the TV series Feud.
But no, today we’re not going to be covering Feud—even though that is based on a true story. Instead, today we’re going to be covering another leading lady that Jessica Lange portrayed on screen.
Not a leading lady in Hollywood, though, but a leading lady in Nashville. In 1985’s Sweet Dreams, Jessica Lange earned an Oscar nomination for her role as country music legend Patsy Cline.
And if you’re listening to this on the day it’s released, then that means today is March 5th. That date is important for our story today because it was on March 5th, 1963—exactly 55 years ago today—when the world of country music was shocked when young Patsy Cline died in a plane crash.
In honor of her memory, let’s dive into the true story of Patsy Cline as we saw in Sweet Dreams.
Learn the true story of Sweet Dreams
It’s night time. An old car from the 1950s drives down the street before pulling into a parking lot just outside an indiscrete building. Since it’s dark, it’s hard to tell what kind of building it is but a huge banner outside the building says, “Fall Jamboree and Dance.”
Or is that even a parking lot they turned into? Let’s just call it that, even though there’s so many cars it’s hard to see if it’s actually supposed to be a parking lot of just where everyone is parking. In fact, there’s no spaces to park so the car’s driver forces its way into what is most decidedly not a parking spot.
So tight is their parking arrangement that the driver, Ed Harris’s character, Charlie Dick, along with his date, have to hop out of the car’s retracted convertible top because there’s no room to open the doors.
After hopping out, they head on inside to the sounds of a slow country song. In a short period of time, we hear the announcer introduce, “your favorite from Rainbow Road, Ms. Patsy Cline!”
Along with this introduction, we get a sense of timing for this whole scene when there’s text fading onto the screen that says it’s Winchester, Virginia in 1956.
As he watches on, Charlie is fascinated with Patsy—everyone else is dancing to the music, including Charlie’s date, but he’s just watching Patsy sing.
This whole setup of characters and context is actually pretty realistic. I mean, obviously the actual dialog and scenarios are going to be changed for a movie, but it is true that the real Charlie Dick met the real Patsy Cline at a dance in 1956.
Even though the movie doesn’t ever really come out and show exactly what the building is very clearly, the implication I got from watching the film was that it was supposed to be Handley High School. There’s even a brief mention later when Jessica Lange’s version of Patsy Cline mentions, “the high school.”
For a bit of context, Handley High School really is the name of the high school that Patsy Cline went to in Winchester, Virginia.
However, according to author Margaret Jones’s biography called Patsy: The Life and Times of Patsy Cline, that particular dance happened in Berryville, not Winchester like the movie says. Winchester is 13 miles, or about 21 kilometers, to the west of Berryville, Virginia.
And to be a little more specific, it was at the Berryville Community Center, not a high school. Patsy performed there regularly on Friday nights.
But—we’re mostly talking semantics here in the grand scheme of things.
A much larger fact the movie doesn’t mention at all is that at this point in Patsy’s career, she was already signed to a record deal and was fairly well-known in the region for her hit debut album, “Walkin’ After Midnight.”
But she wasn’t singing a song from that in the movie here. As the announcer on stage implies when Jessica Lange takes the stage to introduce us to Patsy for the first time, we hear her sing “San Antonio Rose.” And as that announcer correctly states, that’s actually an old song from the country band Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.
Although, the movie is still correct in showing Patsy sing it, because that’s one of the songs she covered during her career. In fact, as a fun little bit of trivia, at the very end of the movie it lets us in on a secret—all of the music throughout the movie comes from actual Patsy Cline recordings. So we might see Jessica Lange singing in the film, but she’s just mouthing along with Patsy’s actual recordings.
Going back to the movie, after meeting Charlie for the first time, Patsy returns home to her husband, Gerald. He’s played by James Staley.
Again, the basic gist of all of this is true.
But it’s not the whole story.
Patsy’s first marriage to Gerald is where she got the surname we know her by. You see, Patsy Cline’s real name was Virginia Hensley. She married Gerald Cline in 1953 and became Virginia Cline, or Ginny as most called her.
