I wrote this last spring…a short discussion on some of the best movies about newspapers…
So today being Friday, a day when many if not most motion pictures open in the movies houses, I went to the movies. I saw The Soloist…
…and only a few days ago, I had gone to see State of Play, which I’ll discuss later.
As it were, both of these movies had a newspaper columnist as the lead, or one of the leads. As always after watching any movie, I’d come home and read various opinions by the movie critics. I like reading these reviews in the newspaper. I read the reviews not to find out if it is okay to like the movie, or not, but to see what others thought of it. And I enjoy the physicality of reading a newspaper while holding it my hands.
But newspapers are losing ground these days to the onslaught of the electronic media. Television and the Internet have an immediate accessibility that newspapers don’t. Whereas newspapers have to be written, edited, then sent to the presses for printing, and finally delivered to a news-stand, to your door, to the store on the corner, or maybe it is a short drive away in your car, and all of this takes some time and a lot of effort by many folks.
On the other hand you can watch the news on television, or read the news on your computer, if it is connected to the internet, whenever you want as in 24/7. That’s called immediacy. Dressing, bathing, and even eating are all optional if you are a news junkie and need to consume the latest information that is hurtling around the globe before even brushing your teeth.
So our world is changing, and the way we stay involved is also changing. But newspapers are still with us, despite their dwindling numbers. As are movie critics. As are movies about newspapers which is the topic for this column.
To begin, let’s take a look at The Soloist which stars Robert Downey Jr as LA Times columnist Steve Lopez, and Jamie Foxx, as the schizophrenic and homeless street musician, Nathaniel Ayers. In a few words, the plot can be summarized as the story of a newspaper journalist who befriends a homeless musician, on the way to searching for a new column for his paper.
But depending on where you live and which papers you read, you could form a variety of impressions before even seeing the movie for yourself, as movie critics also have a mind of their own, and aren’t bloody likely to agree.
Roger Ebert, noted movie critic opened his review with,
“The Soloist has all the elements of an uplifting drama, except for the uplift.”
Kenneth Turan, movie critic for the Los Angeles Times, which is also Steve Lopez’s paper said,
I can’t help resenting that it suffered the death of a thousand cuts and, more frustrating still, that all this happened in the name of doing good in the world, of making the story’s powerful lessons more palatable to a wider audience.
Mick LaSalle, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle penned,
“….The Soloist ends up as a fairly canned piece of work.“
Claudia Puig of USA Today said in part,
“… it presents a moving tribute to friendship and the power of music. “
Joe Morganstern of the Wall Street Journal offered,
“Bravo to all concerned”
But we are digressing. As stated above, this column isn’t about The Soloist, or movie critics, or even about newspapers. The topic is movies about newspapers, so let’s look at a number of my favorites.
In 1931, Howard Hughes, yes that Howard Hughes, produced a movie called The Front Page. In 1941, the movie was remade as His Girl Friday with Cary Grant as newspaper editor Walter Burns. In this updated version, the Hildy Johnson role, played by a male actor in the 1931 version, was played by actress Rosalind Russell. Then in 1974, The Front Page was again remade, this time starring Walter Matthau as Burns, and Jack Lemmon as Hildy Johnson.
Essentially a comedy, set in and around a newspaper, The Front Page, in its many versions, utilized plot elements of political corruption surrounding the execution of a murderer, and how the newspaper went about uncovering this sordid cesspool, while the leads bantered with snappy repartee.
It’s the hottest story since the Chicago Fire… And they’re sitting on it…
1981 was the year that Absence of Malice was released. Sally Field played a young reporter. She was earnest, and she was inexperienced. Paul Newman played a local businessman who was the son of a long dead mob syndicate figure. But Newman’s character had been straight for years. Field was given a false lead by an unscrupulous prosecutor in the hopes that he could build his case via the ‘crusading reporter’.
Field’s problem was that she fell in love with victim of this scheme, Newman. Newman’s problem was that his life was unraveling on the front page of the newspapers, and yet – he was innocent.
In 1993, Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington starred in The Pelican Brief. Adapted from the John Grisham novel, the movie was well received and did very well at the box office.
Defense of the Realm was a 1985 movie which starred Gabriel Byrne and Greta Scacchi. Byrne, as the reporter, hears about a story that links a prominent Member of Parliament to a KGB agent. His job is to find the truth.
