We gave it a B-
Dramatic proof that they can make a TV movie about absolutely anything, The Late Shift is a visual version of Bill Carter’s 1994 book about the competition between Jay Leno and David Letterman for control of NBC’s Tonight Show. And oy, what visuals! Leno is played by Daniel Roebuck with a fake jaw so jaw-droppingly fake looking, it makes you feel sorry for both Leno (who doesn’t deserve to be caricatured so cruelly) and Roebuck (who seems unable to close his mouth, perhaps because the prosthetic device glued to his chin is so heavy). Letterman is impersonated by John Michael Higgins in a one-man orgy of squints, scowls, and growls — it’s a Dave who seems to have lice in his eyebrows and doesn’t know how to scratch.
Getting past these cartoonish yet flesh-and-blood portrayals of two familiar people is the biggest challenge in watching The Late Shift, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many viewers didn’t bother to make the effort. If you’re not a late-night-TV junkie, The Late Shift, a rigorous look at the negotiations that ended up with Leno hosting Tonight and Letterman moving to CBS, is about as exciting as a Steve Forbes stump speech. For those with an avid interest in the subject, however, the movie turns out to be smarter than its makeup would suggest.
The Late Shift has no narrative drive — it’s basically about a job hunt. Nonetheless, the creators have provided us with a vivid picture of how business is conducted: through a series of intelligent moves, outrageous lies, shameless butt-kissing, and unforeseeable accidents.
Carter has adapted his book with help from writer George Armitage, and the movie’s director is Betty Thomas (the Hill Street Blues actress who has directed episodes of HBO’s Dream On). Thomas gets the best work she can from Roebuck and Higgins, but both actors overemphasize just one aspect of their subjects (Leno’s affability, Letterman’s grumpiness).
Instead, two other performances stand out. The villain of the tale is Leno’s former manager, Helen Kushnick, played with merry eyes and a filthy mouth by Kathy Bates. It is Bates’ achievement to make Kushnick (shown here to have been a lying bully whom NBC removed as The Tonight Show‘s executive producer) seem sympathetic. When Kushnick complains that the network brass would have put up with her tough tactics had she been a man, Bates has imbued Kushnick with just enough vulnerability to make the accusation of sexism stick.
The hero of Late Shift, on the other hand, is Michael Ovitz, then the head of Creative Artists Agency. As Ovitz, Treat Williams is as subtle as he is overstated in his current feature film, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, and he turns Ovitz into a mesmerizing mandarin of reassurance and calm; when he becomes Letterman’s agent, he guides the host out of his cigar-smoky despair.
The movie also makes two crucial mistakes. Casting Rich Little as Johnny Carson was just plain stupid. We need a real acting performance to convey Johnny’s weary relief at giving up his job; instead, we get the same nightclub performance we’ve seen a hundred times. The other problem is the ending: In the book, Letterman’s Late Show triumphs in the ratings. Of course, since making this curio, Leno has surged past Dave, so the filmmakers had to tack on a postscript acknowledging this turnaround. The result makes Shift seem shiftless, unable to draw its own conclusions about the meaning of this supposedly titanic struggle. B-