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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “Up Close & Personal” (1996) – 25th Anniversary

Touchstone Pictures was one of the biggest studios in the 80’s and 90’s, it ran until it became defunct by Disney CEO Robert Iger in 2018. They nearly dominated all other major studios and it’s success as a studio came as a distribution label created and owned by The Walt Disney Company. Releasing feature films under the Touchstone label that were produced and financed by Walt Disney and featured more mature themes targeted towards adult audiences than the typical Disney releases.

Stuck in the middle of coming off the release of “Father Of The Bride Part II” and the future release of John Travolta’s “Phenomenon”. The studio released “Up Close & Personal” in 1996, starring the iconic Robert Redford (my favorite actor) and the always stunningly fantastic Michelle Pfeiffer. What many don’t know is that “Up Close and Personal” is based on the 1988 book “Golden Girl: The Story of Jessica Savitch”, written by Alanna Nash that recounted the troubled life of American news anchor Jessica Savitch.

The book recounted Savitch’s tragic life of how she climbed to the top of the TV news business, becoming one of the most successful women of her time and to only be undone by her own inner demons. Events in her life are detailed in the book that includes Savitch’s fatal auto accident in 1983, when her car ran off a rain soaked road trapping her in a muddy canal where she died from drowning. Or how she was a cocaine addict, she had an abusive boyfriend that beat her up, her second husband hung himself, she was notorious for her off-camera temper tantrums and how she was responsible for one of the most infamous on-air flubs in television news history.

Her story had all the elements and was the perfect pitch to the studio executives that had all the makings of a gritty adult biopic drama. But as Jeffrey Katzenberg sat in a Disney suite, one question formed in the studio chief’s head: ”Does she really have to die in the end?”. All of these details and events of Savitch’s life didn’t make it into the final cut of the Pfeiffer and Redford newsroom drama, “Up Close & Personal”.

The finished picture, was greatly altered by commercial decisions on the part of the producers and represented little resemblance to Savitch’s biography. Screenwriters of “Up Close & Personal” John Gregory Dunne, had spent eight years working on the script with his wife Joan Didion (both of whom wrote the 1976 Barbara Streisand version of “A Star Is Born”). The husband and wife duo later wrote a book describing their difficult experience on the Redford and Pfeiffer film, titled “Monster: Living Off the Big Screen”.

The film was produced and directed by Jon Avent, who was already best known as the producer of “Risky Business”, “Less Than Zero” and the director of the two time Oscar nominee “Fried Green Tomatoes”. Avnet stated when the film was being released, “This movie isn’t about Jessica Savitch. This movie is suggested by Jessica Savitch”. 

The film Avnet had ended up making suggests Savitch as a scrappy but gorgeous newshound whose name was changed to Tally Atwater for the movie. Pfeiffer’s Atwater starts out as a Miami weathergirl and ends up being a network superstar. Along the way she gets trapped in a prison riot and falls in love with a handsome newsman given an only in the movies name of Warren Justice. Commercially, the films lead actors had the most pull going for it that included the first-time pairing of the biggest A-list stars in Pfeiffer and Redford. 

After Disney scrapped the approach of a grittier biopic and after nearly 30 rewrites over a period of six years, any resemblance to persons living or dead had been made entirely irrelevant. In fact, choosing not to follow the life of Jessica Savitch also found both of the films stars seeing missed opportunities. Pfeiffer herself saying: “There was very interesting stuff about Savitch that I would have loved to have kept. I probably would have liked for it to stay closer to her story. But I guess that would have been just too dark. We really wanted to make a love story”.

Pfeiffer who is a two-time Academy Award nominee said, accepting the role of Tally Atwater was an opportunity to create a multi-dimensional character within a contemporary love story. “Even though she’s very ambitious, there’s an honesty to Tally and her ambition. But she’s not ruthless in her climb to the top of her profession. She may be from a trailer park, but she has a lot of integrity. She’s very complicated”. Pfeiffer wasn’t the first choice as Robin Wright (“Forrest Gump”) was originally considered for the role.

