COMMENTARY : The Heartless Woman From 'Broadcast News'

Three characters emerged from 1987's crop of high-profile films that stretched female behavior to new levels of unsociability.

The most lurid of them was Glenn Close's character Alex Forrest in "Fatal Attraction." Psychotic, bitter and cunning, she's a nightmare of feminine maladjustment. Then there was Barbra Streisand's Claudia Draper in "Nuts." A woman who sweats bile when she gets worked up; she humiliates every man she runs into. Finally, in "Broadcast News," Holly Hunter played a woman who'd as soon take a potshot at a man's ego as walk across the street for a pastrami sandwich.

What these characters prove is that popular art does respond to cultural needs. Twenty years ago women declared they were sick and tired of being portrayed (in flattering moments) as weak and compliant. Well, nobody's going to mistake this current trio for a bunch of pussycats.

The question is, is there anything good about this trend?

Yes and no.

The character most people (particularly feminists) find dangerous is "Fatal Attraction's" Alex Forrest. But I think she's a paper tiger. Can we really take this demon seriously as a career-woman stereotype? It's like saying that Norman Bates gives motel owners a bad name.

Streisand's Claudia seems at first gratuitously insulting, a woman who easily earns the title "bitch." But, in this brilliant and cathartic movie, Claudia emerges finally as sympathetic, a character who extends our understanding of human suffering.

The character who really should make us uneasy is TV producer Jane Craig in "Broadcast News."

A walking superiority complex, Craig is convinced that she's "the smartest person in every room" she enters. And, as played by Holly Hunter, she may be the most glamorous image of the New Woman to emerge in a decade. With her rangy body, crooked grin and twangy, no-nonsense voice (she actually makes Southern accents sound sharp ), Hunter half convinces us that Jane deserves to feel superior. Why shouldn't she? She's brilliant and well packaged: all sinew and intensity, a locomotive of sheer mettle. She works hard, plays hard and cracks wise.

All that great James L. Brooks dialogue is a natural coming from this astute lady. She's Rosalind Russell crossed with Ayn Rand, as photographed by Vogue and interviewed in Vanity Fair. She's irresistible. I wouldn't be surprised if women all over the country started dropping amphetamines and talking Dixie.

And we're told that Jane's a serous thinker, too. Early in the movie she gives a lecture about the trivialization of broadcast news. Soon thereafter she heaps contempt on the inept reporter, Tom (William Hurt). He deserves it, presumably, because he symbolizes the loss of rigor that's leaching the meaning out of world events in TV news coverage.

But think about it: Do we ever see Jane Craig add any particular perspective or meaning to the news? When she produces a special report on a hostile incident involving Libya and the United States, she's sharp, canny and on top of things, but her coverage never goes beneath the surface--as it hardly can, since it's in the nature of broadcast news to assemble statistics, information "bits" and talking heads in a brew of constantly changing images. The superficiality of TV coverage is built into its very structure ("the medium is the message," remember).

In these circumstances, it's not sloppy execution that creates TV news' superficiality. (If anything it's just the opposite--slick execution!) Therefore I don't understand why Jane gets so worked up about a soft-edged reporter "lowering our standards." Soft-edged reporters can hardly lower our standards any faster than hard-edged reporters, because that's not what this particular can of worms hinges on.

So when it comes to broadcast news' lack of meaning, Jane Craig is as guilty as the rest. Yet this movie tells us that her high IQ and snappy dialogue and strict observance of procedure somehow place her above it all. If she said snappy, bright things about profound issues, it might, but she doesn't. Nor does she evince the personal understanding of world events that would place her in a league with, say, an Oriana Fallaci or Joan Didion.

She produces a story from Central America about the substantive issues of the struggle and nothing she says privately hints that she's touched by the situation. When she later views Tom's segment about date rape she's utterly unmoved by that, too.

Just what does this woman, this monster from Mensa, actually care about? Her only real passion seems to be for fast deadlines. With a mind and heart tailored to the amphetamine demands of electronic news broadcasting--hardly a form that invites great contemplation--she runs an emotional and intellectual range from A to B.

Writer/director James Brooks drops a few hints that she's human. She allows herself a 5-minute cry every morning. And when there are mass firings at the news bureau, she hugs the unlucky ones and feels sad. But these human touches seem tacked on. With her driven fast talk and her highhanded ways, no lavishment of human touches can change our basic take on her. She's a female version of "The Best and the Brightest," that gifted elite that burns to serve the powerful and get ahead--and whose capacity to betray the public is directly correlated with the powerful whom they serve.

Brooks hands Jane the moral high ground at the end of the movie. In one of the last scenes Jane lights into Tom with righteous indignation because he faked a reaction shot in an interview. This issue, which seems to me more procedural than substantive--a tempest in the teapot of broadcast journalism--becomes the moral turning point of the film. Meanwhile, other moral issues aren't broached at all: Among them, Jane's harshness, her gratuitous cruelty and her alienation from her own emotions. These are character flaws that can lead to tragedy, not just soft news. But the movie seems to be telling us that Jane's foibles are minor, while the rule book of broadcast journalism was handed down at Mount Sinai.

Tell me, Mr. Brooks: Is Jane really the heroine of the piece, and is this a story about one valiant soul in a doomed battle against the shallowness of electronic news reporting? If so, why didn't Jane save her spleen for bigger fish than a mere presenter of news? Why didn't she pick on somebody her own size? As news, "Broadcast News" is non-news: Goliath bites David.

Or are we meant to take Jane with a grain of salt, too, and see Tom as the more vulnerable, emotionally mature character who simply couldn't keep up with her intensity? Is this really just a love story set in a fashionable backdrop? In that case, why wasn't Tom handed a little moral weight in the end? Why didn't he have his moment in the sun?

"Broadcast News" doesn't reveal its ultimate intent, beyond entertaining and stimulating us royally (which it certainly does) and providing some broad winks at insiders who know the news business. Movies that don't function fully as art often work as life-style fashion spreads (remember how journalism schools were flooded with applications after "All the President's Men"?).

Ironically, this movie that worries about style over substance may turn out to be one of the style-setters of the decade. What may remain after the dust settles is one indelible image: Holly Hunter in all her anorexic glory--a kind of liberal Ollie North, a perfect role model for the go-go women of tomorrow's brave new world.

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