Broadcast News (1987): James Brooks Biting News Dramedy Starring William Hurt and Holly Hunter

After sweeping the Oscars with his popular mother-daughter melodrama, “Terms of Endearment,” producer-writer-director James L. Brooks made a better, more poignant film, “Broadcast News,” an inside chronicle of TV news and its changing mores in the 1980s.

Well-written, the film captures the unique ambience that prevails in such work contexts, depicting a group of people whose entire lives revolve around work. Indeed, careers and professional lives have family, social and even sexual aspects for the saga’s central trio: Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) as the network news producer, Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), her bright friend and vet correspondent, and Tom Grunick (William Hurt), the new handsome anchorman.

Brooks’ savvy screenplay depicts TV news as an intimate, frantic work place, a place he knew well from being a writer for CBS in the 1960s and from his producer experience on the long-running “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” in the 1970s.

Along with a critical examination of shifting professional and ethical mores, Brooks has constructed a credible and likable romantic triangle, with Holly Hunter torn between her old beau, the physically unappealing but pro anchor Aaron, and the new journo would do anything for better ratings.

Initially, Brooks wanted Debra Winger, who had co-starred with Shirley MacLaine in his 1983 Oscar-winning melodrama “Terms of Endearment,” as neurotic workaholic news producer Jane Craig. But Winger became pregnant, and weeks before rehearsals were to start, Brooks was stuck with a high-profile project but no leading lady. It was then that an assistant suggested he interview Holly Hunter, a young stage actress from Georgia, who was performing in New York. Brooks signed her right away and Hunter became an overnight sensations.

The gifted, honest reporter part was written for Albert Brooks, who basically gives the saga its soul, projecting the sad melancholy of a bright man who realizes that the new electronic age, with its reliance on sound bites, may call for a different kind of newsperson, one that can sooth the viewers without irritating or provoking them.  Indeed, William Hurt’s young anchor is a handsome man who may not understand the news he reads, but he knows how to “sell” the story and himself as an expert on it.

Holly Hunter renders a naturally charismatic performance, defined by many small and quirky details, for which she deservedly received an Oscar nomination. William Hurt, then popular after winning the Best Actor Oscar for “The Kiss of the Spider Woman,” excelled in projecting the contradictory qualities of blind ambition and flawed decency, giving credence to a new type of anchor, handsome and amiable but not very bright or alertor particularly moral.

Jack Nicholson, who appears in a cameo without pay, adds color to the TV station as the smug, pretentious anchorman, and so did Joan Cusack (John’s sister), as an assistant in a perpetual state of panic to meet deadlines and timetables.

Brooks made an intelligent, character-driven film that was engaging and appealing, but like his previous work, lacks any discernible visual style; in bland look and modest scale, it’s an extension of a good TV episode.

The film itself became news, when it landed on the covers of both Newsweek and People. In People magazine, star anchor Dan Rather was quoted as saying that the film was an “appropriate warning about the dangers of whom you put on the air.” But his colleague-rival Tom Brokaw protested, “It vastly exaggerates the conflict between the serious and the lightweight.”

Fox

Running time: 131 Minutes

Cast

Tom Grunick (William Hurt)

Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks)

Jane Craig (Holly Hunter)

Ernie Merriman (Robert Prosky) Jennifer Mack (Lois Chiles) Blair Lilton (Joan Cusack) Paul Moore (Peter Hackes) Bill, Rorich (Jack Nicholson) Bobby (Christina Clemenson) Martin Klein (Robert Katims)

Oscar Nominations: 7

Picture, produced by James L. Brooks Screenplay (Original): James L. Brooks Actor: William Hurt Actress: Holly Hunter Supporting Actor: Albert Brooks Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus Film Editing: Richard Marks

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

Bertolucci’s lush epic “The Last Emperor” swept most (nine) of the 1987 Oscars, and it’s one of the few films in the Academy’s history to have won in each and every nominated category.

The four other Best Picture nominees were: James L. Brooks’ “Broadcast News,” Adrian Lyne’s “Fatal Attraction,” John Boorman’s autobiographical “Hope and Glory,” and Norman Jewison’s comedy “Moonstruck.”

The winner of the Best Actor Oscar was Michael Douglas in “Wall Street.” The Best Actress was Cher for the comedy “Moonstruck,” and the Supporting Actor was Sean Connery in “The Untouchables.”