The idea of working with screenwriters Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, was enormously appealing to producer and director Jon Avnet. “They are great writers, who write, rather than talk for a living. They are smart and they know the world of the media inside and out”. Redford agrees with Avnet adding, “They represent a very tough, true and almost poetic mind to the social condition that we live in. I’ve always liked that about them. They’re both talented and talented in slightly different ways. They look at things a little bit the way I do, with a kind of squinty eye for where the truth is. Then they write it in a colorful way, but always with the truth”. 

Four time Academy Award nominee and one time winner Robert Redford said the opportunity to star in “Up Close & Personal” was more about the film’s love story than its backdrop against the news media. “What interested me the most was the fact that it was a good, tough, love story about two people on the raw edge of life, drawn to each other on dangerous terrain”. Different from other characters he has portrayed on screen in the recent past, the role of Warren Justice offered Redford an attractive change of pace. He describes Warren as “a tough, uncompromising character and therefore a difficult man. But difficult people are very often fun to play. His flaws were interesting to me, because they had to do with the dangerous edge that he lives on, the rawness and purity of his character. He is uncompromising. Those are all interesting character points”.

Avnet was attracted to both the elements of romance and the media and how they impacted each other in “Up Close & Personal”. Avnet said “I’ve always been interested in the media, so that aspect of the story was appealing. I also thought that the exploration of a contemporary romance could be challenging as it is so difficult to find classic obstacles to keep people apart anymore. There are no more Montagues and Capulets, nor are there rigid, absolute societal mores, but in ‘Up Close & Personal’, the relationship between the two principal characters becomes the obstacle. This is a mentor and protégé relationship in which the protégé ultimately reawakens the mentor to what and who he was. That was very attractive to me”. 

“Up Close & Personal” was shot on location in Miami, Philadelphia and Los Angeles that included settings at the Orange Bowl, a Philadelphia prison and a Hollywood sound stage. Throughout the production, Avnet tried, as authentically as possible, to capture the high-pressure, fast-paced world of television news that defines and determines the characters amid the events of “Up Close & Personal”. Avnet immersed himself in the world of television news prior to filming, researching for over a year and a half, visiting every network and local stations in New York, Miami, Philadelphia, Washington and Los Angeles. Avnet interviewed and observed every network nightly news anchor, producer and morning show hosts. 

Co-producer Lisa Lindstrom, who has worked with Avnet for nearly a decade prior, accompanied him and facilitated much of this research, comparing it to a “giant treasure hunt”. Executive producer Ed Hookstratten, became an enormous Jon Avnet enthusiast and commented “I’m a gigantic fan of Jon Avnet. He has a wonderful eye and knows how to execute his vision. The homework that he did, visiting news stations all over the country, was incredibly meticulous”.

Producer David Nicksay also praised Avnet, noting that Avnet’s zealous interest in the news business is part of his appeal as a filmmaker and reflects his cinematic style. “Jon is relentlessly curious, it’s one of the ingenuous things about him. He’s never learned to turn off his sense of wonder. He’ll follow it into a new environment, explore and discover. Then, he’ll look at the moment he’s trying to create for the movie and marry it to what he’s discovered. That’s why the research was so important. When we initially talked about a sequence, his first questions were always, ‘What’s it really like? What really happens? Show me the real thing’ and we’d go from there”, said Nicksay.

During Avnet’s painstaking research, the filmmaker insisted on meeting a Warren Justice prototype so they could mold Redford’s character. “I knew exactly who it was, though I’m not going to name him”, Hookstratten says. “I brought this person to lunch one day and half-way through it, I saw Avnet start to grin and say, ‘My God, this is the character’”. Part of Avnet’s fascination with the medium stemmed from what he refers to as “The Magic Box Factor”. 

Avnet said, “When I was 5 years old, I had what I thought was the great fortune to visit a local TV show I watched with great regularity. When I walked on the set, I was stunned and disappointed by what it looked like. This great place I saw on television was just this flimsy set with these little bleachers and grown ups in bizarre costumes going in and out of character. It was clearly nothing like the world that had been created for me on TV. I thought I finally understood what my aging grandmother would say in her broken English when she called the television ‘A Magic Box’. Similarly, there is such a difference between what you see and what really goes into making the news and what goes out on that television has such a profound influence on our lives”.

