Nearly 23 years have passed since the release of Broadcast News, which bowed to a big Christmastime release in 1987, a good box-office run and multiple Oscar nominations a few months later. I saw the movie a couple of months before that official release; it marked the first time as a movie-going Angeleno that I would participate in a studio-engineering preview in which the audience was recruited in order to provide feedback and reaction to a rough cut of an upcoming movie. (My most memorable instance in audience previewing was when I saw, of all things, Wild at Heart a few months before it was unleashed. Those of us who hadn’t walked out beforehand took part in a brief post-film discussion in which Lynch briefly participated. I also filled out reaction cards for that Blake Edwards movie in which John Ritter wears the glow-in-the-dark condom.) When I paid to see the release version the movie was a little tighter around the edges, and unfortunately a nude scene featuring Lois Chiles was gone—she’s still seen cavorting around with a sheet wrapped around her, but obviously it was decided that the all-important 18-25-year-old demographic would not appreciate seeing a lovely woman of a certain age—Chiles was all of 39 when the movie was shot-- with her clothes off. (The movie still ended up an “R” rating for language.)
I didn’t like the movie much then, and seeing it again in 2010 confirms that is still far too sit-com pat and proud of it, thank you very much. James L. Brooks has never been one to traffic in ambiguities or anything else that might mess up the clean lines of his preordained dramatic trajectories, and even here, in his best film, he’s beholden to the power of making characters seem comfortable in our eyes—that is, familiar and easily trackable—and not much interested in upsetting that apple cart of supposed satisfaction. In Broadcast News Brooks provides a neat flashback summary of each of the major characters in their childhoods—William Hurt’s vain none-too-bright Tom Grunick, who is destined to flourish in the limelight of a debased, entertainment-oriented network news system; Holly Hunter’s high-strung, obsessive Jane Craig, at age 10 exactly the same person she’ll be as a highly-strung, obsessive adult news producer; and Aaron Altman, played by Albert Brooks, brandishing the neuroses and pitiless wit graduating early from high school which will, combined with his mundane looks, help him survive the frustration of being too smart for his job. But in terms of character growth, Broadcast News provides a meager harvest. The characters are as preprogrammed as Brooks’ Chayefsky-lite outrage over the degradation of network news standards. Watching it I was constantly reminded of all those movies posited around the loss of our nation’s innocence— even a terrific movie like Quiz Show buys into the specious notion that the United States was some sort of exemplar of moral righteousness until Charles van Doren accepted the answers to all those $64,000 questions. In the same way you watch Broadcast News and listen to Brooks’ thesis tumbling out of the mouths of Hunter and symbols of the old guard like Robert Prosky’s world-weary bureau chief and think, this in 1987 and this folks are just noticing how badly compromised TV news has become? Tying it all up in a nice, bow-laden package is Bill Conti’s piano-and-strings music which, bereft of the thematic unity and purpose of a real score, seems to exist only to cue us how to feel about the characters scene to scene and make us feel as if we’re perpetually coming in and out of a commercial break.
The joy of watching Broadcast News in 2010 is located in being reminded, after so many reputation-battering bad decisions endured over the ensuing couple of decades, just how good the three central actors were, at this point in their careers, and specifically in this movie. Hurt, who was indelibly, mysteriously good earlier this year in The Yellow Handkerchief, seems miscast at first— you have to forgive yourself for assuming that he’s too smart an actor, too cool an intellectual presence, to convincingly convey the actively dense narcissism of a silver-spooner like Tom. But he manages to convert the imperious, steely, often superior gaze of characters in films like Altered States and The Big Chill to a protective armor that barely hides the man’s own sense of, at least initially, being in over his head. Tom gains in confidence, but Hurt hangs on to what makes the characterization interesting, an inclusive insecurity which gives way to bemusement over his nearly frictionless journey toward success.
