There are few works of art that tempt the use of the adjective perfect, but James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News, which turns 30 this month, is one of them. Simultaneously a character drama, a love triangle rom-com, and a canary in the TV news coal mine, it’s filled with quotable dialogue and brilliant performances, subtly yet enchantingly orchestrated by Brooks. And yet, like many great movies, it came perilously close to embarrassing failure.
To Brooks’ credit, he’s shared the film’s proximity to implosion with the world. Broadcast News’ deleted scenes are included on the 2011 Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD, and most of them are typical of that bonus feature: loose ends, unnecessary repetition, and minor trims from surviving scenes. But there’s also an entire subplot that Brooks excised from the final cut, to the picture’s undeniable benefit. The root of it survives, in a control room scene in which Washington bureau chief Ernie Merriman (Robert Prosky) sends reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) to meet a possible source. Newbie Tom Grunick (William Hurt) asks to tag along, and Altman reluctantly agrees. They gossip briefly on the stairs out of the control room, and that’s it, end of scene.
But the sequence originally continued, following the pair down to meet “Mr. Buddy Felton,” a giggly, mincing caricature of a gay character, who jokes that he hopes to rise to “Office Bimbo” at the State Department and admonishes himself with a stern, “Oh, great time to act out, Buddy!” when Altman loses his patience and walks out of the interview. (“You contact us when you’re feeling a bit less playful,” he sneers.) But Grunick takes pity on Buddy, and offers to show him out. “Follow me,” he says, to which Felton replies, with all the subtlety of an eyebrow-wiggling Paul Lynde, “You talked me into it!”
He proceeds to ask Grunick out for a drink—“at a regular bar,” he assures him—where his subtle-as-a-hammer crush on the handsome newsman seems to result in offering himself up as a source. His “roommate,” he tells Grunick, is “very social,” so “I always hear things before they happen … and from now on, so do you.” The association progresses until Buddy and his roommate break up, and he no longer has information to offer up to Grunick.
It’s not hard to guess at why Brooks originally wrote the subplot.
It allows us to see how Grunick’s personal charisma enables him to rise so swiftly in the network ranks, and as Brooks himself noted in an Atlantic interview, it complicates the character a bit, giving him “a dark side.” But the writing and playing of the character is all wrong—broad and cheap, like something out of a lesser episode of one of Brooks’ sitcoms, entirely at odds with the rest of the picture.
The alternate ending, also included on the Criterion disc, would’ve been even more disastrous. The film’s key romantic conflict finds producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) torn between her intellectual interest in Altman and her physical attraction to Grunick, and the movie’s depiction of the push-pull between them is admirably even-handed. And then, surprisingly—spoiler alert, if you’re sensitive about spoilers to 30-year-old movies—she chooses neither, staying put in D.C. after massive layoffs scatter the team and taking a stand against Grunick when she discovers (with Altman pointing the way) a dishonestly staged element of one of his key stories.
But as the film went into previews, Brooks recalls, “People understandably said, ‘We’d like an ending on this picture. We’d like to be fulfilled in some way.’ ” So Brooks decided to try a more conventional ending, albeit filmed in an unconventional manner. He arranged a reshoot of Holly Hunter leaving the airport after her character’s breakup with Grunick, only to have Hurt ambush her by leaping into the back of the cab for an improvised reconciliation. In his introduction to the alternate ending, Brooks recalls that a crew member blew the surprise for Hunter right before he called “action,” but even without the gimmick, the scene doesn’t land. The actors flounder with the improvisational requirements of the set-up, and they ultimately just give up and kiss, because that’s the ending Brooks seems to want. You can feel it not working, and more than that, you can feel them feeling it not working. And when Hurt first leans in for the big kiss, Hunter initially screeches and pushes him away—and the problem with the whole scene is that’s the correct instinct, emotionally and dramatically.
In the same introduction, Brooks recalls the struggle for the ending thus: “That used to be a pretty traditional tug-of-war between audience and film. It used to occur every once in a while.” The “used to” is telling. Without coming right out and saying it, he’s indicating that the tug-of-war has ended and the audience won, and ambiguous endings such as Broadcast News’ would not make the grade in a studio prestige drama, circa 2011 or 2017—if Hollywood even made a movie like Broadcast News today, which is also dubious. But if it did, it’s easy to imagine he’d have been stuck with the “happy” ending, God help us all. (He had to approximate one 10 years later, in As Good As It Gets, and it was a lesser film for it.)
“I’m so glad we’re putting this on,” Brooks says of the alternate ending, “because I think just, for being inspirational for actors, seeing those two do that … is really something.” It’s certainly something. But these scrapped sequences are indeed inspirational, and educational, for viewers, critics, and filmmakers. They’re a reminder to all of us that directing is, perhaps above all else, a series of decisions—hundreds of them every day, from script to set to postproduction, each of them seemingly self-contained, yet each potentially devastating to the overall health and quality of the work. And thus the line between masterpiece and misfire is razor-thin, contingent solely upon having the confidence to push for this ending, or having the sense to see that this subplot just isn’t working—or a million other, smaller choices that can accumulate into something that endures for three decades, or is forgotten in three hours. It makes you appreciate the value of a movie like Broadcast News even more—and, perhaps, better appreciate lesser works where the stars didn’t align quite right, that time.