Broadcast News (1987)

Broadcast News

Broadcast News – 1987

Director – James L. Brooks

Starring – Holly Hunter, William Hurt, and Albert Brooks

Every few years, maybe once or twice a decade, there is a movie that is a watershed moment for the audience.  Specifically it fundamentally changes how the audience perceives their relationship with how they see the world.  A film comes along, and playing with delivery, intention, or the pre-conceived notions of the audience, turns the world on its head, and shows us something familiar in a whole new way.

Films like the Lumiere brothers short “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat”, “The Man with the Movie Camera”, and “12 Angry Men”, sideswiped their audiences by manipulating what they were expecting and adding what they never saw coming, in the process waking them up to a whole new way of looking at things.  Shit, even the Sixth Sense caused a whole generation of movie goers to not only watch out for twists, but to almost expect them.  The visceral reaction inherent in the unknown is an addictive, and revelatory experience. It is just this sort of reaction that all films try to go for, but few ever really manage to pull off, not to mention on the scale that is required of a cultural event.

So it was with a certain amount of excitement that I approached seeing how the media shapes and packages the information we consume, making it more palatable, while all the while leaving us craving more.  Broadcast News was one of those films that tried for, but for my money, didn’t quite reach that sort of cultural status.  While I found the actors fun to watch, the script funny, and the story engaging, I felt like it was never able to accomplish its goal of revealing the drive and desires of the media structure that existed in the late 80s and early 90s.  Where the 24 hour news channels of today seem almost theatrically and blatantly disingenuous about their goals and motivations, the news culture that this film seeks to expose was one hiding behind the impression of integrity and virtue, so I felt like I kind of already knew the ending to the story.

The focus of the film is focused squarely on truth in journalism, in particular with the relationship between popularity, ratings, and honesty in the reporting of the news.  Holly Hunter plays Jane, a producer and champion of ethics at a big television news station, who ends up butting heads with Tom, the dumb yet likable reporter who knows that he hasn’t earned what he’s given, feels bad about it, yet succeeds and advances despite himself.  William Hurt is the perfect actor to play Tom, because, truth be told, I liked him simply based on the fact of who was playing him.  To further complicate matters, Aaron, Jane’s workplace confidant, and secret admirer, immediately distrusts Tom based on the budding attraction between him and Jane.

Basically, in the eyes of Jane and Aaron, Tom represents all that is wrong with how the news is presented and delivered.  Attractive faces with little to no knowledge of or interest in the details of the actual facts, delivering the “stories” that are really more geared to engage and attract viewers than to disseminate information.  Seeing this as a personal affront to her code of ethics, Jane, tries first to take a stand against him, then to educate him, and finally, after relenting to his obvious charms, starts to compromise her beliefs and principles.  The false, yet believable emotion that Tom brings to his reporting, begins to win her over proving just how effective he is as a voice-box for the network.

Ironically, I don’t know that Tom’s use of false tears during a story about date rape was really any more or less manipulative than Jane’s juxtaposition of a picturesque Norman Rockwell painting with the less than dignified life of a newly returned veteran.  At best they are equally manipulative, and at worst Jane actually takes it a step further by hiding it a little better than Tom was able to.  And therein lies one of my problems with this film.  The message wasn’t ambiguous enough that it wasn’t obvious what they were pointing at, yet it wasn’t black and white enough to end the film convinced about one side of the argument or the other.  The film had a certain selective subtlety that seemed a little too inconsistent for my liking.  Ultimately I would have liked the film to take a bit more of a stand, whether I agreed with it or not.

Few people in Hollywood are so simultaneously revered and nearly as unknown as is James L. Brooks.  Famed for being one of the original writers and a producer of one of my favorite shows, The Simpsons, that is really where my knowledge of him ends.  To look at his list of movies that he’s directed is to be rather disappointed.  The Adam Sandler film Spanglish was one that I thought was supposed to be pretty awful, but  As Good as it Gets, with all of its Oscar wins, was supposed to be pretty great.  Despite all the acclaim,  I never had a real urge to see it, so for all I know it’s equally as good as Spanglish.  And of course, Steel Magnolias.  I’ve heard of it, but that’s really about it.  Now that being said, everyone else I’ve talked to about Broadcast News seemed to really love it, and the fact that I was only luke-warm on it leads me to believe that I must be missing something, or that perhaps I need to watch it again.

