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Getting Better

March 25, 1996

Twentieth Century Fox

It's always fun to see a reliable old story smartly updated. This time it's the man and woman who are both in the news game, and this time of course it's the TV news game. The slick script is by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, suggested by an Alanna Nash novel, and it gleams with topical reference and knife-edge dialogue—not only non-cliché but anti-cliché. (By far the best Didion-Dunne screenplay so far.) It's called Up Close and Personal (Touchstone), and to ensure that the film belongs to its sub-genre, it has stars. Real stars.

Once they were people like Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell (in His Girl Friday). Here they are Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer, and "it" happens. What is "it"? The invisible magnetic field created between two screen faces? Yes, that's essential. But something else, too. As we watch, the world seems to purr around us. We don't want "it" to end even though we know we're emotionally slumming.

The director, Jon Avnet, is a knowing but uncynical guide: he seems to be enjoying it, too. Avnet began as an Off-Off-Broadway director, but in the film world he has mostly been a producer. His first directing was of Fried Green Tomatoes. His next was The War with Kevin Costner, which I and millions of others missed. Now he revs up to high-tech speed. In one way he has taken the film's title to heart: besides the pacing, which never sags, Avnet works in close so much of the time that we stop thinking in terms of close-ups. They seem the film's natural habitat.

The story? Pfeiffer is a craps dealer in Reno who wants to get into newscasting, makes a demo tape, and sends out dozens of copies. Only one station responds—in Miami. There the news boss is Redford. The click isn't immediate, though we want it to be. He teaches her the job, and the way that she learns teaches him something. Ups follow downs, and so on. She moves to Philadelphia where she encounters a news star (played by Stockard Channing). Redford quits his own job to come help Pfeiffer. Still more knots are tied and untangled, and a finish is worked out by the authors to take care of the unlikely future that Redford and Pfeiffer face.

Redford long ago proved that he's not only an actor, he's a star. When he is in a non-reprehensible film, which is not always the case, it's pleasant just to be in his company. Pfeiffer has raised the level of her acting to the competent, if not too much is asked of her; and what is more important, she now has a self-assurance that allows her simply to beam on us, like a star. The cinematographer, Karl Walter Lindenlaub, understands Pfeiffer's face very well and helps her a lot.

The Philadelphia news hawk is played by the dreadnought Stockard Channing. One of Redford's previous wives is played by Kate Nelligan with utter conviction about her previous feeling for Redford and her relief at being rid of it. Both Channing and Nelligan have had star billing in previous films. Both are truly talented; neither is a star.

A few of the moments in the script suggest specific antecedents. Pfeiffer's first entrance into Redford's office, when she spills the contents of her pocketbook, is a reminder of her klutzy entrance in The Fabulous Baker Boys. And her very last scene, when she speaks at a big banquet, suggests the last scene of A Star is Born. When Pfeiffer begins to speak, I half-expected her to say, as Janet Gaynor did in the 1937 version and Judy Garland did in 1954, "This is Mrs. Norman Maine." (Well, natural lineage, I suppose. Didion and Dunne were two of the writers on the—very different—1976 version of A Star is Born with Barbra Streisand.)

The hot news about Joel and Ethan Coen is that they have made a tolerable film. Previously we were assaulted by the adolescent trickery and sententiousness of such numbers as Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy. But in Fargo (Gramercy) they have shucked the brightest-boys-in-film-school doodads and have, by and large, stuck to an organic story. The results are mixed, but at least they are not uniformly pretentious.

The story, said to be based on fact, begins in Fargo, North Dakota, and soon moves to Minneapolis. It's winter; everything is snowy. The whole picture seems to huddle in down jackets and smell of damp wool. The nub of the plot is domestic kidnapping: a man hires thugs to kidnap his wife so that he can get ransom money out of his rich father-in-law. We know, naturally, that the plan is going to be stymied or there would be no picture. It ends with a number of killings and with almost a million dollars in cash lying buried in the snow that no one left alive is aware of.

The film's big trouble is that it wobbles badly in tone. The opening shot, eerily photographed by Roger Deakins, is of a car approaching through the snow, headlights on though it is day, while Carter Burwell's score prophesizes dark doings. But the doings that soon follow are much more farcical than grave. All through the film, Burwell's score seems to have been written for a different picture, and Deakins's camera seems to be searching for a Bergman subject.

The man who plots against his wife is played by William H. Macy, whom some directors continue to find interesting. One of the thugs is Steve Buscemi, who as usual—and entertainingly—acts in italics. His sidekick is done by Peter Stormare, the Swedish actor who has played Hamlet for Bergman as part of a long and varied career in his country's film and theater worlds. Here he is awesomely granitic.

The plum part went to Frances McDormand, who makes the most of it. She plays the police chief of a small town who happens to be seven months pregnant. At first she seems to be a female Dogberry, just a rube constable; but through her "Yups" and "Yeahs" we soon see a quiet intelligence at work. The Coen brothers wrote her role best. Much of the time they seem to have had Pulp Fiction in their ears—strings of incongruous banalities; but with this pregnant cop, they struck some gold of their own.

If only they had decided what kind of picture they wanted to make. The question is not academic nicety. Their jumbling of tones makes the grim parts harder to credit and makes the funny parts seem like old-fashioned comic relief. Still, Fargo is a great step forward for the brothers Coen.

More about Lincoln Kirstein and film. At his memorial service a few weeks ago, arranged by the New York City Ballet, one of the speakers briefly mentioned Kirstein's connection with Sergei Eisenstein. This sent me scurrying back to Marie Seton's biography of Eisenstein to rediscover, in passages I had once marked, how Kirstein championed the director during the latter's turbulent experience in America.

In 1931 Eisenstein, financed by a group that Upton Sinclair headed, shot thousands of feet of film in Mexico. The financiers halted production. In New York Eisenstein invited Kirstein and some others to a private showing of 30,000 feet of the film, and Kirstein wrote glowingly about it in The Hound & Horn, insisting that the footage should belong to the artist and not the financiers, who had their own editing plans for it. After Eisenstein returned to the Soviet Union in 1932, as he had to, Kirstein formed a committee to protect the unedited footage; he even formed a committee that tried, unsuccessfully, to buy the footage and send it to Eisenstein.

When a version edited by Sol Lesser (later a Hollywood producer) was to be shown in New York, Kirstein sent out 10,000 copies of a furious open letter about the outrage. At the preview of the Lesser version, held at the New School in New York, "Kirstein, who rose to protest, was forcibly ejected from the showing by Sol Lesser and a detective."

When comes such another?