With “Up Close & Personal”, Avnet hoped to examine the television news by revealing how it is created, literally and figuratively, beginning with the first shot of the film. “The idea is to get inside and behind this cathode ray that affects us every day. It is a love story and it is important to realize that, but the media is the story behind the romance. In order to tell both stories, we used a lot of images that are reflections, projections, video images, which appear to be normal. In the film, you see characters in various forms of video from hi-8 to professional quality Beta and in various forms of degraded images, yet people react ‘normally’ to these images as they appear on the magic boxes. During broadcasts, you’ll always hear the ubiquitous off-camera voices behind the scenes simultaneously. Hopefully, it creates a desire to understand and see this world behind a world, but it will also force the audience to question on some level exactly what it is seeing and or hearing”.

Glenn Plummer who plays Atwater’s camera man actually had a real camera perched on his shoulder and was not just a prop. Plummer studied for two weeks prior to filming, learning how to use the video camera. Just as Avnet filmed scenes, Plummer had actually rolled tape of Pfeiffer as Atwater, conducting interviews, chasing stories and delivering stand-ups. Plummer’s work had won high marks from the films video and camera crew. 

The costumes proved to be some of the film’s greatest stylistic challenges. “The wardrobe for this film was very difficult; a period piece is much easier”, admits Albert Wolsky, a two time Academy Award winning costume designer. “The look for this was not obvious, there were many subtle nuances to it and windows in which to establish those nuances were very small. Also, each character has a humongous amount of changes. In some ways, the Warren Justice character was easier. Jon wanted him to be relaxed, not uptight or too suited, but Tally was hard because she varies so much over time”.

It was this character arc that intrigued Wolsky, who explains that “charting Tally Atwater’s voyage of change, from her very early, unpolished look in Reno to the films finale, when she becomes a seasoned and sophisticated newswoman, is what’s interesting to me”. Wolsky says Michelle Pfeiffer was a generous collaborator. “She uses clothes well, understands how they move and how they look. It’s never about ego, it’s always about if it’s right for the character”. Wolsky remarks that he could never have achieved the artistic beats in Tally’s transformation without Pfeiffer’s partnership.

“Jon gave us some very clear guidelines, in terms of color and look … he’s very good that way, he both anchors you down with a vision but affords you a lot of room to translate it”, Wolsky comments. “Each section has its own colors, reflected in the clothes and the sets. In Miami, we used warm, rich, tropical colors; in Philadelphia, nothing but dark blues and burgundies, wintry, conservative colors. By the time she gets to the network in New York, we’ve pared it down to even less color, grays and dark browns”. The sets, especially the news rooms, echoed these tones as well as the material they suggested. The challenge was to create three distinct news stations that would map Tally’s evolution to the big time at the IBS network. 

“Up Close & Personal” illustrates one of director Jon Avnet’s strengths as a filmmaker. “One of the things I’ve noticed about Jon is that he is very detail oriented. A movie is a series of small, carefully observed moments in which the details add up to the whole,” observes producer David Nicksay. “What I’ve learned on this particular picture with Jon is that each movie is made one shot at a time. Jon talks in terms of shots, he thinks of shots, he dreams shots, all day long. He told me at the beginning that his goal is for each shot to tell the entire story of the movie, which gave me a really new way of looking at the art of filmmaking, one discreet shot at a time”. Avnet’s fascination with “the shot” is not just a cinematic exercise but a unique part of Avnet’s method of motion picture storytelling. 

“Preparing for something that will be shot the following week, Jon will put himself into the moment of the characters at that time in the story and look at it from the inside out. That’s valuable to the scene because he is able to get inside it, to look at it from the inside out. He is also able to orchestrate all the different points of view that come to bear on the process of making the film. Each department is looking at the scene from its own perspective. They’re standing outside the scene, looking at it objectively. He gets inside it and forces them to come into it with him in order to determine what’s right. For me, it’s very energizing to be able to step out of the objective and into the subjective outlook”, producer David Nicksay comments.

When Avnet was asked “What relationship this movie bears to the Jessica Savitch story?” He answered, “Very little. I was offered a script by Joan and John about a contemporary romance in the news world, about four years ago. I was not offered a period story about the rise and tragic fall of Jessica Savitch. I had no interest in doing a period piece about the media and was not interested at this time in my life of doing a story about a woman self destructing on her way to the top. One of the elements that did appeal to me in Joan and John’s script was that it wasn’t a media bashing story. Ultimately, what we wanted to do was get some insight into that world and how it affects the people within it. We were interested in its effects on a personal level, which can be so subtle, in contrast to the repercussions of the media on a cultural level, which can be so grandiose”.