Like I said, William Hurt is fun to watch, Albert Brooks is funny, and Holly Hunter plays a character that is just like other characters of hers that I like a lot.  Unfortunately, those positives still don’t make the “just okay” movie that it was, the “exceptional” movie that I was hoping it would be.  Rather disappointing.

All About Eve (1950)

All About Eve

All About Eve – 1950

Director – Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Starring – Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, and George Sanders

It’s rare that a film, good or bad, can be boiled down to a single sentence.  All the complexities and nuance that goes into the crafting of the story, the acting, the production value, or in the case of some films that just get it all wrong, the lack of these things, makes a film a difficult thing to summarize.  Harder still, is boiling down the power of these works still further to describe it in terms of only one word.  Though it doesn’t give any detail about the plot, or characterization, it speaks volumes of the impact these raw elements have had on the final product.  So how, you ask, does this film boil down? In the case of, All About Eve, all I can say is…wow.

Despite this being more than a decade after the revelation of film architecture that was Citizen Kane, Eve borrows to great effect the re-arranged timeline, dramatically changing how we see the three main characters at the beginning as compared to how we see them at the end.  Though the central part of the movie plays out in a very linear fashion, the film is bookended by a scene that gains vast amounts of context from when it opens the film to when it closes it.  The middle portion of the narrative periodically skips and jumps forward to flesh out the characters fully and fill in the questions asked at the beginning. Not only do we see the characters evolve, and grow, but we the audience steadily gain an awareness of each of them, their motivations, and their back-stories.  With each turn of the corner, more of the plot is revealed.  We come to find that what we thought we knew, was wrong, and that the truth can be far more dismal and malicious than the fiction we had been invested in.

The most contentious of these characters, played by Anne Baxter, is the titular Eve Harrington.  A rather meek, yet still rather suspicious woman, she is obsessed to the point of stalking with a well-respected and seasoned theater actress, Margo Channing (Bette Davis).  Eve spends so much of her free time idolizing, and brown-nosing Channing, that Margo, eventually begins to buy into the hype so much so that she hires on the young sycophant as her personal assistant.  At first her actions and motivations seem innocent enough, but as the film progresses her agenda seems increasingly dubious.

The tide really turns when the smarmy theater critic (also the occasional narrator) begins trying to manipulate the situation in an effort to exercise some control over both Margo and Eve.  The relationship becomes strained to such a degree, as it does with all of her important relationships, that Margo is nearly ready to cave.

Our second character, Addison DeWitt is the aforementioned culture critic for the newspaper and also functions as our narrator for the film.  The sardonic, unflattering commentary he delivers, immediately paint him as a wounded and more than a little bitter.  DeWitt credits himself for a good portion of these actors success, due to his favorable (or unfavorable) reviews, and is clearly upset that his view is not shared by them.  When he sees in Eve a chance to exercise some control over those he deems in his debt, he makes grab for it, spinning a web of deceit matched only by the one that is being spun around him.

Finally we have Margo, played by the legendary Bette Davis.  Her scowl wreathed in cigarette smoke that are delivered within the first 30 or so seconds of her screen time are enough to convince us that we fully understand her relationship with Eve.  She seems a cold, cunning and angry person.  Although, as the film progresses we see Davis paint Margo Channing as a completely fleshed out person, not simply the one-dimensional character portrait we get from some films of this period.  She is at times cocky, at others she is scared of growing old, or blindly angry at what she perceives as a slight.  Davis is each of these things, and all of them at the same time, delivering one of the best performances I’ve ever seen.

Beneath the glitzy New York theater setting, the backstabbing, and the drama, All About Eve is really the story of a woman, Margo, peeling away the facile, superficial elements of her life (not by choice, mind you) and seeing what it is that she really has.  The film seeks to determine the value of what you have left once you lose the extraneous things that populate your daily life, and by comparing these two women, Eve and Margo, it is obvious which has the better foundation.  Not only is this film an extraordinary example of the quality of work that came out of the studio system of Hollywood in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, it is also a remarkable achievement that it deals so frankly and honestly with the aging process from a female perspective.  This era can easily be described as somewhat of a boys club, so it is refreshing to see some diversity (I’m still waiting to stumble upon a film from this era that tells the tough as nails story of a gay, African-American, scientist, who is also a post-op transgender individual.)

