Wednesday, February 14, 2007


An unrequited love triangle

This post is part of the Lovesick Blog-a-Thon being coordinated by 100 Films. Check them out for a full index of posts across the blogosphere.

NOTE: Ranked No. 54 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

"...I would give anything if you were two people, so that I could call up the one who's my friend and tell her about the one that I like so much."

By Edward Copeland
Love triangles proliferate throughout the history of film, literature, theater, etc., but it's not as often that a work of art tackles a romantic geometric puzzle where the points are mostly love of an unrequited nature. No film has ever captured it more vividly, touchingly or hilariously than James L. Brooks' Broadcast News. Sure, there is a sprinkling of satire about the state of television news, but it's the stunted relationships between Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), Tom Grunick (William Hurt) and, most especially, Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) that give this great film its punch.

"Wouldn't this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive?
needy were a turn on?"

I am Aaron Altman. OK, not literally. James L. Brooks doesn't know me and didn't pattern the role on me, but there probably is not a character in the history of film to whom I feel such a close kinship, especially when I first saw Broadcast News in its original release in 1987 (It turns 20 years old later this year — we are both getting old). Actually, come to think of it, for much of my younger years my nickname was "Alex" after Alex Reiger on TV's Taxi because people came to me for advice a lot and James L. Brooks co-created that show as well. Maybe he has been writing my life. On the plus side, as many bad moments as I've had in my life over the past couple of years, none might be as bad as Spanglish or I'll Do Anything.

There have been two "Jane Craigs" in my life, though ironically the one who most closely mirrored her, right down to being a driven perfectionist who set aside time for crying, I didn't even get to know until well after Broadcast News had been released. (As Joan Cusack's character tells Jane at one point, "Except for socially, you're my role model.") Also, there never really was a Tom Grunick equivalent, though many aspects of the fictional Aaron and Jane rang true. I plead guilty to drunken attempts at confession as poor Aaron does, saying lines similar to his declaration that the "one thing that makes me feel really good and makes immediate sense is you" which got a sympathetic and sincere "aww" from Jane, which only made things worse. Even I wasn't nervy enough to try for an impromptu, alcohol-induced kiss and I certainly wouldn't have been cogent enough at the time to respond, "Well, I felt something."

The marathon phone conversations ring especially true alongside the one-sided wish for something more than friendship. Especially in college, phone calls with Jane Craig No. 2 could stretch on well into the morning and cover just about any conceivable topic: from school to current events, from work to romance, from dreams to masturbation. You name it, we probably discussed it. We'd talk about her misfired attempts at romance (I only wish I could have used Aaron's line when Jane complains that at some point she's crossed a line "where she's started to repel people she's trying to seduce" and he replies that Tom must have been good looking because "Nobody invites a bad-looking idiot to their bedroom").

That provides a nice segue to the other side of the film's unrequited triangle: Jane's feelings for Tom. Granted, Tom and Jane do come thisclose at times to having a go at it, for most of the film Jane's infatuation with Tom seems to be one sided, even if she doesn't share the deep friendship with him that she shares with Aaron and holds Tom in low regard professionally. When she questions Paul, the head of the news division (Peter Hackes), about the decision to have Tom anchor a special report, Paul responds in one of the film's many memorable lines: "You are absolutely right and I'm absolutely wrong. It must be nice to think you always know better, that you're the smartest person in the room" to which Jane brilliantly responds, "No, it's awful." Well, Jane certainly doesn't know better when it comes to Tom. She's not suffering from unrequited love really, more like unrequited lust.

In one of the masterstrokes of Brooks' screenplay, Jane goes nuts preparing for her big date with Tom to the correspondents dinner at the same time that Aaron stops by to prepare for his first shot at anchoring the weekend news. Aaron is understandably annoyed as he watches Jane fret over every detail, begging her to at least "pretend this is awkward" while Jane denies it's a date but merely "co-workers attending a professional conclave" as she plops a package of condoms in her purse. Of course, Jane's attempts at seduction are nearly as clumsy as Aaron's, even without the added burden of friendship. Her disdain for Tom's lack of ability always rears its head (prompting Tom at one point to tell her that he likes "her as much as I can like anyone who thinks I'm an asshole.") and she'll get worn out, declaring that she feels like she's a "dead lump of poured-out flesh" and then invite him up to her apartment. Of course, Jane's attraction to Tom really raises the tension in her friendship with Aaron. Aaron's unrequited love for Jane could stay comfortably in remission until someone like Tom shows up, increasing the probability that Aaron's door to romance with Jane will be slammed shut forever.

The tenuous work relationship between Aaron and Tom provides fun as well as Aaron seeks every opportunity to show Tom up, though he does take his advice on how to prepare for his anchoring shot. One of the other great things about Broadcast News is that Tom is not conventionally dumb, he's not mean and even though his ethical standards are less than pure, he really does seem to be a nice guy. At one point at a party, Tom asks Aaron, "What do you do when your real life exceeds your dreams?" to which Aaron replies, "Keep it to yourself." For the most part, Tom usually means well and though Aaron (and least in my eyes) is the more sympathetic character, a lot of the time he doesn't, always doing his best to sabotage Tom, less out of meanness than out of frustration over his feelings for Jane. Near the film's climax, as Tom is bidding Aaron farewell he says, "You're a prick — in a great way." Aaron likes how that makes him sound and it's true.

Finally though, his feelings for Jane finally prove too much following the disaster of his anchoring try ("At some point, it was so off-the-chart bad, it just got funny," Aaron tells Jane) as he interrupts her big date. Jane chooses this time to admit to Aaron that she thinks she may be in love with Tom. That's the final straw for Aaron, who bursts forth with anger and confession. At first, he tries to remain the sympathetic friend, agreeing with Jane when she says that this try at a relationship with Tom is important for her, even though she says it's really about her being a "basket case." Of course, Aaron can't help himself — this is his last chance and he tries to play every card he has — and sober no less.