Then in 1955, she got the nickname Patsy from her middle name, Patterson. That was given to her by her manager at the time, a man by the name of Bill Peer. The reason why he gave her the nickname is something that’s up for debate among Patsy’s fans, but some suggest perhaps Bill had a daughter of his own named Patsy and that’s why he gave it to his favorite singer. Or maybe it was just because he thought Patsy Cline was more marketable than Ginny Cline.
But in my own opinion, I don’t think it matters. I think with a voice like Ginny or Patsy or whatever you want to call her—she would’ve struck it big no matter what her name was.
By that, what I mean is that in those early years, Patsy Cline wasn’t singing the style of song that would end up immortalizing her name into country music’s history books. She wasn’t a fan of moving away from songs that highlighted country music’s staple instruments like the fiddle or steel guitar. But, that’s getting a little ahead of our story.
The next major plot point in the movie’s timeline comes when we see Patsy talking to her mom about how she wants out of the marriage with Gerald. Then, without any sort of indication about how much time has passed, we see Charlie propose to Patsy.
Maybe it’s just me, but the movie as a whole seemed to do this a lot. There’d be bits and pieces of Patsy’s life strung together without any sort of idea about how much time had passed from one scene to the next.
In the case of Patsy’s marriage to Gerald and Charlie, both of those events are true. And to satisfy the knowledge of how much time was between those events—not much.
Patsy divorced Gerald on July 4th, 1957. A couple months later, on September 15th, she married Charlie Dick. But she kept Gerald’s last name, probably because she’d already released her first album, “Walkin’ After Midnight”, with the name Patsy Cline.
After this, in the movie, we have another sequence of events that seem to go in quick succession. First, there’s a scene where we see Patsy and her mother, who’s played by Ann Wedgeworth, chatting about her going on a TV show. Patsy, that is, not her mother. But Patsy convinces her mom to say her name is Hilda Hensley and she’s Patsy’s talent scout. Then Patsy sings and the crowd erupts into applause. After that the TV announcer says Patsy has won, leading to the next scene where we see Patsy in the recording booth. If you listen to the song she’s singing, the lyrics are clearly “Walkin’ After Midnight.”
The basic gist of all of that is true, but similar to what we learned earlier, there’s more to the story.
Let’s start with Patsy’s mom. Although the movie doesn’t really mention Patsy Cline’s real name, as we learned earlier, it was Virginia Hensley. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the same last name the movie uses for her mom. And it’s true that her first name was Hilda—sro her name was, as the movie says, Hilda Hensley.
As a fun little fact, Hilda’s maiden name was Patterson. That’s how her daughter, Virginia, got her middle name that would then turn into Patsy.
It is true, though, that Hilda and Patsy had a very close relationship like the movie shows. A big reason for that was because Patsy was born when Hilda was only 16 years old, so the two formed not only a mother-daughter relationship but a best-friend relationship as well.
Well, maybe I should’ve said Virginia was born when Hilda was 16 years old…you get the idea.
That brings us to the TV show. Although the movie doesn’t ever really show the name of the TV show, there is one very brief moment where Jessica Lange’s version of Patsy Cline is pleading with her mom to go onto the TV show to introduce her. When she does, she mentions a “Mr. Godfrey.”
What she’s referring to, and the movie is accurate in mentioning this, is a TV show hosted by Arthur Godfrey, who’s played by Bruce Kirby in the film. That TV show was called Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts and it ran on CBS from 1946 to 1958. It was similar to what we saw in the movie; in fact it was even sponsored by Lipton Tea—something the movie shows.
As you can probably guess from the title, Talent Scouts was a talent show, where people displayed different talents and the audience voted through a meter that judged the audience’s applause. So basically, it was the predecessor to America’s Got Talent.
As the saying goes, there’s nothing new under the sun.
That particular broadcast we saw in the movie really happened on January 21st, 1957. Patsy Cline’s performance of the title track from her first album, “Walkin’ After Midnight”, really helped catapult her into the national spotlight.