Still in the 80’s, The Year of Living Dangerously was released in 1983. The stars were Mel Gibson as an Australian foreign correspondent on his first assignment, covering the Indonesian civil war of 1965. Linda Hunt played the half-Chinese, diminutive photographer, Billy Kwan, and Sigourney Weaver, as Jill Bryant, played a diplomat stationed in Indonesia. Gibson’s character Guy Hamilton, gets caught up and has to make some difficult choices about his career, his working relationship with Kwan, and his affair with Bryant.
A similar story was Salvador, a 1986 movie directed by Oliver Stone, which starred James Woods, as a down on his luck journalist. Woods, as Richard Boyle, heads for El Salvador to cover the unrest following an assassination of a popular archbishop.
He gets caught up between the guerrillas who want his photos to reach the world press, and the right wing military junta who wants him to provide photos of the insurgents. Meanwhile he must find a way to get his Salvadorean girl friend out of the country.
Sweet Smell of Success (1957) starred Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker, a corrosive and despicably evil newspaper columnist who wielded power through the gossip, innuendos, and outright lies, which he wrote in his syndicated column read by 60 million people. Tony Curtis played the up and coming press agent, Sidney Falco, who would do anything, including selling out his girl friend to get close to the seat of power and to smell the sweet smell of success.
In 1957, Clark Gable starred with Doris Day in Teacher’s Pet. Gable played James Gammon, a hard-boiled city editor for a New York tabloid newspaper. Day portrayed Erica Stone, a college professor of journalism. For reasons that we don’t need to get into here, Gammon enrolls as a student in Stone’s journalism classes.
Not only do they clash about journalism, but Cupid’s arrows fill the air. Whereas Sweet Smell of Success was a biting and tough picture to sit through because of its cynical characters, Pet is a lighthearted, comedy-romance, a veritable walk through the park. This movie almost launched Day’s career has the female lead in many of the 60’s ’sex’ comedies. As for The King, Gable, this would be one of his last roles, but he still had the gift of being great in comedy roles.
For a funny look into how a newspaper works, we have The Paper, a 1994 movie with a topnotch cast which included Michael Keaton, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Jason Robards, Jason Alexander, Marisa Tomei, and Randy Quaid. Directed by Ron Howard, this movie did quite well in telling the story about a newspaper staff.
In 1974, when conspiracies and political upheaval were fresh in everyone’s mind, Warren Beatty starred as an ambitious reporter in The Parallax View. He gets in way over his head when he begins to investigate a senatorial assassination, and a shadowy multinational corporation.
Released in 1976, All The President’s Men was the story of real life Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward played by Robert Redford, and Carl Bernstein, played by Dustin Hoffman. This brilliant film that garnered 4 Oscars, was directed by Alan J. Pakula.
The movie retold the story of how the two reporters uncovered the truth which ultimately led to the toppling of the Richard Nixon presidency. Terms like Deep-Throat, non-denial denial, Watergate, cover-up, and dirty tricks, which had been terms we’d heard on the television news, or the the newspapers’ coverage came to life on the screen in this movie.
How about another. Nothing But The Truth (2008) is the story of a newspaper reporter, Rachel Armstrong, played by Kate Beckinsale, her editor played by Angela Bassett. The government’s Special Prosecutor, Patton Dubois, is played by Matt Dillon, and a CIA agent, Erica Van Doren, was performed by Vera Farmiga. This movie has a simple plot-line; A Washington DC reporter faces jail-time for outing a CIA agent, and refusing to reveal her source of the story.
Our last movie about newspapers is State of Play starring Russell Crowe as a rumpled but smart investigative reporter for the fictional Washington Globe newspaper.
Following some leads surrounding two separate deaths, Crowe as Cal McAffrey, works the story with a team to get to the truth.
Once again, murder, conspiracies, and a shadowy multinational corporation are the components of the story.
Well, that’s was certainly a heady mix of movies. Some are famous classics, and others are not so well known. But at the heart of each of them was a newspaper. The newspaper remains a solid source of inspiration for screen-writers, and for a happy ticket-buying public, or DVD watching audiences.
Whether or not traditional paper newspapers will go the way of the pony express, smoke signals, drums, or carrier pigeons as means of delivering the news, I cannot say. And whether or not future movies will have on-line newspapers, information technology (IT) specialists, and blog authors as their lead characters remains to be seen.
In any event, I hope you will continue to visit The Arts. There’s absolutely no chance that you’ll get newsprint on your hands when reading my column. It’s also true that you won’t be able to use my words to line the bird’s cage, or to wrap your coffee grounds in, unless you print out my columns. Last time I checked, toner for your laser printer, and ink cartridges were way more expensive than newspapers. Thanks for your readership.