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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My Last Days of HBO; "Saving Grace" Update
August 3, 2007, 6:55 pm
Filed under: Holly Hunter

I recently decided to downgrade my cable package and get rid of HBO. Ever since “The Sopranos” faded away behind that all-black screen (the biggest cop-out in TV history, IMHO), I’ve had little reason to watch. I’ve never warmed up to “Big Love” or “Entourage.” I made it through only the first episode-and-a-half of “Rome.” Any good original movies or comedy specials they come up with will make it to DVD in mere weeks, so why bother paying the $14.99 a month to see them right away?

One summer show, however, almost made me reverse my decision. “Flight of the Conchords” is HBO’s delightfully daffy series about Brett and Jermaine, a folk-singing duo from New Zealand trying to hit it big in the Big Apple. Their only fan is a wide-eyed housewife with a head full of Shirley Temple curls who stalks them in a station wagon driven by her long-suffering husband. Their manager has a day job at the New Zealand Consulate (in an office that resembles a 70s rec room, with wood-paneled walls and cheesy New Zealand tourism posters tacked on the walls.) They play gigs at aquariums and tourism fairs, support themselves with odd jobs such as holding signs on the street to point passers-by to hot dog stands or men’s suit sales. And they have trouble with girls.

What makes the show is the music. There are at least a couple of songs in each episode, and they’re musically adept and absolutely hilarious at the same time. (I am a WAY unhip forty-something whose in-depth knowledge of pop music ends at about 1989, so I don’t know who to compare their sound to. Please forgive me. ) Take these lyrics from “She’s So Hot, BOOM!” : “She’s so flippin’ hot/She’s like a curry/I want to tell her how hot she is/But she’ll think I’m being sexist”

Or from another love song: “You’re so beautiful/You could be a part-time model/but you’d still probably have to keep your normal job”

Is it any wonder they have trouble with girls?

Meanwhile, the news from “Saving Grace”: it’s not getting any better. In the second episode, the show still fails to find its footing. The problem with “Saving Grace” appears to be its schizophrenic ambitions: it’s two-two-TWO shows in one. It’s like “Oklahoma City C.S.I.” and “Touched by a Redneck Angel” all wrapped into one weekly package. The detective story is the better, more interesting part of that package; the spiritual half of the show is pretty half-baked. It’s beginning to remind me of this crappy paperback someone gave me many years ago called “God on a Harley” in which a lovelorn 30-something is visited by God in the form of a burly biker who says things like “Hey, I’m not perfect. When I wrote the Ten Commandments, I made some mistakes. I’ve learned a lot since then!” As I recall, there was even a “brand new. kinder and gentler” version of the commandments in the back of the book which, when followed by the lovelorn 30-something, led her to stop bleaching her hair and find true love with a jazz musician.

“Saving Grace” is on about the same track, with the good ole boy angel popping in to scramble some eggs for Grace while spouting wisdom like “Go to a church, go to temple, go to mosque. Hell, go sit in a tree if it brings you closer to God.” One has to wonder why Grace feels so threatened and disturbed to be sought out by God. It’s not as if she’s being asked to repent or relinquish all her worldly goods; all that seems to be required is that she listen to a paunchy old redneck dispense some Hallmark Card-style wisdom. Meanwhile, the writers keep loading her up with outrageous, good ole girl behaviors – deer huntin’ with the boys! Takin’ on a second lover! Wrasslin’ with that cussed Earl the angel! – that beat us over the head with the message “This little gal may be the town pump, but she’s full of piss and vinegar! ” There’s everything but a neon light over her head flashing the message “Unlikely Candidate for Salvation.” We get it already!!!

“Flight of the Conchords” photo from hbo.com



The Bad Girls of Basic Cable: "Saving Grace" and "Damages"
July 30, 2007, 12:42 am
Filed under: Holly Hunter

I have just one question: when did it become OK for people to say “Holy shit!” on basic cable?

