From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.
For April we are celebrating the great Holly Hunter!
When we first meet Jane Craig in James L. Brooks’s Broadcast News, she is diligently firing off letters to pen pals from all over the world (the year is 1968, so the idea of corresponding with someone thousands of miles away in a different country was far more thrilling than it is now). It’s getting late, so Jane’s father interrupts her mid-sentence to inform her it’s time to go to bed. So intense was her concentration on knocking out however many pen pal letters before turning in for the evening, Jane shrieks as if an attacker has just crashed through her bedroom window. Jane pleads with her father to let her knock out two more letters. He concedes, but with the following stipulation: “I don’t want you getting obsessive about these things.” Jane turns the word over in her head. “Obsessive.” Daddy done fucked up.
What ensues is a classic Brooks-ian harangue about lazy, imprecise word use. Jane upbraids her father with righteous indignation over his suggestion that her work ethic is somehow indicative of a psychiatric condition. All he can do is sit there and take it. What seemed like a gentle admonition has inadvertently unleashed a lecture on the exact meaning of the word “obsession”. Cut to grown-up Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) power walking through a random urban landscape; her focus is once again single-minded, but not to the extent that she can’t stop and grab a newspaper from a string of kiosks outside her hotel. She’s a network television producer. She needs to be up on everything.
The role of Jane Craig nearly went to Debra Winger (who’d recently starred in Brooks’s Best Picture-winning Terms of Endearment), but she had to bow out due to pregnancy, so the part went to Hunter, who’d just blown moviegoers’ minds with her portrayal of Edwina “Ed” McDunnough in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Raising Arizona. No offense to the great Winger, a battler who’d more than held her own onscreen with the bullying likes of Richard Gere and Shirley MacLaine, but she would’ve likely brought a softer, less antic energy to Jane. It’s like trying to envision Christopher Walken as Han Solo: you can’t.
Once Broadcast News moves out of its triptych of character prologues (which also introduce us to future clueless anchorman Tom Grunick and the bitter, hyper-articulate journalist Aaron Altman), it quickly becomes one of the greatest newsroom comedies ever made. It’s a love triangle between three career-driven people with very different emotional needs: Aaron is hung up on Jane, who’s his equal in banter and smarty-pants arrogance, while Tom is smitten with Jane because she makes him sound knowledgeable and confident when he’s reading the news.
What does Jane want? That is the central emotional mystery of Broadcast News, and one that isn’t solved as much as it is abandoned. Hunter brings the same no-bullshit ferocity to Jane as she did to Ed in Raising Arizona, but her mood swings in this film are pitched down to a level that’s more screwball than Tex Avery. Jane is the superstar at this Washington D.C. network affiliate; early in the film, she risks her career by demanding a last-second edit to a piece about a soldier returning home from service. The story runs the risk of cliché, so, having a wealth of cultural knowledge at her intellectual disposal, she concocts a dissolve to Norman Rockwell’s painting, “Homecoming”, replete with an eloquent voiceover from Aaron. It’s a genius bit of production, and it nearly runs aground when the overworked editor, Bobby (Christian Clemenson), almost erases the tape. This sets off a delicious moment of panic that reduces Jane to simply repeating “Bobby, Bobby, Bobby, Bobby, Bobby…” like a mantra until the tape magically ejects. The ensuing slapstick sprint from the edit bay to the master control room is one of Joan Cusack’s career highlights, but the urgency of the moment is sold by Hunter’s rapid-fire delivery of “Bobby”. She should be terrified, but instead she’s got this slight smile that sends the unmistakable message that she lives for this. This is her life. This might be all the fulfillment she needs.
Jane’s fortunate that she’s talented because she’s brash, insulting and sometimes subordinate when appealing to the better judgment of her superiors. Aside from her scheduled morning crying jags (where she disconnects the phone for some solitary emotional purging), Brooks never gives us a finer insight into Jane’s conceitedness than in her exchange with station manager Paul Moore (Peter Hackes), who’s made the executive decision to place Tom in the anchor chair for a special report on a military incident in Libya. Jane passionately argues for Aaron, who’s uniquely qualified for the anchor desk having interviewed Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. He can also think on his feet, and provide nervous viewers with valuable context that may give them a more accurate picture of what’s transpiring. Jane walks Paul outside and pleads her case, and when he tells her that he has a different opinion, she bluntly shoots back that his opinion is wrong. Rather than fire her on the spot for essentially calling him a moron, Paul responds with “It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you’re the smartest person in the room.” Jane, without a trace of irony, confides in a horrified whisper, “No, it’s awful.” Only Hunter could deliver that line, and draw cheers from the audience.
Brooks is such a generous storyteller that Broadcast News never fully throws its support behind one of the three main characters. Aaron is often the likable sad sack, but when he wounds Jane with a speculative anecdote about running into her years from now and having to admonish his son that “it’s not nice to make fun of single fat ladies”, he deserves far worse than she gives him. But Jane won’t allow him the victory of upsetting her. That’s what her morning cry sessions are for: get the vulnerable energy out of the way so you can handle the abrasive sexism of being a woman working in a male-dominated newsroom.
Broadcast News’ denouement is rough in that the only person who seems remotely fulfilled is Aaron, who has a child and, through a charitable interpretation of a snippet of dialogue, a successful wife. Tom is now the lead network anchor, and Jane is about to become his managing editor in New York City, but neither seem terribly happy (even though Tom is married*). Jane is dating a man who’s gotten her into waterskiing, but Hunter doesn’t do much of a sell job on the relationship. Hunter does, however, sell her maternal affection for Aaron’s young son, Cliff; this is the part of her life that, for whatever reason, has not been explored. There’s no self pity here though. There’s just resignation that this is where a hard charger like Jane would wind up in an industry that, even today, is overrun with misogynistic animals. It’s at this point that you realize Jane’s response to being the smartest person in the room isn’t just a laugh line. She really is that much better, and now she’s going to New York City to make Tom look smart again. No one outside of the industry will ever know it’s her brain (and maybe the occasional phoned-in contribution from a drunk Aaron) that makes this charismatic white man sound like Walter Cronkite. And if she were to complain, again and again (as would be her right), they’d just say she’s obsessive.
*I once asked James L. Brooks on Twitter if Tom ever found his way to Fox News. He told me he became a U.S. Senator.