He starts out by trying to posit the theory that Tom, while a nice guy, is really the devil "lowering our standards bit by little bit, flash over substance," Aaron says before adding, "and he'll get all the great girls." A suitably angry Jane fires back at Aaron that what they have isn't a friendship and she thinks he might be the devil. "You know I'm not. If I were the devil, you'd be the only I'd tell," he says before finally getting to the crucial admission that he's in love with her. Ever the journalist, prone to self-criticism, Aaron sighs, "What do you know? I buried the lead." The entire exchange exhausts the both of them ("Does anyone win these things?" Aaron asks), especially after Tom calls and, having seen the tape of Aaron's disastrous anchoring, says he understands that Jane's probably needed there and cancels the rest of the evening, to which Aaron viciously says, "Thanks for dropping by" before sending Jane out the door alone.

The answer to Aaron's question about winning, at least in the case of Broadcast News, is no and I think that's part of its genius. At the time, my mom expressed disappointment after seeing the film that Jane and Aaron didn't get together (Hey, she's my mom — of course she's going to root for me). Before the epilogue, Jane asks Aaron to meet her and they settle on "the place near the thing where we went that time." Aaron's bitterness is still palpable and Jane asks him if he's really going to stay mad at her forever to which he says, "I hope so," a feeling I could completely understand but one that isn't fair or really feasible, though Aaron tells her:

"I'll miss you. We'll talk. We'll always be friends. We'll get hot for each other
every few years at dinner and we'll
never act on it."

Frankly, I think Aaron still was in denial somewhat, since there's never any evidence to show that his attraction to Jane is reciprocated. As lovers around the world celebrate their togetherness today on Valentine's Day, there really is no better way for the rest of us poor schmucks to spend this day than to watch Broadcast News and remember the ones who got away or who were always beyond our reach. On a personal note, as far as my two "Jane Craigs" go, No. 1 and I did remain close friends and I was able to put my romantic feelings for her into permanent remission. As for No. 2, the one who most closely resembles Holly Hunter's character, our path was much shakier and as of today no longer exists. An ill-advised jaunt through Europe together many years ago caused the first rupture (damn you James L. Brooks — Alex Reiger and Elaine even took a trip to Europe together on Taxi, though at least Alex got laid). Years later, it was more a natural growing apart as I realized that Jane Craig No. 2 really wasn't that good a friend to me, more wrapped up in herself than in events that were occurring in my life. Jane Craig No. 1 though provided a friendship that I'll never regret and that I always will treasure.

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this is some great stuff, Ed. it's always weird to find a film that somehow mimics your own life. for me, it's Before Sunrise.

thanks for the contribution. this is exactly the sort of post i was hoping for when i announced this.
Nice write up for a good movie. Holly Hunter's righteous anger at William Hurt's manufactured tears already seems quaint in today's "fake but accurate" media age. Also, IMDB lists Saul Bass as the title designer for Broadcast News. This blows my mind because I don't remember the credits. Happy Valentine's Day.
Sigh. We all have our Jane Craigs, don't we? Mine was somewhere in Texas last I heard, and I'm relieved to say I haven't the foggiest of what he's been up to for the last ten years or so. Sometimes it's better just to gradually fall out of touch, let go and move on - especially in situations where the relationship can't ever evolve into what you want it to be.

Broadcast News is one of those films I've really come to appreciate more with the passage of time. If there's such a thing as perfect casting, then from stem to stern, this film has it. It's funny, because casting has been a problem for me - to varying degrees - in every other film Brooks has made. I've always liked Terms of Endearment, but to me, Shirley MacLaine (in this film, a shrill caricaturist) and Debra Winger (in every film, The Great Naturalist) always seemed to be in entirely different films - it's as if, as some sort of cosmic joke, Zsa Zsa Gabor gave birth to Liv Ullmann. As the results of your recent Best & Worst Actress survey attests, Helen Hunt was wrong on every level imaginable for As Good as It Gets - he signed the wrong Hunt (where was Bonnie?? She even looks like Shirley Knight!!!). I'll Do Anything lived up to its title in terms of how haphazardly that group of actors were paired with their respective parts, and don't even get me started on Adam Sandler and Tea Leoni in Spanglish. How did the guy who got it so unimpeachably right in Broadcast News show such questionable instincts for casting on so many other occasions?
I'm sure you already know this, but you do realize that he originally wrote As Good as It Gets for Holly, right?
I didn't know that, and she is one of my favorites...but you can't really blame Brooks for casting: when you're up against publicists and agents -- stars with star power -- one director can easily enough fail in the backbone or vision department.

Of the several films I had considered for this 'thon, I've narrowed it down, funnily enough, to a different work of Holly Hunter ingenue...she's one of the few actresses who can save bad writing.

Luckily, in Broadcast News, she didn't have to.
I knew that Holly was his first choice, but turned it down because they weren't going to give her enough money.
Excellent write-up on a personal favorite. Thank you.
Great piece!. It seems to me that Jane and Aaron have a unique chemistry because of their similar personalities. Each living in their heads, constantly neurotically analyzing everything. However, these are the very qualities she wishes she had less of, creating a fear of getting involved with him. Jane is attracted to Tom because he represents an escape from her experience of the world. He isn't so much a whole man to her, just a collection of aspects she wishes she had. The tragedy of the film is that neither of these men are right for her (can you imagine her and Aaron's kids?) - it's some magical combination of the two.
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