Doodad Kind of Town


Movies I Watch Over and Over" Broadcast News" and "The Awful Truth"
November 18, 2007, 1:33 am
Filed under: Cary Grant, Holly Hunter

When I first saw “Broadcast News” in 1987, it established for me a lifelong ambition: to one day convert an entire room in my home into a closet.

Yes, you read that right. As you may recall, there is a scene in which newswoman Lois Chiles has a frisky tryst with William Hurt, after which Hurt exits the boudoir through Chiles’ closet. Her “closet” is, indeed, an entire room with racks of blouses, dresses, and skirts along every wall, plus a center island topped with hats on Styrofoam heads.

She gets all defensive about it – “Wait till you’ve doing it for fifteen years” (TV news, that is – as opposed to what they’ve been doing for the previous 20 minutes or so), implying that a career in front of the camera leads to a massive accumulation of beautiful things to wear.

Hurt -God bless him! – responds as no other heterosexual man on the planet would be expected to. That is, not by rolling his eyes or sighing in pained confusion, but by gushing “It’s great! You can see everything!”
My sentiments exactly.

Of course, this brief “dream closet” scene is not usually what one first thinks of one when one remembers “Broadcast News,” and it’s not really why I love it so. It’s just a little, frivolous fringe benefit.

What makes “Broadcast News” so repeatedly watchable are the performances of the three leads – Hurt, Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks – and the brilliantly nuanced writing and direction that supports them. I honestly believe that these three characters are some of the most fully realized, complex and full-bodied roles ever committed to celluloid. That they are all charming, funny, sympathetic – and sometimes maddening – in their own peculiar ways is just the icing on the cake.
Take Hunter’s Jane Craig, the quintessential 80s career woman/overachiever. She’s driven, abrasive, often intolerant; yet ample evidence of her vulnerability and potentially very tender heart is always lurking just under the surface. Jane is consumed by her career; her work relationships alone form the core of her emotional life. (But at least she knows there’ something amiss; in a brilliantly conceived bit of funny business, she takes time each day to unplug the phone and have a good, cathartic cry. After which, it’s right back to business.) Hunter is amazing in the way her performance seamlessly integrates all these facets of Jane’s character. Watching her navigate the murky emotional waters of the love triangle in which she becomes tangled is never less than fascinating; yet you’re never thinking (as you sometimes do watching Meryl Streep) “Wow, what a great job that Holly Hunter is doing!” You’re thinking “Wow! That Jane Craig is one messed up creature, but she means well. I wonder what she’ll do next?”
I also think that James Brooks set this character up beautifully. “Broadcast News” opens with three flashback vignettes depicting of each lead character as youngsters. In Jane’s segment, we see her interacting with her father who sports a bearded and a shawl-collared cardigan, looking to be an artist of some sort, or possibly an academic. A modern-looking portrait of him and Jane hangs on the wall. There is no evidence of Jane’s mother anywhere in this scene, and no comment is made about her conspicuous absence. Jane heatedly corrects her father on the precise definition of the word “obsessed,” then with a shrug of affectionate exasperation, she kisses him and strides out of the room. And her determines stride fades directly into a shot of adult Jane on a morning power walk. That little scene tells you everything you need to know about Jane; much more that either of the other vignettes, it set up behaviors and quirks that will be echoed in Hunter’s performance later.

Jane, of course, is loved by Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks). Like Jane he’s too smart for his own good; unlike Jane, he’s never bothered to also develop the necessary social and political smarts to move up the network news career ladder. Overlooked and ignored by the higher-ups, Aaron is constantly and hilariously trying to save face (never more so that when a producer’s daughter fails to recognize him, even though he spent two weeks on a whitewater rafting trip with her family the previous summer.) Brooks shows us everything that is unlikable about Aaron, but we feel for him, because he pines so hopelessly for Jane (and we’ve figured out that she is worth pining for.)
Hurt, of course, is the studly-but-dim sports reporter, Tom Grunick, who gets promoted to the network largely on his charm and looks. Hurt’s performance is every bit as subtle and complex as the other leads; he’s a charmer, but an ethically challenged one. Tom gets by on his ability to “connect” with people. He knows how to project sincerity without actually being sincere, and he makes anyone he talks to feel like the most important and special person in the room. His effortless dishonesty makes us uncomfortable, yet we’d love to have dinner with him. And we can see why and how Jane would fall for him. He’s got both the sexual wiles and the natural warmth that she’s never possessed – but clearly wants to. Theirs is a “Bill and Hilary” scenario, for want of a better simile.
The love story in “Broadcast News” is played out against a diatribe about the decline in the quality and seriousness of television news. That’s all fine (and actually very prescient, given the deplorable state of television news 20 years later), but in the context of romantic comedy, it all seems like so much kerfuffle. It’s the age-old formula of the love triangle (albeit one that doesn’t really work out for any of the characters), that drives this very funny, very intelligent comedy.
One brief note: the only thing I don’t like about watching “Broadcast News” now is revisiting the horrendous career clothing of the 1980s. I entered the post-collegiate workforce in 1981, so the outfits these characters wear provide uncomfortable flashbacks to my own working wardrobe. The ginormous shoulder pads! The wide-belted, ankle-skimming skirts, topped by long sweaters! The white panty hose paired with white heels! It’s like a bad acid trip down memory lane.

I can’t think of a better way to wrap up a bleary, blustery weekend than watching my favorite Cary Grant comedy “The Awful Truth.” So it’s just my luck that Turner Classic Movies has it scheduled for tomorrow night (8 pm EST).

Cary Grant was paired with some formidable leading ladies in the screwball comedy era (Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell), but my favorite Grant leading lady is indisputably Irene Dunne. She is every inch a lady, yet she has the subversive soul of a madcap sprite. And she is hilarious in this film. I can’t wait to see her masquerading as Grant’s slatternly sister and belting out her ribald rendition of “Gone with the Wind” to Grant’s unamused prospective in-laws. Ralph Bellamy is also on hand as the innocent Oklahoman rube who falls for Dunne, and his dance scene with her in the nightclub is laugh-out-loud funny.

Do yourself a favor and tune in to this!

(Photo credits: Wikipedia, carygrant.net)

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