I mean, really? Aren’t there still standards and censors for commercial networks, even the ones you can only watch if you have a cable box? Or am I out of touch?
Don’t answer that. I’ll do it for you. Yes, I’m totally out of touch with basic cable. Series like “Rescue Me” and “The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck” and “The Closer” and so forth have all gone unviewed in my home. For the past several years, my TV watching has been limited primarily to HBO, Bravo, Turner Classic Movies and a handful of the smarter network sitcoms (e.g. “The Office”).
So it was kind of a revelation to me when I turned on two new summer series this week to hear all this “holy shitting'” going on everywhere.
The emphasis is on the “holy” part in “Saving Grace,” a quirky drama starring Holly Hunter as a hard livin’, hard drinkin’, detective who has an encounter with the divine.
Despite all the hype celebrating “Saving Grace”‘s groundbreaking originality, this character turns out to be pretty much your standard-issue Southern spitfire in tight jeans and cowboy boots. She flirts, she cusses, she chain smokes. She drinks both beer and Jack Daniels straight from the bottle. She straddles her married lover with wild abandon (showing as much skin as basic cable allows), sucker-punches another man in return for an unwelcome come-on, and in between these mini-dramas, zooms around town in a mud-splattered Porsche (Which is a nice touch, since I would have expected a battered pick-up truck). All this is meant to suggest that Grace is beyond redemption, but God apparently thinks otherwise. After a night of hard drinking and reckless driving, Grace is visited by an angel. Since this feisty little missy is unlikely to be impressed by, say, Della Reese or Roma Downey, God sends Earl – a grizzly, tobacco-chawing old dude in denim (who I TOTALLY thought was Neil Young, but turns out is played by an actor named Leon Rippy.) Why the angel chose her – what God has in mind – well, none of that is clear, but there’s a whole series ahead to explore those questions.

The pilot is a bit overloaded with background information and introductions of supporting characters: Grace’s brother is a priest, her best friend (Laura San Giacomo in big, black, nerdy specs) is a devout Catholic; her beloved nephew lost his mom in the Oklahoma City bombing. Oh, and Grace has slept with pretty much every man in town. Now that we’ve got all that established, I hope this series gets going on giving some dimension to characters other than Hunter’s. It’s all fine to unleash Hunter’s force-of-nature energy into a part like this, but for the series to really work, she needs some folks who can balance her out. Personally, I’m always up for some unconventional exploration of God and faith, so I wish this series well.
“Damages ” filled me with nostalgia for an earlier, simpler time – the early 1980s. A time when Glenn Close played characters who were neither evil nor insane, but, rather, smiled beatifically and radiated goodness from beneath a halo of soft, blond curls. (If you are too young to remember this time, go find “The Natural” on DVD. Or even “The Big Chill.”)

Don’t get me wrong, Close is a terrific actress. Although not a force of nature like Hunter, she dominates “Damages” as a skillful, coolly assured portrayer of thinly disguised sociopathic malice. But, honestly, Close can do this evil bitch act in her sleep by now. It’s been twenty years since “Fatal Attraction” – what other rabbits can she pull out of her hat? Or boil, for that matter, and yes, there is an act of cruelty towards in a small animal in the opening episode of “Damages.” Which is only one reason that I so intensely disliked it.

The show is creepy and sometimes pointlessly sadistic. It plays up its more graphic and arresting images to good effect, but develops its major characters almost not at all.
Take the opening scene in which a woman flees an upscale apartment building, wearing only a blood-splattered trench coat and high heels. That’s a heart-stopping image, but what the hell is it all about? We won’t find out soon – once she turns herself into the police in the next scene, the action flashes back six months to show this woman being hired fresh out of law school by Close’s law firm.
Close is a personal injury attorney who loves sticking it to corporations on behalf of the little guy, although it’s never clear why. She doesn’t have much love for the little guys on whose behalf she scores huge, punitive settlements. What she does love is terrorizing and intimidating her employees. Rose Byrne is the fresh-faced law school grad she hires, but it equally unclear what Close sees in her. Doe-eyed, soft-spoken and ineffectual, Byrne hardly suggests the ambitious go-getter she’s claimed to be. She’s no foil for Close, and therein lies the problem. As with “Saving Grace,” the big-name actress at the center of the out-acts the rest of the cast, basically eating them all for breakfast. I’m less inclined to keep up with “Damages” in the coming weeks, but if I do, I’ll hope that some of the other actors start coming alive.