It was the perfect pitch. It had sex, drugs, violence, a meteoric rise, and a sudden fall — everything a movie executive could possibly want. Best of all, every word of it was true. But as Jeffrey Katzenberg sat in a Disney suite in early 1989 listening to the story of Jessica Savitch’s tragic life — how she climbed to the top of the TV news business, becoming one of the most successful women of her time, only to be undone by her own inner demons — one question formed in the studio chief’s head: ”Does she really have to die in the end?”
The answer, as it turned out, was no, she didn’t. And Savitch’s fatal auto accident in 1983, when her car ran off a rain-soaked road in New Hope, Pa., trapping her in a muddy canal, wasn’t the only detail of her life that didn’t make it into the final cut of the new Michelle Pfeiffer-Robert Redford newsroom drama, Up Close & Personal (opening March 1). Some of the other little factoids you won’t be learning about the famed anchorwoman: She was a cocaine addict. One of her boyfriends beat her up. Her second husband hanged himself. She was notorious for her off-camera temper tantrums. And she was responsible for one of the most infamous on-air flubs in television news history.
”This movie isn’t about Jessica Savitch,” points out director Jon Avnet, sounding as exasperated as a tobacco executive on 60 Minutes. ”This movie is suggested by Jessica Savitch.”
All righty. In that case, the film Avnet ended up making suggests Savitch as a scrappy but gorgeous newshound named Tally Atwater, who starts out a Miami weathergirl and ends up a network superstar. Along the way she gets trapped in a prison riot, goes through more hairstyles than RuPaul, and falls in love with a handsome newsman given the only-in-the-movies name of Warren Justice. Commercially, the film has tons going for it, including the first-time pairing of Pfeiffer and Redford (as Justice, of course). It also has classy screenwriting credits (husband-and-wife team John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion) and, in Avnet, a director with both a deft, delicate touch (Fried Green Tomatoes and The War) and a hard-nosed business sense (he produced Risky Business).
Still, one can’t help wondering if this is really the same film that was once subtitled The Jessica Savitch Story — the one based on the 1988 Savitch biography Golden Girl. Because after nearly 30 rewrites over six years, any resemblance to persons living or dead has been made entirely irrelevant. In fact, the de-Savitching has been so extreme that even the film’s stars sometimes wonder if things got out of hand. ”There was very interesting stuff about Savitch that I would have loved to have kept,” says Pfeiffer. ”I probably would have liked for it to stay closer to her story. But I guess that would have been just too dark. We really wanted to make a love story.” Redford sees missed opportunities too: ”There was a scene in which my character just hauled off and slugged her,” he says. ”And then she kneed him in the groin. I loved it.” Alas, it too was cut.