Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel


Directed by Jon Avnet. Written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, suggested by the book "Golden Girl" by Alanna Nash. Photography, Karl Walter Lindenlaub. Editing, Debra Neil-Fisher. Production design, Jeremy Conway. Music, Thomas Newman. Produced by Avnet, David Nicksay and Jordan Kerner. Cast: Robert Redford (Warren Justice), Michelle Pfeiffer (Tally Atwater), Stockard Channing (Marcia McGrath), Joe Mantegna (Bucky Terranova), Kate Nelligan (Joanna Kennelly), Glenn Plummer (Ned Jackson), James Rebhorn (John Merino), et al. A Touchstone release. 124 mins. PG-13.
Hereafter this uncatchily titled movie will be referred to as UCAP, which sounds like another University of California campus yet. There is nothing academic about the movie though, except for the academic response by those who persist in connecting the film to "A Star Is Born" or ASIB. In this, they have been influenced by the fact that Joan Didion and husband John Gregory Dunne (novelists, non-fiction writers, screenwriters), had also penned the third version (1976, with Barbra Streisand) of ASIB -- the fourth, if you include "What Price Hollywood" (1932), the root-film. (Be it said in passing that the 1976 film was far inferior to all its predecessors).

In the earlier movies, a male celebrity brings fame and fortune to an aspiring younger woman. As her star rises, his falls. In ASIB 1 and 2, the man is a Hollywood star named Norman Maine. He sinks into alcoholism and commits suicide, upon which, his widow Vicki Lester (nee Esther Blodgett) addressing the public, starts with the famous: "This is Mrs. Norman Maine."

There is really very little of ASIB in UCAP. Here, Sallyanne Atwater (Michelle Pfeiffer) is an untutored nobody from Nevada. Determined to make her way into TV, she fakes her credentials, does not fool Warren Justice (Robert Redford), the news director of a Miami station, yet still gets hired as an assistant.

The movie opens like a sitcom, with Sally's silly string of little accidents. It also telegraphs immediately the inevitable love affair.Indeed, the very names Pfeiffer and Redford do this, even if you haven't seen the film or heard of it. To its credit, unlike the zillion flicks that set up antagonism-that-will-turn-to-amore, the relationship of the couple is cool, un-strident and quite harmonious.

To make a long story short (TMLSS), ambitious Sally gets her chance, muffs it, but Warren dismisses this, hyperbolically declaring that "she eats the lens" (don't try this at home). He grooms, protects, molds Sally, rebaptized Tally. She becomes, with peculiar swiftness and no obvious reason (except her looks), a star.

The other side of the coin is that Warren, a bastion of journalistic integrity, won't play footsie with TV-exploitation and will find his star waning. (It had happened to him before, but never mind).

There's a bunch of colorful happenings in the depiction of TV station life: professional rivalries, banter, competitiveness. These may not be authentic, but, as Hitchcock used to say, it's only a movie. Most of the shenanigans are interesting, some of the gags and the like fall a bit flat. You can tell which those are by listening to the audience: it laughs louder.

By minute 40 there is a loss of momentum, especially with an interlude where Tally goes to Reno to rescue her sister and Warren surprisingly shows up and lends a hand. Unconvincing.

Sex comes in at minute 54, right after Tally gets an offer to move to another, bigger affiliate, in Philadelphia. Pleasant romantic stuff, but did writers Didion and Dunne have to include the inevitable cliche of the couple having fun on the beach to the off-screen sounds and soupy lyrics of a love song? Mercifully, this second interlude is brief.

Tally goes to Philly, has to put up with the barbs of older anchorwoman Stockard Channing (as always, very good) who sees the handwriting on the wall, meaning that Tally will probably replace her. Tally does well, but has some troubles. Warren to the rescue. They also marry.

Warren is out of a job but manages to remote-control Tally, stuck inside a rioting prison, into doing a great telecast. (I don't see what's great about it, but never mind). Her star skyrockets and she's offered to anchor (for weekends only) at the network. Oh, bliss. Further developments will not be disclosed.

The film, genuinely or not, is well fleshed out with the hectic, frantic atmosphere of big-time TV. Above all, there's that couple that drips charisma. That Pfeiffer is almost 40 and Redford almost 60 makes no difference. Her beauty, in the small group of a Loretta Young or a Pamela Kohn, is buttressed by charm. His oxymoronic laid-back intensity is a joy. The electricity is good. And it is not Redford's fault that Didion-Dunne dreamed up the silly, in-joke name of Warren Justice (Chief Justice Earl Warren, get it?).

Director Avnet directs well, but, keen as he reportedly is for every shot to be perfect, he sometimes neglects the cartilage between shots, the editing.

The movie, at some point, was to be based on the short unhappy life of the late TV news-star Jessica Savitch. Happily, there's nothing of that left in the final script, which is a hybrid of older movies.

It's no "Network, " no "Broadcast News" in depth or intensity, no "China Syndrome" in suspense. It is no "Switching Channels" (the undervalued remake of "The Front Page" and "His Girl Friday" shifted from press to TV) in comedy. UCAP is more skin than nerves, yet a good pastime and no rip-off of your time and money.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel