#318. James L. Brooks

Some people have the ability to bring out the greatness in others. Or, at least, they have the capacity to see the greatness in others and guide it into the spotlight. I would like to think that a producer has this ability, mostly due to the success of James L. Brooks. As the winner of several Emmy Awards, he clearly knows how to produce a television show, many of which have become a part of the popular culture fabric of our society (The Simpsons, for one). Regarding his films, he has only directed six of them, but they have been a little more hit-or-miss. When the right elements come together, his films are certainly successful, both critically and financially. Perhaps this is due to his ability to get to the humanity of a story and its characters. This week’s two films examine the successful directing of James L. Brooks.

Broadcast NewsBroadcast News
Year: 1987
Rating: R
Length: 133 minutes / 2.22 hours

With as much television experience as Brooks has, it is no wonder that he eventually decided to direct a film about it. The behind-the-scenes of the newsroom could only come from an intimate knowledge of the industry, of which James L. Brooks certainly has. Broadcast News (1987) was only one of a handful of Best Picture Oscar nominees he directed. Each time he made an Oscar-worthy film, it is interesting to note that he also obtained nominations for Best Writing as well. As Good as It Gets (1997) earned this distinction alongside Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment (1984). Of course, as a producer of films, he was also in the running for a Best Picture Oscar with Jerry Maguire (1996), a film he did not direct or write, but did produce. Unfortunately, most of these films left him without any Oscars for his effort.

Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) has boundless ambition when it comes to her job as a television producer. Her best friend, Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), secretly has a crush on her but is unable to confess his feelings. Meanwhile, a promotion moved Tom Grunick (William Hurt) from sports to the main anchor chair, despite his only skill being a photogenic personality. Jane learns Tom is also attracted to her, but Aaron tries to warn her about him while at the same time finally confessing his own feelings. It turns out Tom has broken a few ethical rules during a heartfelt interview that he obtained from a woman who was sexually assaulted. In the end, all three of them have to disband and live their lives elsewhere when the network goes under. While each of them found their own individual success, they still managed to maintain their friendship through it all.

Terms of EndearmentTerms of Endearment
Year: 1983
Rating: R
Length: 132 minutes / 2.2 hours

Brooks’ breakout film was none other than the aforementioned Terms of Endearment. I’d hate to draw correlations to his work and the work of M. Night Shyamalan, but he seemed to peak with his first two films. Terms of Endearment won Brooks his only three Oscars for Best Picture, Best Writing, and Best Director, the latter of which was also his only nomination in that category. Lately, his films have not been quite successful at all. I’ll Do Anything (1994), Spanglish (2004), and How Do You Know? (2010) are all largely considered much weaker than his Best Picture-nominated work. Since he only seems to direct two films every decade, we probably can’t expect anything from him soon, but when he does return to the director’s chair, I certainly hope he can earn another Oscar for his work.

The mother-daughter relationship is perhaps one of the tightest relationships any two people can ever have. Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) and her daughter, Emma Greenway-Horton (Debra Winger), have both wanted to find love in their lives. When Emma is married to Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels), Aurora’s mothering nature fails to show how much she cares about Emma and instead strains their relationship. As Emma starts her own journey into motherhood, Aurora finds love with her next-door neighbor, Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson), a retired astronaut. While Emma’s marriage is threatened by an affair held between Flap and one of his students, a cancer diagnosis for Emma forces the family together. Flap and Aurora do their best to put their differences behind them to support Emma in her final months.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 of the best by James L. Brooks

Bacon #: 2 (Modern Romance / Jane Hallaren -> Hero at Large / Kevin Bacon)



#166. Romantic Comedies

Let’s just be honest here: dating is awkward. Not only are there innumerable opportunities to miscommunicate, but when you’re getting to know someone, one wrong word might trigger an embarrassing situation. It’s these embarrassing and awkward situations which are often used in Romantic Comedies. Even if this genre is formulaic, occasionally a few films fit into the category, but don’t end quite the way you’d expect. Most guys can’t stand Romantic Comedies, but at least they’re a little more tolerable than just a straight Romance film because of the humor involved. After all, they still have to be a comedy if they’re to be considered a Romantic Comedy. Besides, men and women are so different, the comedy practically writes itself. This week’s two films are some excellent examples of Romantic Comedies.

Annie HallAnnie Hall
Year: 1977
Rating: PG
Length: 93 minutes / 1.55 hours

Woody Allen has been a staple name in the realm of comedies that it’s no wonder that he’d be associated with one of the best romantic comedies of all time. In terms of awards, the quality of the film speaks for itself. Not only did it win four Oscars in 1978, which included Best Actress for Diane Keaton, Best Director and Best Writing for Woody Allen and the Best Picture Oscar, but it has placed at #35 on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) top 100 films of all time (#31 originally). Since most of the films Woody Allen directed were nominated for Original Screenplay Oscars, the key to a successful Romantic Comedy seems to be in the writing. If you can’t rely on action or explosions to entertain, you really need to make sure the script is solid if you want to get any laughs out of the awkward situations involved with dating.