The final scene in that little sequence was when Patsy went from singing “Walkin’ After Midnight” on TV to recording the same song in the studio.
Now if you’ve been paying attention so far, which I know you have been, you’re probably thinking—wait a minute! Didn’t Patsy Cline already have her debut album before when she sang in the opening sequence?
Well, yes, but that doesn’t mean the movie is incorrect. You see, even though Patsy Cline recorded her album “Walkin’ After Midnight” toward the end of 1956, in early 1957 she was on Talent Scouts and after shocking the audience with an amazing performance, they decided to rush a release of a single to the radio to follow-up on the hype from Talent Scouts.
That was released on February 11th, 1957 and almost immediately became a smash hit. It’d go on to top out at #2 on the country music charts and sell over a million copies.
Oh, and as a little side note, Patsy Cline wasn’t the only legendary entertainer to benefit from Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. A few other names you might recognize that got a big break through the show are Tony Bennett, The Diamonds, Lenny Bruce, Ken Berry and Don Knotts. And even though they tried out, both Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley didn’t make it past the screeners and onto the actual show.
Going back to the movie, as Patsy’s musical career is starting to take off, a wrench gets thrown into her plans. Really, a couple of wrenches. First, Patsy gets pregnant which forces her to stay home and not tour. Then Charlie gets drafted into the Army, where he’s stationed at Fort Bragg—separating the young couple.
That is true although, again, the movie doesn’t give any sort of indication about how much time has passed. And therein lies some of the confusion with the timeline.
So you know how we learned that Charlie and Patsy were married in September of 1957? Well, it was in March of 1957 when Charlie Dick was drafted into the Army. Charlie and Patsy’s first child, Julie, was born on August 25th, 1958.
So the movie clearly flips the timeline around a little bit there. Something else a little off with the movie is how it shows Charlie leaving but Patsy not going with him.
To give a little geographical context, Winchester, Virginia is about 360 miles, or 580 kilometers, to the north of Fort Bragg in North Carolina. And while both Charlie and Patsy still had plenty of connections back in Winchester, they actually moved to Fayetteville, near Fort Bragg, soon after Charlie was drafted.
But living in North Carolina didn’t stop Patsy’s career, even though for a brief time she thought about retiring to focus on her family. Thankfully for country music fans, she didn’t, and she traveled to Nashville for recording or to New York for TV appearances or various other places for tours, and so on.
She was busy.
In the movie, there’s a scene where Charlie seems to go AWOL by just leaving the base after an emotional call with Patsy and driving back home.
That’s something I couldn’t find any proof of. But since the movie seems to have not mentioned the young couple’s move to North Carolina after Charlie was drafted, maybe that’s how they resolved that by bringing Charlie back. In truth, Charlie and Patsy lived in North Carolina until 1959.
Oh, and as a fun little fact, remember that one scene where we see Patsy Cline singing “Blue Christmas”? The movie offers some sort of a timeline when it has the year, 1959, on screen as she sings this.
Well, if you’re a diehard Patsy Cline fan, you’ll probably know that she never recorded that song. But wait a minute—didn’t I say earlier that all of the songs in the movie were original recordings of Patsy that Jessica Lange lip synched?
Well, yes…I did say that, because that’s what the movie says at the end. But there’s no need to send me an email about that. Haha!
That song, “Blue Christmas”, was actually added by the filmmakers. But even then, it wasn’t Jessica Lange who was singing. She lip synched that song, too. The woman singing the song was a singer named Jamey Ryan.
Jamey isn’t in the movie at all, but the real Jamey Ryan was the woman that Charlie Dick married in 1965—after Patsy’s unfortunate death.
So, as I mentioned, the movie helps out a bit by giving us another bit of text on screen to date the events. After the singing of “Blue Christmas” in 1959, we see Patsy meeting Randy Hughes. Then, with text on screen saying it’s 1961, we see Patsy going into a recording booth with Randy there to record a new song.
Randy Hughes, by the way, is portrayed by David Clennon in the film.
