"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.