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Up Close & Personal (1996)

The Pygamalion comparison is inevitable.

Written by:
John Gregory Dunne
Joan Didion

Directed by:
Jon Avnet

Starring:
Robert Redford
Michelle Pfeiffer
Stockard Channing
Joe Mantegna
Kate Nelligan
Glenn Plummer
Heidi Swedberg

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Song
("Because You Loved Me")

Quote:
"That's what I came by to tell you. Thought I came by to fuck you, didn't you?"

In Up Close & Personal, Michelle Pfeiffer plays Tally Atwater, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who is moulded into a national news reporter by political gadfly/news director Warren Justice (Robert Redford). When she arrives at WMIA in Miami, having fudged much of her video resume, one of the first things he says to her is "You always wear that much make-up?" She's a klutz at this point. She tears her jacket before meeting him, spills the contents of her purse in his office, and trips trying to keep up with him. She knows little about the news business, or politics, or history, and when she's given a shot as weather girl she spends most of her on-air time dazed and confused.

Ah, but "she eats the lens," Justice says with that determined Robert Redford look (one eye closing, clenched jaw dashingly askew), and so he makes a reporter out of her. He tells her to cut her hair and, though she objects (she's feisty!), she complies (she's pliant!). She gives up the hot pink suits for more professional, muted colors. When she films a piece about a Cuban cigar maker he asks her where the story is. Is the story about you being cute? He then informs her that her cigar maker is actually an ex-Batista official. Eventually she gets it, and gets an agent, and graduates to a larger market (Philadelphia).

It's in Philadelphia, though, that the Pygamalion comparisons fall apart because she falls apart. Without Justice around, she mimicks the upper-crust tones of local anchor Marcia McGrath (Stockard Channing). Tally is less Eliza Doolittle, in other words, than Zelig: imitating whoever is worth imitating. But she doesn't come across as a Marcia wannabe — the focus groups don't like her — so it's up to Justice to go to Philly to make her back into what he made her into, which is a good reporter. We get evidence that the transfer is finally complete — that she no longer needs his guiding hand — just as she makes it nationally. The end of the film suggests she may even carry on his tradition as political gadfly, which, in this scenario, simply means story before ratings.

Up Close & Personal started out as the Jessica Savitch story, but, as author and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne recounts in his book Monster, it quickly became something else in order to suit the suits at Disney. And though it took years to get to the production stage, it's not bad. It treats television news seriously but with a cynical awareness of its cheesey reality. The crew at WMIA is sharp (an exception is a Ted Baxter-like anchorman who is easy pickings for both Justice and Atwater), and I dug watching Robert Redford put his feet up on his desk, as if he'd graduated to the role of Ben Bradlee in All The President's Men.

But as producer Scott Rudin said in Monster, ultimately this is a film about two movie stars. So how do they fare? Pfeiffer is too klutzy at the beginning — it's embarrassing, not funny — and, though Tally's supposed to be ambitious, half the time she seems to resist Justice's assured, guiding hand, as if she didn't mind returning to the crap tables in Vegas. Then there's Redford, who's always been a better actor than he's gotten credit for. His Warren Justice is up-front about everything and brooks no fools. In the middle of an argument, he says to Tally, without heat, "This doesn't interest me," thus ending the argument. He's a man's man and a woman's man. The problem? His face is too old.

I won't argue that Redford himself is too old, because the quarter-century age difference between Redford and Pfeiffer is standard operating procedure in Hollywood. Unfortunately, he looks it. It's hard to discard Redford because he's right for the role, and his chemistry with Pfeiffer is excellent. It's just a shame the film couldn't have been made ten years earlier.

Which happens to be about the time Dunne started working on it.

—November 12, 2000

© 2000 Erik Lundegaard