Unlike “Blue Christmas”, that song, which we can tell from the lyrics is the song, “I Fall to Pieces”, is a real Patsy Cline song.
Although the movie doesn’t really mention it, what happened between those couple years the movie skips was that Patsy Cline switched managers and record labels. She went from manager Bill Peer to Randy Hughes, and after her contract expired with Four Star Records, she signed with Decca Records in Nashville.
Her first release with Decca was the hit song, “I Fall to Pieces”, just like the movie implies—even though they don’t really say that outright.
Back in the movie, after this recording session, we see Patsy singing at the Grand Ole Opry. Again, the movie doesn’t really go into too many details there, but what it’s referring to is correct.
In 1960, Patsy was accepted onto the cast of the Grand Ole Opry. That was a massive boost to her already growing career. If you’re not a country music fan, the Grand Ole Opry is basically a weekly concert in Nashville that has boasted some of the best talent in the history of country music.
One of my friends described the Grand Ole Opry as basically being like Saturday Night Live in the way it has different members of the cast. Except instead of being a weekly comedy sketch show that happens to have a musician on it, it’s a weekly concert. And instead of starting in 1975 like SNL, the Grand Ole Opry started in 1925 and has since become a Nashville institution.
Joining the Opry as a regular performer really helped Patsy’s exposure to country fans, which only helped her career blow up even more.
Going back to the movie, after releasing a popular album that is gaining steam, once again there’s a setback. This time it’s not Charlie being drafted or another child forcing her to stay at home. Instead, it’s a crash.
In the movie we see a very scary moment when Patsy is driving along with someone named John and all of a sudden the car is smashed by a truck. Patsy, who was on the passenger side where the truck hit, is pulled out with a bloody face. She recovers, but has to have a number of stitches on her face.
Oh, and John is played by Robert Dasch in the movie.
That is true, although she wasn’t in the car with John. She was actually in the car with her brother—Sam. And they weren’t going to get beer like the movie suggests. They were going to get some clothing so Hilda, who was a seamstress by trade, could make some new stage costumes for Patsy. Oh, and the crash wasn’t a side swipe on the passenger side like we saw in the movie. It was a head-on collision that threw Patsy into the windshield.
In the great book by Margaret Jones called Patsy: The Life and Times of Patsy Cline, Patsy recalled seeing the driver of the other car, an unknown woman, die right before her eyes. Seeing that clearly impacted Patsy, even though she insisted the other driver get help before she did—sadly, it was too late for that driver.
Patsy recovered, though, like the movie shows. And just like the movie shows, she did have scars on her forehead that she tried to cover up with makeup or wigs for the rest of her career.
Speaking of which, that car crash and recovery time meant that she couldn’t tour after the release of her “I Fall to Pieces” album. As a result, she wasn’t able to really shoot into superstardom with live performances fresh off the hype of the album.
In the movie, after the crash, we see Patsy going back into the recording booth to record the song that everyone knows. I mean, I know we’ve talked about plenty of classic Patsy Cline hits so far…but if there’s one song you know of Patsy Cline’s, it’s “Crazy.”
At first, she didn’t like the style of the song. It wasn’t country enough. But thankfully for us, she relented and recorded it.
And it is true that, like the movie shows, she recorded “Crazy” soon after her accident.
In fact, even though the movie doesn’t give us an indication of how much time passed between the car accident and the recording of “Crazy”, it was about two months. She was in so much pain that on her first take, she couldn’t hit the high notes. So the recording was postponed and she ended up recording it later while standing on crutches.
After this, in the movie, there’s a scene where we see something that we haven’t really talked about much up to this point. That’s how Ed Harris’s version of Charlie Dick treated Patsy at home. We saw him slap her earlier in the movie, and this time he goes much further—hitting her over and over. It’s really disturbing, especially when their daughter, Julie, walks into the living room to see Charlie straddling Patsy on the floor, hitting her.
That particular scene is something that I couldn’t verify. With that said, Charlie Dick did admit to hitting Patsy.
