• U.S.

CINEMA: HAIR TODAY, STAR TOMORROW

3 minute read
Richard Corliss

IN THE ’70S, GLIDING THROUGH SLAM-glam media roles–senatorial wannabe in The Candidate, screenwriter in The Way We Were, hotshot reporter in All the President’s Men–Robert Redford gave some people the idea that he had missed his true calling: anchorman! He had it all: the authority and irony, the requisite twinkle. That craggy charisma would have sat smartly behind a Formica desk. But then news imitated art: the networks created their own lower-wattage Redfords in Brokaw, Jennings, Stone Phillips. And now, when Redford finally gets into a TV-news movie, he’s nearly 60, too old to begin a career as anchor. His job in Up Close and Personal is to mentor the promising rookie played by Michelle Pfeiffer.

Very loosely based on the rise of news reader Jessica Savitch, the script by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne sends Sally Atwater (Pfeiffer)–all elbows and naked ambition–into a Miami TV newsroom presided over by Warren Justice (Redford), who ankled the network scene because he was too darned independent. Sally, later called Tally, is raw but cunning and learns quickly; best of all, in the tyranny of telegenics, “she eats the lens.” Soon she has the coolest gig in journalism: asking hard questions of politicians by day, having Robert Redford massage her feet at night.

Though it purports to be fresh and skeptical, the movie is really as old as A Star Is Born, from the early fumbling of the ingenue to her Mrs. Norman Maine speech at the end. It’s one more essay on Hollywood’s favorite subject: star quality. That’s something Redford and Pfeiffer have in their back pockets. They can also act, though they don’t have to here–for in this film, as in some TV news, the look is more important than the feeling. “Hair is character,” says a woman in the movie, and director Jon Avnet seems to agree. Up Close has the tone of a fashion shoot; the movie lavishes art on the arrangement of bed sheets over Pfeiffer’s body, the vector of her hair blowing in Redford’s rugged face. Hard news, soft focus.

Avnet’s brightest idea is to call on Stockard Channing, ace resuscitator of mediocre films (see her work in Smoke and To Wong Foo), who arrives mid-movie to perk things up. She’s a local anchor who oozes compassion but, off-air, is so cool and hard you could skate on her. She meets Tally for a drink, asks, “Is that actually a banana daiquiri?” and acidly adds, “Spring Break, Lauderdale.”

You will be reminded of the brandy Alexander that Mary Richards told Lou Grant she’d like during her job interview on the Mary Tyler Moore show, a series that was a lot more acute about the elusive glamour of TV news. But Up Close and Personal is The Way We Were Hollywood version. Long before its ending (or rather, the endings–there must be six or seven of them, all superfluous to the main plot), the film has become a rosy yet pale dreamscape of real workaday life. It’s like the Windsong commercial on the nightly news, between the Bosnia coverage and the story about the beauty queen who found God.

–By Richard Corliss

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