Hunter won an Oscar for mainlining the strident superiority at the core of Jane Campion’s The Piano, and she has never, in my estimation, looked back. And after three seasons occupying the supremely annoying concept of a fucked-up Oklahoma City cop who has a speaking relationship with her guardian angel in the execrable TV series Saving Grace (guess what Hunter’s character is named), Hunter has become fatally self-conscious and tic-ridden. In this series she is, I think, a bad actress. So it’s especially refreshing to remember just how good she was when she was coming off of Raising Arizona and offering her performance in Broadcast News. The character of Jane Craig may be one-or-two-note, but she lays into it with breathless hunger, and if nothing else you believe her. (I was actually afraid for Hurt near the end of the movie when she confronts him about a breach of ethics he’s committed and when he shrugs it off she snarls, “Oh, God, if you’re gonna be glib about this I am going to LOSE IT!”) It also helps that she’s at the center of the movie’s two best sequences, both of them cut with that same Mary Tyler Moore-esque feel for the workplace, only turned up to 11—if your blood pressure doesn’t rise a notch or two during the control room scene in which she attempts a last-minute edit of a report while the report is airing live, or the one in which she guides Tom through what she assumes will be a disaster-laden last-minute assignment to anchor a special report on some breaking news, then I would like the name of your cardiologist.
And of course Albert Brooks is nearly beyond reproach in a role tailor-written for him-- and according to some rumors co-written by him-- one which got him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. (Hunter was nominated in the leading actress category that year as well.) His incredulous rejoinder after staring with disbelief at a self-serving report Tom has concocted about date rape—“Great! You just blew the lid off nooky!”—is one that Chayefsky would have surely laughed at. But Brooks is interesting here in the same way that he’s great in the best of his own movies, because his deadpan mask of despair is often impenetrable, or at least actively deceptive, leaving fissures just big enough to release those cracks of heartless honesty and desperation, making clear the desperate symbiotic relationship between Aaron Altman's ambition and his single-minded neediness.
Seeing Broadcast News also reminded me that it’s been too long since I’ve visited the three genuinely great (and one nearly great) movies Albert Brooks has made as a writer-director-actor since his first feature was released in 1979, after a career in conceptual stand-up comedy and dryly hilarious shorts cooked up for Saturday Night Live. In 1985, after the unapproachable trifecta of Real Life (1979), Modern Romance (1981) and Lost in America (1985) I wasn’t the only one ready to proclaim Brooks’ genius to anyone who would listen. But just as his profile as a triple threat began to rise, his output softened and his movies lost the sharpness and sting that made his earlier satires of American society so memorably acidic, so unafraid to cut as deep as the flesh—usually his own-- would allow. Movies like Defending Your Life (1991) and The Muse (1999) seem poisonously star-struck, whereas Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2005) turned out to be clumsy, clueless and uncharacteristically toothless, as well as weirdly condescending. But in 1996 Brooks found his muse again, this time in the form of Debbie Reynolds in the titular role of Mother (1996). In the movie Brooks and Reynolds sidestep the stereotypes of the Jewish matriarch and mine a particularly rich vein of character comedy that finds Brooks once again tweaking expectations and delivering a portrait of parental identity and responsibility which cuts far deeper than family comedy of the Fockers variety. It’s been 14 years since that movie came out, and Brooks’s last movie Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World suggests that he’s petered out somewhat in terms of shaping his particular comic vision for the screen. But his triumphs in film comedy were so singular, so unlike anything else out there (the persistent tag that he was the West Coast answer to Woody Allen seems apt only if your conception of both directors begins and ends with them simply as whiny Jews) that it’s worth the occasional reminder of Albert Brooks working on all cylinders. Here, then, are four examples of that brilliance in action, from Brooks’ four best films, as well as one of his early SNL films, a shot of what convinced many that Brooks could embody a distinctive cinematic voice. Try imagining grabbing someone’s attention with the absolute lack of fancy camerawork and editing in any of these clips. Brooks knew even early on the power of stasis, of a patient gaze, if what was being shot was in and of itself of interest and if the camera was where it should be in the first place.
A recruitment commercial for The Albert Brooks School of Comedy
The brilliant teaser trailer for Real Life… Just imagine how James Cameron’s blood must boil when he sees this!
More from the Albert Brooks Adult Education Program. This time the director takes us into the editing room of his film school in this hilarious scene from Modern Romance-- and yes, the director in the clip is James L. Brooks.
The justly famous “Nest Egg” scene from Lost in America, in which Brooks locates in the Hoover Dam a beautifully understated visual metaphor—the acidly funny broken dreams of his petty yuppie dreamers play out against the majesty of a man-made tribute of human tenacity and manipulation of nature, crystallizing the inevitability of the movie’s brutal point of view.
Shopping for peanut butter with mom goes as simply and smoothly as everything else in the relationship between these two, a man who asserts his adulthood while unable to give ground in his eternally adolescent perspective on his relationship with his mother (Debbie Reynolds, domestic-force-of-nature brilliant), who adamantly holds the curtain closed on representing to him any measure the person she actually is.