There were a lot of rumors of arguments and flying fists. But after Sweet Dreams was released, this scene where Charlie was hitting Patsy was one of the things that the real Julie didn’t like about the movie. She insisted that even though her parents fought, she never witnessed her dad hitting her mom.
On the other side, in an interview with People, Charlie Dick said: “Strangers would’ve thought we were gonna knock each other out, but we were just livin’. We made up as hard as we fought. We had a lot of fun making up.”
So, I guess, take out of that what you will. There’s no documentation or reports to prove things one way or the other.
What we do know, though, is that the movie is correct in showing that Charlie went to jail for a fight that went too far.
In the movie, we see Ed Harris’s version of Charlie pour out his soul to his cellmate. He tells the story of how his own father committed suicide.
According to another great book by Ellis Nassour called Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, Ellis not only mentions that being true but that the scene we saw in the movie was the very first time Charlie’s own family found out about what happened to his father. That gives you an idea of how much Charlie wanted to talk about that…and understandably so.
Going back to the movie, after all of this the movie ends on another sad note.
The final song we hear Jessica Lange’s version of Patsy sing in the movie is “Sweet Dreams.”
That’s a real Patsy Cline song, and it’s fitting that the movie uses this as the final song we see her sing as well as the title of the movie.
But in truth, that’s not the last song Patsy sang. The performance we saw her singing at was real, though.
That happened in Kansas City on March 3rd, 1963. That day, Patsy Cline performed for a charity benefit for a radio DJ who had passed away in a car crash just a month before. Alongside country stars like George Jones, Patsy gave three performances of her own in a single day—the last one, starting at 8 PM, wasn’t scheduled but was added after such a high demand on her other shows.
The final song of that performance—and the final song of her life—was “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone.”
After this, going back to the movie’s timeline, we see is Patsy getting into an airplane with Randy Hughes and two other men. We don’t see a date, there’s some ice on the ground, so it’s winter time. Not so much ice that it would stop a flight, though, because we can clearly see plenty of pavement—it’s cold and icy, but it’s melting.
In the movie, we see Randy is flying the plane. They have some engine trouble. By that, I mean the engine stops. Randy dips the nose to try to gain some speed and restart the engine.
With the engine restarted, everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Just then, the clouds part and they can see the ground is right there. Randy pulls hard, but it’s too late, and the plane crashes into the side of a rocky mountainside.
Sadly, much of this is true—even down to the phone call Patsy made to her mother before taking off.
A little under the weather, Patsy was looking forward to an 11-day break from performing. Her next concert was scheduled for the 16th of March. She’d be able to recoup from the flu that had bothered her recently and spend time with her mom and kids at home.
The weather wasn’t really cooperating, though. After the concert on March 3rd, there was a cold rain that postponed the group’s flight. They had planned on taking off the next day, the fourth, but the wet and cold weather in the morning kept fogging up the airplane’s windows so they decided to wait.
Another one of the performers at the charity concert, Dottie West, offered Patsy a ride back with her. She was driving with her husband back to Nashville. But that was a long drive—at least a day or two of driving—and Patsy wanted to get back to home as fast as possible to relax. So that meant waiting for a little while to be able to fly.
But they didn’t go anywhere on March 4th as they waited out the weather. It was on March 5th when Patsy made the call to her mother.
At about 12:30 PM on March 5th, Patsy checked out of her hotel. About an hour later, Randy Hughes piloted the plane along with his three passengers. There was Patsy, of course, and two other performers at the charity concert, Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins.
Although the movie never shows it, Randy successfully flew the plane from where the concert took place in Kansas City, Kansas to Dyersburg, Tennessee. There, they refueled and prepared for the final trip of their journey from Dyersburg to Nashville.
That trip is about 170 miles, or 270 kilometers.
And even though the movie shows a moment where the engine stalls and restarts, most historians agree that probably didn’t happen. Most believe the cause of the crash was simply that Randy Hughes wasn’t trained well enough. He was a trained pilot, sure, but he wasn’t trained on how to fly using only instruments. So as the weather got worse, so did the visuals. Since Randy couldn’t fly without seeing where he was going, the plane crashed.
