"You crossed the line!" Holly Hunter shouts at William Hurt in the climax of James L. Brooks'Broadcast News, incensed that Hurt's television reporter staged a shot in one of his stories. "It's hard not to cross it," Hurt protests. "They just keep moving the little sucker, don't they?" A new Criterion edition of this 1987 romantic comedy reveals its prescience about the fate of TV news—of all news organizations, in fact—as traditionalists are swept away by personality journalism, and as that little sucker just keeps on moving.
But Broadcast News didn't just foresee a crisis in journalism; it illuminates the crisis in romantic comedies currentlybedeviling Hollywood, as screenwriters and directors still can't find a way to make a heroine's career anything but an obstacle to her heart's desire. Hunter's character, network producer Jane Craig, became a template for a new kind of rom-com heroine—the workaholic who must choose between icy careerism and a warm romantic life. But the film's respect for Jane's work, and its famously audience-unfriendly ending, are reminders that few of the movies that have followed in Broadcast's footsteps have shared its guts. Even Brooks' return to D.C., in last month's underrated How Do You Know, demonstrates how hard it is to reach the level of wit and heart Broadcast News achieved.
Tom Grunick (Hurt) isn't a dummy. A sports anchor whose good looks and charisma propel him to a job as a network news reporter, he's "just less smart than anyone else around him," as Brooks says in the DVD's newly recorded commentary track. Tom's canny enough to seize upon what he's good at, and to parlay his talents—he's easy on the eyes; he's smooth under pressure; he's so nice no one can hate him—into on-screen success.
Tom's career takes off after two coups: A special report on an international crisis demonstrates his on-air chops, and a story on date rape—during which Tom, shockingly, cries on camera—uses his natural empathy to transform the tone of the evening news. Toward the end of the film, he's drafted to give his rival, reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), news-reading tips in preparation for what will be Aaron's sweaty and disastrous single shot as weekend anchor. Tom's assured advice is pedestrian but correct: Sit on your coattails to give your jacket a nice line. Punch one single idea per story. And, most importantly: "You're selling them this idea of you. You're saying, 'Trust me, I'm credible.' "
What Tom's explaining is simple: Build a brand. It's a lesson that enrages Aaron—he calls Tom "the devil"— but it's one that today's journalists know all too well. If you can't give the station or the paper a reason they can't lose you, you'll end up like the newsroom employees at the end of Broadcast News, laid off by the network in a cost-cutting move.
While those laid-off journalists commiserate in the bullpen, of course, Jane and Tom are sharing a romantic clinch in a darkened office. The moment exemplifies Broadcast News' very modern muddling of its characters' personal and professional lives, as seen in Jane, a career woman of the type Hollywood has rarely managed to portray—and the model for plenty of lesser heroines since.
For Hunter, just 28 when the movie was shot, it was a career-making role: Jane combines the wit and determination Hunter had displayed in Raising Arizona with a rich emotional life. Hypercompetent yet insecure, devoted to journalism yet furious at its failings, barking out orders in between solo sobbing breaks, Jane's no "Alice in Careerland," as Rosalind Russell once called the character she always had to play—the working girl just waiting for a ring. Instead, Jane is devoted to her job, passionate about her ideals, and incredibly good at what she does.
Unlike so many of Hollywood's corporate ice queens just waiting to be thawed, Jane's emotionally available even as she's unyielding. Recall the greatest line in a film full of great lines, when her boss sarcastically asks her if it feels good to be smarter than everyone else. "No, it's awful," Jane replies, her face a mask of misery. Romance, with its requirement to bend one's self toward another's, has no place in her life, until it sneaks in through the only available door—the workplace.
"TV producer" has become a go-to professionfor rom-com heroines in the years since Broadcast News. A headset and a scowl are a sort of filmic shorthand for a driven workaholic. But even a heroine who owns a pet shop, runs a publishing company, or sells books for a livingwinds up fighting some version of Jane's battle, between her professional responsibilities and her heart. These days, it's rarely a fair fight: In the end, our heroine loosens up, gets laid, and falls in love, breaking free of her chilly, domineering work persona in the process.
Not so in Broadcast News—spoilers ahead. Jane has to choose between two suitors: handsome, inexperienced Tom, who's being groomed for the anchor's chair, and brainy, resentful Aaron, who's being passed over. She chooses neither. Instead, she picks her career, and her persnickety sense of what's right and what's wrong. Seven years later, Tom and Aaron are each married; Tom's a network anchor, Aaron's a local reporter, and Jane is still the best at what she does.
It's an ending that would never go over today, and it's one that almost didn't happen. "I wrote it willing to change the ending, and filming primarily in sequence," Brooks says. He hoped that the process of filming would reveal who Jane should end up with. "I'd feel it, and then I'd write that for the ending." Instead, when all was said and done, he left her on her own.
Test audiences did not approve. "Some people expect that they go to a movie, they're gonna see a movie ending," Brooks laughs. He even shot a new conclusion, setting up an elaborate ruse: Hunter was told she was reshooting her final scene, in a taxicab leaving the airport; Hurt would spring into the cab, surprising her and, Brooks hoped, giving him the emotional finale audiences were demanding. The conceit fell apart when a crew member said, within Hunter's earshot, "We're ready, Bill."
They shot the scene anyway. Included for the first time on this new edition, it's wrong-headed and painful to watch, but still astonishing—two incredible, intuitive actors improvising after being put out to sea by their director. So fresh is Jane's fury at Tom's ethical lapse, it's clear the ending could never work, but Hunter, the pro, finds a way into Hurt's arms as the cab leaves Dulles. "I could fuckin' kill you," Hunter hisses. "You sure could," Hurt agrees.
Contrast the resolution of Broadcast News with Brooks' latest film, December's How Do You Know. Its setup is a virtual carbon-copy of Broadcast's, with Reese Witherspoon—a spunky actress superficially in the Hunter mode—as Lisa, a hard-driving softball player choosing between George, a nebbish with his career in the toilet (Paul Rudd), and Matty, a baseball star with everything going for him (Owen Wilson). Shaggy blond himbo Matty is, in fact, a new-style Tom Grunick, even repeating his vocal tics: "Good talk, good talk," Matty likes to say after he feels a conversation's gone well, an echo of a dazed and naked Tom telling a colleague, "Great date!" just after they've finished having sex.
But in How Do You Know, Brooks wriggles free from dealing with Lisa's career; she's cut from the Olympic team at the beginning of the movie, making her workaholism irrelevant. And, needless to say, Lisa doesn't get to saunter off on her own at the end of the movie; she ends up with Paul Rudd. How Do You Know isn't bad—its writing and acting are several measures more thoughtful than any other romantic comedy's in recent memory—but it plays like a half-hearted Broadcast remake, with all the good stuff surgically excised.
Brooks was in post-production on HDYK when he recorded the new commentary for Broadcast News, and he spends a lot of the commentary exuberantly praising the older film in a way that suggests he hasn't loved making its spiritual sequel. Over and over again he praises the four-year-conservatory training of his three leads, which allowed them to give him something fresh on every take—so often (more than 10 times, by my count) that it begins to sound like the lament of a man who's been watching Owen Wilson all day in the editing room.
Brooks also sounds justifiably proud of his Broadcast ending—and saddened that, despite three Oscars to his name, he'll never be able to make a picture like that again. "It'd be great to repeat it, but it becomes harder and harder," he says of the writing and filming process that led to Broadcast News' ending, an ending that clinches its status as the smartest romantic comedy of the past 25 years.