Monday, February 14, 2011

Washington Social Diary

William Hurt in a scene from Broadcast News that was shot at Nathans.
by Carol Joynt

Even though it didn’t open on Valentine’s Day, many heart-shaped moons ago the director James L. Brooks gave a robust cinematic Valentine to CBS News. It was Broadcast News, starring a divinely handsome William Hurt, the fresh talent of Holly Hunter, and Albert Brooks at his peak as an endearing nebbish.

Broadcast News, its director and stars were nominated for just about every possible award, and won quite a lot, though not the Oscar. In a powerful field that also included Hope and Glory, Fatal Attraction, and Moonstruck, the 1988 Best Picture nod went to The Last Emperor. Interestingly, each of those Oscar contenders has enduring appeal, with little cultural mold. If anything, Broadcast News is more poignant today.

The cover of the new Criterion DVD of Broadcast News.
Brooks wrote the marvelous screenplay as a romantic comedy, but it stands the test of time as capturing a transitional moment in contemporary broadcasting, much as Network did a decade earlier. The transition was from “old news” — sober, “objective” reporting, rigid in its adherence to CBS News president Richard Salant’s fierce code of “standards and practices” — and the “new news,” cozy with entertainment values, seeking “moments” of emotion, as shaped by the 80’s CBS News president, Van Gordon Sauter. The transitional anchorman was Dan Rather, played with nuanced precision by Jack Nicholson as “Bill Rorich.”

What the audience likely did not know is that Broadcast News is a very personal film, for Brooks chiefly, who started out as a writer at CBS News in New York, but also for many of the staff in the Washington bureau of CBS News. They were his muse for the story and characters, particularly powerhouse producer Susan Zirinsky, who Holly Hunter embodied as “Jane Craig.”

It was personal for me, too. Brooks and I met in the early 70s thanks to an incredible man named John Merriman. He was Walter Cronkite’s long-time and esteemed editor on The CBS Evening News, where I was a writer. Merriman and Brooks met when Jim was a CBS News writer. After Jim departed for the West Coast and big success in the entertainment industry, they remained friends.

John was the eccentric’s eccentric. I love him to this day. He arrived at work in the morning with a Sabrett’s hot dog in hand, sat across from me on the set and discoursed lovingly about how many pork chops he had the night before, argued with me about any number of subjects, and smoked only one cigarette a day — at the end of the “live” broadcast — which he held flat in his palm like a character out of Casablanca.
Director James L. Brooks.
What Jim and I both loved about John was his steadfast respect for the language. You couldn’t hand in lazy writing to John Merriman. He’d throw it back before it ever got near Cronkite’s script. What was lazy in John’s view? Using the word “tragedy,” for example. It wasn’t for journalists to decide what was a tragedy, because that was subjective opinion.

We could use the more objective “disaster” or “catastrophe,” but tragedy was verboten. The same for “meanwhile.” Lazy writing. Not allowed. Whenever copy got handed in with the words, “there’s a dark cloud over…” as in political turmoil in Moscow, he dramatically pretended to phone the graphics department. “Please get me a photo of that cloud over Moscow.” Point taken.
William Hurt at Nathans.
Thanks to Merriman, Jim Brooks and I met in Los Angeles. It was the height of the success of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which he created with Allan Burns. He brought me on the set, introduced me to the cast, and invited me to watch a rehearsal. We stayed in touch over the years — particularly in 1974 when our dear friend John was killed in a plane crash in Charleston, SC. For us his death was a tragedy.

Jim looked me up again when he came to Washington to scout locations for Broadcast News. By then I was a producer for Charlie Rose on the CBS overnight show, Nightwatch, and I was married to Howard Joynt, who owned a popular and attractive Georgetown bar named Nathans. So attractive that Jim decided he would use it for some of William Hurt’s scenes. Alas, that thread of the story did not make it into the final cut.
Albert Brooks, Holly Hunter, and William Hurt in a scene from Broadcast News. Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
And this brings me to here and now and why I’m writing this particular column. Criterion just released a new DVD edition of Broadcast News, and it includes the deleted scenes shot at Nathans. Jim sent me a copy and almost immediately I gave it a sentimental screening. At times I was overwhelmed with memories.

Holly Hunter as Jane reminded me of the first time I bumped into her in the newsroom — petite, focused, watching all of us.

Susan Zirinsky (CBS).
One day she had long hair and the next she had Susan Zirinsky’s signature bob. I look at her in the film and there are moments when I see only “Z,” the insiders’ nickname for Susan. Hunter nailed her anxious mannerisms, the unerring concentration, and the wardrobe is uncanny.

I recalled meeting Albert Brooks at a party and how he recoiled when I told him I was a devoted fan. His reaction didn’t alter my affection. At another party I met Bill Hurt, and we bonded over talk of Rainy Lake, Minnesota, though I don’t remember the particulars.

I was at work and missed the all-day and night filming at Nathans, but my husband told me about it — the meticulous crafting of the scenes between Hurt and another character. How Hurt retreated in the moments between the action (polite, but locked in character).
Holly Hunter and William Hurt in a scene from Broadcast News.
Watching it now, with Nathans closed for a year and half, it's comforting to see the old place in its hey day. Jim Brooks cast extras’ who looked like actual Nathans customers. There’s so much that’s familiar: a hunting print on the dark wall, the crisp red-checked tablecloths, a whirling fan, a green saloon lamp.

Beyond the Nathans parts, I noticed this: Hurt’s character, “Tom Grunick,” is much more sympathetic than I recalled. He’s supposed to be “the devil,” because of his inadequacies as a so-called serious journalist, but in 2011 the bar is so low his 1988 standards seem lofty. Jane Craig is admirable but not warm. She’s rigid to the point of almost wearing blinders. I don’t mean this to be harsh, because there are so many of us who were once a Jane: she was smart about her job, but she was a character in need of the humanity and wisdom that come with having a life outside the office. Marriage and children will do that, but that’s not the choice Jane makes at the end of the film.
A scene outside Nathans front door.
(In reality, Susan Zirinsky is married, and a mother, and has loads of humanity.)

There’s a compelling bit on the DVD “extras” – an alternate ending, complete with Jim Brooks’ spontaneous commentary. He’s right: to watch Hurt and Hunter do the end scene virtually cold, to see these pros at work, in the raw, is mesmerizing. For more on Brooks' thoughts about the film, go to The Atlantic online and the piece by John Meroney, who recently spent time with the director.

With Valentine’s Day upon us, and the Academy Awards up next, it’s timely to have Broadcast News available in a revitalized form. In that respect, Jim Brooks gave a Valentine not only to CBS News but also to fans of quality movie making.
Nathans, closed since July 2009.

Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C.

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