Speaking of which, they didn’t crash into the side of a mountain either. Especially since there’s not many mountains in western Tennessee. The biggest, and most popular, mountain range in Tennessee is the Smoky Mountains, but those are in the eastern side of the state, about 400 miles, or 640 kilometers, to the east of Dyersburg.
The real plane, which was a Piper Comanche and not the Cessna we see in the movie, crashed into a forest just outside Dyersburg. They didn’t get very far.
The time of takeoff in Dyersburg was 6:07 PM. When the wreckage of the plane was found, one of the items found was Patsy Cline’s watch. It had stopped as a result of the crash, and the time on the watch was 6:20 PM.
In the movie, after Patsy’s tragic death, Charlie is devastated. One of the final scenes we see is Ed Harris’s version of Charlie listening to “Crazy” in the living room and dancing to it. He’s remembering her in his own way.
And while that scene was fictionalized for the film, that remembrance is very true.
Charlie never forgot about Patsy. Sure, as we learned earlier, he remarried. But that marriage didn’t last long. After marring Jamey Ryan in 1965, they divorced only a few years later. According to many reports, one of the reasons for that divorce was the constant listening to Pasty’s recordings that Charlie did. Jamey kept trying to get Charlie to realize that she was his wife now…but Charlie never seemed to get over Patsy.
For the rest of his life, Charlie continued to reminisce about Patsy. Then, on November 8th, 2015, Charlie Dick passed away. Finally, he was able to lie alongside the love of his life as he was buried next to Patsy in Winchester, Virginia.
Now throughout our story today, there’s been a consistent theme. The timeline. The movie doesn’t really give a lot of indications about how much time has passed from scene to scene. So it’s hard to get an overall sense of how long Patsy Cline’s career actually was.
Remember that scene where Patsy Cline started to explode as she sang her first single, “Walkin’ After Midnight”, on Arthur Godfrey’ Talent Scouts show?
That was in 1957, at which time Patsy Cline was 24 years old.
She worked hard to build her career despite many setbacks. The world was shocked with her death in the plane crash in 1963—her career was just getting started at just 30 years old.
KEEP LEARNING WITH MORE RESOURCES
- Sweet Dreams (1985 film) – Wikipedia
- Sweet Dreams (1985) – IMDb
- Sweet Dreams (1985) – Plot Summary – IMDb
- Sweet Dreams Synopsis | Fandango
- Singer Adkins to headline 9th Patsy Cline Classic at Handley | News | winchesterstar.com
- John Handley High School – Wikipedia
- Charlie Dick, Widower of Patsy Cline, Dies at 81 | Billboard
- Patsy Cline’s Widower Charlie Dick Dead at 81 – Rolling Stone
- Patsy Cline – Wikipedia
- Patsy: The Life And Times Of Patsy Cline: Margaret Jones: 9780306808869: Amazon.com: Books
- Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline – Kindle edition by Ellis Nassour, Dottie West. Arts & Photography Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.
- Patsy Cline’s Untimely Death – How Did Patsy Cline Die
- Charlie Dick, Patsy Cline’s widower, dies aged 81 | Music | The Guardian
- Charlie Dick, Patsy Cline’s Husband and Legacy Keeper, Dead at 81 | CMT
- Charlie Dick, widower who championed Patsy Cline’s legacy, dies at 81
- Patsy Cline and Husband Charlie Dick
- Sweet Dreams Prompts Patsy Cline’s Husband to Reminisce About ‘Me and My Crazy Girl’ | PEOPLE.com
- Patsy Cline – Singer, Pianist – Biography.com
- Crazy by Patsy Cline Songfacts
- Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts introduce America to Patsy Cline – Jan 21, 1957 – HISTORY.com
- Patsy Cline and Husband Charlie Dick
- Patsy Cline’s Widower Charlie Dick Dead at 81 – Rolling Stone