Annie Hall is about finding love in New York City (where most of Woody Allen’s films are placed), and is perhaps Allen’s best film. Allen portrays writer Alvy Singer, who just can’t get over the relationship he had with aspiring actress, Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). Through some useful techniques, like breaking the fourth wall, the audience gets to see inside the heads of the characters. Even though they attempt to reconcile a few times, the relationship just doesn’t seem to be working. While most Romantic Comedies end with the couple getting back together, getting together in the first place, or getting married, Annie Hall doesn’t end quite in this way. Similarly, a few of the films by James L. Brooks (e.g. Terms of Endearment (1983), Broadcast News (1987)) had similar, non-traditional endings for the Romantic Comedies that they are.

Bringing Up BabyBringing Up Baby
Year: 1938
Rating: G
Length: 102 minutes / 1.7 hours

Have you ever wondered if you’re marrying the wrong person? One of the most common themes found in Romantic Comedies is the introduction of another person into mix of a romance between two people. The “love triangle” is often formed when some driving force brings the third party into the equation, at which point the original relationship is now in jeopardy. While it can be very cliché, most of the initial relationships in these situations are never solid to begin with. Whether it’s a cold and heartless woman, or a neglectful and distant man, the audience is practically screaming at the main character that they shouldn’t go through with the wedding and should instead marry the new, third person. Because this “love triangle” theme is so common, it’s no wonder that it is often seen in some of the earliest Romantic Comedies.

The driving force in Bringing up Baby is the titular “Baby”: a Brazilian leopard. David Huxley (Cary Grant) is set to be married to Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker), but just so happens to run across Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) on the eve of his wedding. Because of a miscommunication, Susan gets David to come to her country home in Connecticut to bring up Baby, mistakenly taking him for a zoologist, instead of his actual profession of paleontology. Of course, the mistaken identities continue as another leopard escapes from the circus, thus allowing Susan and David to think that this new leopard is Baby, when in fact it is a very dangerous animal. Hilarity ensues, but Alice now doesn’t want anything to do with David because of his interactions with Susan. Fortunately, Susan has a few connections that David needs to finish his paleontology project. Oh, and they love each other too.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 comedic couplings

#149. Jack Nicholson

It’s easy to name off the most nominated Actress, as Meryl Streep has the most Oscar nominations in film history, even more than the actors. However, one would be challenged to know who the most nominated Actor is. This is probably due to Streep continuing to be nominated regularly, receiving an acting nomination every two to three years since 1978. Of course, if you haven’t figured it out by now (and the title of this post), the most nominated Actor in film history is Jack Nicholson. Similar to Meryl Streep, Nicholson has won three times for acting, making him part of a handful of people who have completed this feat (only 6 people have won three or more Oscars). This week, we’ll look at two of Nicholson’s films, one of which even earned him one of his 12 Oscar nominations for acting.

The ShiningThe Shining
Year: 1980
Rating: R
Length: 146 minutes / 2.43 hours

Even though he wasn’t nominated for his performance in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Jack Nicholson truly helped make this film into the iconic piece of popular culture that we know today. I mean, who hasn’t seen his grinning face peeking through the axe-chopped hole of the bathroom door as he delivers the line, “Here’s Johnny!” This role is just one of a few that Nicholson seemed to excel in: the role of a crazy person. Just consider his role as the Joker in the 1989 film, Batman, and you can start to see the parallels. What’s almost ironic is that he actually won one of his Best Actor Oscars for his role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where he portrays a criminal in a mental institution who is probably the most sane person there. At any rate, even if the Academy overlooked his performance in The Shining, the American Film Institute named Jack Torrance as the 25th best villain in film history.

As an author myself, I know how useful it is to become isolated in order to write. In The Shining, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) does just that by taking on a job as a winter caretaker in the Overlook Hotel. While he and his family watch over the empty building, he finally has the chance to get writing. Unfortunately, being an isolated writer only works if you’re productive. After a long time of being stuck with writer’s block, Jack is soon affected by the madness of the Hotel brought about by its placement on top of an Indian burial ground. Both Jack and his son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), have connections with the building, known as “shining”, which show them the gruesome past that has occurred due to the induced madness of the place. Jack fully succumbs to the madness, eventually chasing after his family into the icy cold winter outside.

Year: 1974
Rating: PG-13
Length: 130 minutes / 2.17 hours

While about one third of Nicholson’s Oscar nominations were for Best Supporting Actor, the other two thirds were for the award of Best Actor. Chinatown was just such a nomination for him, in between his 1973 nomination for The Last Detail and his aforementioned win for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. What’s nice to see about the nominations he’s received is that at least a few of them were for comedies, partly due to his partnership with Director James L. Brooks. With his trademark smile and laugh, these nominations just make sense. However, even though Nicholson played a clever character in Chinatown, this film is by no means a comedy. In fact, it was probably this role that helped him to continue to be nominated for acting awards for the next three decades, stringing his streak of nominations across five decades.

In Chinatown, Jack Nicholson portrays J.J. “Jake” Gittes, a private investigator who specializes in exposing cheating wives and husbands. Unfortunately, when he’s tasked to keep an eye on the chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, not only does he eventually find out that he was set up, he soon enters into a huge conspiracy involving Los Angeles’ water rights. Working with the real wife of the engineer, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), Jack soon finds himself up to his nose in gangsters and government officials trying to make a profit off the limited water supply to the city. As the obituaries pile up, Jake finds himself falling for Evelyn, which causes him to delve deeper into her past in an attempt to figure out what her relationship is with her “sister”. When all the pieces fall into place, Jake is powerless to stop it, simply being told, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 notable Nicholson performances

Bacon #: 1 (A Few Good Men / Kevin Bacon)