Totally and completely worth it’s spot on this list, All About Eve blew me away.  After the film was over, for days and weeks afterwards, I found myself thinking about it.  Even though I had never had any interest in her before, I am very excited to see more of Bette Davis’ work.  When watching this film, you should indeed buckle your seat-belt  it will be a bumpy ride!

“Fuck. Bette Davis can act her ass off!” – Ashley

The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

The Barefoot Contessa – 1954

Director – Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Starring – Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner, and Edmond O’Brien

When two names as big as Humphrey Bogart, and Eva Gardner team up and share the screen, sparks are bound to fly.  The passion, romance, and sizzling chemistry of the couple is what legends are crafted upon, and careers are made of.  That is, unless, the two major stars in question aren’t sharing an onscreen romance.  Instead they are featured in a somewhat sweet, sprawling story of a platonic relationship that centers on trust, mutual respect and admiration.

Apparently this is veiled retelling of the life (or some of it anyway) of Rita Hayworth.  The story, is laid out in a series of flashbacks, starting in the present with Harry Dawes (Bogart) at the funeral of his friend Maria Vargas (Gardner).  Each flashback occurs in a linear manner, with occasional breaks back to the present with Dawes summing up, and pontificating a bit on the somewhat carefree nature of Vargas, and her unconventional method of approaching the grander ideas of love, success, and happiness.

Once she is “discovered” by the megalomaniacal Kirk Edwards, a  nazi-rich studio executive who makes  a business of buying people as carelessly as others buy things, it is precisely this unique approach of Maria’s that both infuriates and captivates him.  Throughout her life, Maria manages to attract men that are lured in by her charms only to try to re-direct, manipulate, and ultimately control her.  As a result her romantic life is as tragic and sordid as a tabloid newspaper.  Even her director, and best friend, Dawes, will occasionally put in his two cents about how she should live her life, never-mind the fact that he just might be right.

Barefoot Contessa is a strange film.  Strange, primarily for two reasons as far as I can see.  Firstly, it’s a little unique to have two of the biggest stars in Hollywood as leads in a movie where there is no romantic relationship shared between them.  I would assume they would want the on-screen chemistry provided by the actors to work together towards some ideal relationship outcome.  I guess, since all of Vargas’ romances seem to be rather imperfect and selfish in their motivation, a star with such a personable image as Bogart wouldn’t want to associate with one of those characters, and instead would choose the noble, caring, father-figure instead.

Secondly, this film was one of the most gritty and grimy I’ve ever seen come out of the Hollywood Studio system.  The Technicolor made everyone (especially in the opening scenes) seem awfully sweaty, grimy, and a little devious.  The blue tones seemed to have been drained out, while the red and greens  were pumped up far beyond the normal range.  Perhaps this was a conscious decision, in which case I’m interested in knowing why.  If it wasn’t a choice made specifically to enhance the storytelling, however, then it certainly begs a little explaining.

It’s difficult to use the device of fractured storytelling well.  With so many famous examples of how cool and effective it can be, (Citizen Kane, Pulp Fiction, etc.) the device is bound to get over-used, and lose some of its lustre.  Add to that, a change of point of view from character to character, and you have the definite possibility of a mess on your hands.  Luckily for the audience, The Barefoot Contessa avoids the pitfalls associated with such a high concept, and benefits from this storytelling method.

The shift in point of view happens twice in the film, between the characters Dawes, Oscar Muldoon a slimy producer and PR man played very well by Edmond O’Brien, and the Count Vincenzo Toriato-Favrini, a wealthy but damaged bit of Mediterranean royalty played by Rossano Brazzi.  Each in turn takes their turn reminiscing about Vargas, and their relationships with her, documenting her rise to fame, and her fall from grace.

Each of these performances is very strong, with Gardner’s Vargas being the weakest of the bunch.  While she does a passable job at portraying the object of these men’s affection, the heavy lifting in terms of exposition and believability is done by those characters who narrate her life.  O’Brien and Warren Stevens as Kirk Edwards were particularly good as the men simply interested in buying and selling her as a commodity.  As is always the case, Bogart’s skill as an actor seems effortless, making all of his scenes terribly easy to watch.

While it’s not as good as classics like Casablanca, The Big Sleep, or Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Barefoot Contessa is certainly worth the dedication of time and attention.  It may not be the strongest Bogart movie that I’ve ever seen, but it is certainly the strongest example of a Gardner movie I have seen thus far.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“You couldn’t tell me before we got married that you don’t have a dick?!” – Ashley