Video Reviews: 'The Paper'; 'The Front Page'; 'His Girl Friday'; 'Absence Of Malice'
The average newsroom has always been about as dramatic as the average insurance office, but that’s hardly how the movies have played it. Filmmakers have long mythologized newsrooms as clamorous places full of low-down yet lovable reporters and editors who sacrifice all else for The Story. But as my brassy page-one editor would say, those portrayals are puff pieces.
Ron Howard continues this mythmaking with THE PAPER (1994, MCA/Universal, R, priced for rental), a pressure-cooked tour through 24 hours in the life of a saucy New York City tabloid. The Sun is a cluttered, frenzied place inhabited by 1940s-style oddballs and scoundrels. They’re nothing like the people I encountered at the New York Daily News, the tabloid where I toiled for 10 years. Certainly the paper had its old-guard misfits, but a new wave of clean-cut, Gap-clad college grads munching on low-fat snacks had begun to populate the city room. The Paper is a study in excess. There’s a cantankerous boss-as-father-figure (Robert Duvall) who neglected his family for the profession, an ambitious number cruncher (Glenn Close), and a cranky, pistol- packing columnist (Randy Quaid). There’s even a high-strung, caffeine-addicted editor named Henry Hackett who’ll do anything — like steal a news tip — to land a scoop.
The true fiction begins when Hackett is shown as a tortured soul, torn between being a swashbuckling news chaser and a sedate family man. He struggles to dig up — by the 8:30 p.m. deadline — the truth behind the arrests of two African-American kids for the murder of two white out-of-towners. But he frets that he’s ignoring his very pregnant reporter wife (Marisa Tomei). He’s a journalist with a conscience nagging him, which is less than believable in a business full of people who pride themselves on never looking back. So The Paper ultimately tells two stories: a frenetic, beat-the-clock drama about news gathering and a more compelling tale about whether Hackett can reconcile his hunt for the headline with loyalty to his wife. It’s engrossing, but Hackett and archrival Alicia Clark’s (Close) pressroom skirmish is a false note that should have been sent back to rewrite.
There’s not a hint of the journalist-in-conflict type in the movie that arguably invented the newspaper-flick genre, 1931’s classic THE FRONT PAGE (Nostalgia Family, unrated, $19.95). The first screen version of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s Broadway show, it offers an unambiguous portrayal of the press: Although playing the profession for laughs, the movie starkly reveals its disturbing power to do as it pleases. Directed at a clip by Lewis Milestone, The Front Page is a gritty, entertaining portrayal of a chatty reporter and his scheming editor who run amok and shield an escaped murderer to get the scoop of their careers. Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien), his editor, Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou), and their criminal-court pressroom clique race through this comedy paying off sources, making up news, gambling, cheating, and carousing with impunity. It’s amusing, but it’s also a cartoon.
Director Howard Hawks brought romance into the picture with HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940, Nostalgia Family, unrated, $19.95), the first of three Front Page remakes (Billy Wilder did the less-impressive second in 1974, starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau; 1988’s Switching Channels, which worked the TV-news angle with Kathleen Turner and Burt Reynolds, was the third). With Friday, Hildy is a female (Rosalind Russell) who gets chased around town by her ex-husband and editor Walter (Cary Grant), a twist that proves passion can flare amid hot type. Yet even with the heat, Hildy and Walter are as corruptible as their counterparts in The Front Page. They’re still larger-than-life, two-timing back stabbers with press cards who would happily sacrifice someone’s dear old mom for a story — and do.
Perhaps Friday provided the model for the journalist-as-skunk theme in Sydney Pollack’s overwrought ABSENCE OF MALICE (1981, Columbia TriStar, PG, $14.95). Here Megan Carter (Sally Field) plays the newspaper game like a conniving novice, implicating an innocent man, Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman), in the disappearance of a union leader. She naively believes untrustworthy sources, exploits friends to get stories, surreptitiously records conversations, and sleeps with Gallagher after putting him on page one — all no-no’s in a real newsroom. Hackett and Hildy would never have gone that far. The Paper: B- The Front Page: B+ His Girl Friday: B- Absence of Malice: C-