Three Guys Named Brooks
By Tom Johnson
Special for Modern Times Magazine
April 11, 2017 — For me, last Friday at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood was all about the “Brooks Brothers” – not the staid clothier on Madison Avenue, but three funny guys (James L. Brooks, Albert Brooks and Mel Brooks) united in their devotion to wringing all they can out of the comic muse.
Bookending the day were screenings of Broadcast News written by James L. Brooks, co-creator of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and starring Albert Brooks in his most cringingly hilarious role and Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety at the TCL Chinese IMAX Theater with Mel holding forth on stage; a wildly gesticulating one-man joke-telling tsunami with a bottomless bag of anecdotes
When it was released in 1987, Broadcast News, starring Albert Brooks, William Hurt and Holly Hunter, mirrored its era when the nightly news had the last word (and for many the definitive word) on the news of the day. But things were about to change – drastically. In 1987, 71 percent of Americans watched the nightly news on the big three networks. By 2009, that number had fallen to 29 percent. Currently, among viewers under 30, that number is well under 10 percent.
“In the late ‘80s, in newsrooms across the country, the change was money,” said James Brooks. “Newsrooms had been places of integrity, seeing the country through wars and then they started these massive layoffs. For a long time, especially at CBS, the bosses had built a fence around the newsroom; you couldn’t touch it. Later, I remember being in newsrooms where people were being cut that had been there for 20 years. We were there literally weeks before we filmed scenes like that for the movie. It was as contemporaneous a picture as I’ll ever make. It couldn’t have been more about the time that it existed in.”
In referring to how the Internet has changed how people get and ingest news, Albert Brooks said that what became desirable was scandal. “When Broadcast News was made,” he said, “there was no Drudge Report. There wasn’t a whole gigantic business of trying to shock people. The issues dealt with in our movie that were shocking were really important – war, etc. That is what time has ripped out. Now, look at what people are shocked at – nothing.”
The primacy for James Brooks, when he was writing the movie, was that it was a romantic comedy with the overarching question of who would get the girl (Holly Hunter). “We shot the picture in continuity,” he said. “Every scene didn’t have to have an end result where we forced you to root for one character. What I took away was the thrill of making a movie that way. This is a movie where the guy who wrote the movie – me – never really figured out a way to end it; who would get the girl, segment reporter Albert or news anchorman William.”
Albert Brooks piped up: “That’s a lie! I had my plane ticket home four weeks before William Hurt was due to leave.”
The 2017 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival honored the Brooks Boys, Lee Grant Debbie Reynolds and many others. Classic film expert Tom Johnson was there and joined John and Karen on this podcast for a lively discussion.
— April 14, 2017
The Star Of Legendary Hollywood Films Was Also A Director And A Victim Of The Hollywood Blacklist Pushed By Communist Fears During The Red Scare.
After the movie wrapped, James Brooks said he went back to the movie and tried to give it an ending where Hunter and Hurt end up together, but he said it didn’t work. “I couldn’t really resolve the love triangle,” he said.
Perhaps the most classic newsroom on-air meltdown ever in a movie occurs when Albert finally gets a chance to anchor a broadcast and literally drips with flop-sweat.
“We knew we there had to be a scene where Albert bombs,” James Brooks said, “but we didn’t know how that would happen, what would make it happen.”
According to Albert Brooks, he witnessed just such a meltdown at 2 a.m. when he was watching CNN. “This guy was just drowning,” Albert Brooks said. “I knew I’d never see him again, so I woke Jim up and told him to turn on CNN right now. That’s what has to happen. Jim knew that my character had to screw up badly, but he didn’t know exactly what that should be: should he get sick, be afraid to show up? And this poor man on CNN, you talk about perspiration being inspiration!”
At the screening of his 1977 Alfred Hitchcock spoof, High Anxiety, Mel Brooks, who is 90, was unexpurgated as usual. After calling Columbia Pictures Studio boss Harry Cohn a “shithead” who wanted to “f’ing kill him,” Mel, for the first 15 minutes, didn’t sit down in the chair on stage which had been provided for him. Instead, he was a moving target spewing one-liners and reminiscences that finally had moderator Ben Mankiewicz throw his prepared questions written on index cards up in the air.
“I told Hitchcock – I called him ‘your highness’ – that I wanted to do a pastiche of his films and have fun with some of his famous scenes,” Mel said. “I don’t want to make fun out of the scenes, but have fun with them.”
Hitchcock told Mel to come over to Universal (Hitchcock’s home studio) to discuss the project whereupon Hitchcock told Mel that he had a joke he wanted to tell him.
“He pitched me a joke, can you believe it!” Mel said. “He said a guy’s running from bad people, they’re going to kill him and he’s running and running and he comes to a dock and about 20 feet away there’s a ferry with a deck. So the guy runs and leaps in the air and lands on the deck of the ferry. But the ferry’s coming back to the dock!”
Mel remembered a later dinner he and Hitchcock, a renowned gourmand, had at the storied Chasen’s Restaurant. “Hitchcock, who was a regular there said to the waiter: ‘George, I’ll have a shrimp cocktail, a Caesar salad and a two-inch steak with asparagus and a baked potato and sour cream and chives and for dessert I want vanilla ice-cream sludged with fudge (that’s the way he talked) and a strawberry on top.’”
After the meal finishes, Mel said that Hitchcock called back the waiter and said: “George, I’m feeling a bit peckish. Let’s do it again.” He ordered the same exact dinner – AGAIN!”
According to Mel, High Anxiety contains about 17 Hitchcock references or odes. Mel screened the finished film for Hitchcock and when the shower scene came on with the shot of the newsprint (which mimicked Janet Leigh’s blood in Psycho) circling down the shower drain, Mel said that Hitchcock turned to him and whispered: “Very good.”
And when Mel, in his comic death throes, rips the shower curtain down off the rings like Janet Leigh, Mel said that Hitchcock murmured: “’I had 11 rings, you only have eight.’ He knew exactly how many rings he had used in the shower scene!”
When the screening ended and the lights came up, Mel said that Hitchcock was nowhere to be seen. He had left. “The next day,” Mel said, “I get a package and it’s a box filled with wine – 1960 Chateau Haut-Brion -- with a note which read: ‘Mel, don’t have anxiety about High Anxiety. It’s a truly wonderful picture. Love Hitch.’ I’m not ashamed to say it brought a tear to my eye.”
Tom Johnson has been an entertainment journalist for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV with David Fantle. He is also a former senior editor for Netflix.
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