A film so tied to the shifting nuances of the professional and personal relationship of its protagonists required actors of the highest caliber, dynamic talents who would capture the character’s undeniable passion for each other and for the TV news business. The pairing of Redford and Pfeiffer were on the money for Avnet. “They generate real chemistry”. He notes that both actors bring a lot to the table. They both can carry movies on their own. They both immersed themselves in the world of television journalism. “I took Michelle and Bob separately to local and network stations to observe every detail of creating a newscast, to the point of taping both of them at anchor desks reading the TelePrompTer. They each interviewed numerous people in front of and behind the camera. They really made the effort to get it right”.

In addition to watching tapes of real-life newscasters in action, Michelle Pfeiffer’s homework included interviewing numerous respected journalists in the industry. “It’s not as glamorous as I thought it might be”, Pfeiffer says of the behind- the-scenes world into which she delved for research. “I have a lot of admiration for these people because I realize they do a very difficult job”.

Aside from the previously mentioned Glenn Plummer in the supporting cast is also Joe Mantegna, who plays agent Bucky Terranova. Mantegna who won the role without even trying came to the first reading of the script as a favor to casting director David Rubin and his interpretation of the part, even in a read-through, convinced Avnet that he had found his Bucky Terranova. Mantegna describes Terranova as “fun to play, a little flamboyant with his own sense of style, but a guy who genuinely cares about his clients”.

Admirers of Stockard Channing’s work, especially her Oscar-nominated portrayal of the wealthy, refined Manhattan socialite Ouisa in “Six Degrees of Separation”, the filmmakers thought she would make an outstanding Marcia McGrath. She is a cool, poised newscaster who becomes Atwater’s professional rival. Casting the part of Joanna Kennelly, Warren Justice’s ex-wife and famed TV journalist in her own right, proved to be an interesting exercise. The part required a performer who could embody a strong, wise, attractive woman, the archetypal television anchor who would serve as a striking counterpoint to Tally Atwater. Many actresses vied for the role, but Kate Nelligan, whose Oscar nominated supporting performance in “The Prince of Tides” had impressed Avnet. 

Dedee Pfeiffer, known for her comedic appearances on the hit comedy series “Cybill”, as well as a stand-out performance in the controversial hit film “Falling Down”, was cast to play Luanne Atwater, Tally’s spirited sister. Dedee and Michelle Pfeiffer are sisters in real life and their camaraderie and easy rapport translated directly to the screen.

An hour into the picture, Avnet resorts to a “love montage” of our stars as the films featured song, “Because You Loved Me” plays on. The famous tune was written by Diane Warren and performed by Celine Dion. It won a Grammy Award for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture or Television and was nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song. The film gained a $40 million profit by grossing $100 million against it’s $60 million budget. 

If your looking for a great film about the broadcasting world, then seek out Sidney Lumet’s masterpiece “Network” or James L. Brooks “Broadcast News”. With “Up Close & Personal” were in romance novel territory and the movie undeniably works as that…a love story. In all of the films ads and trailers, Touchstone Pictures knows it’s a movie about love in downplaying the TV aspects and underlining the romance. 

You could change the careers of the Pfeiffer and Redford characters and still have essentially the same movie. Jon Avnet and his screenwriters gives us chewy movie exchanges, like when Pfeiffer asks Redford “Do you want to be with me?” and he replies “So much it hurts”. Lines like that work here because they are consciously going for the broad movie star approach to an old-fashioned A-list movie star driven romance.

Up Close and Personal (1996)

“Up Close and Personal” is really about that chemical reaction set off between Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford. In a love story like this, if your two stars don’t click, then all is lost. But nothing is lost here as the chemistry between Redford and Pfeiffer are genuine. Michelle Pfeiffer, does wonderfully well and effectively as she ever has. Always genuine and alive on screen, an actress who never makes a wrong move. This is the kind of rich performance any of the old queens of Hollywood would envy. While Redford has been here before in many past roles including “Legal Eagles”, “The Way We Were”, “Out Of Africa” among his many other convincing roles as a charming and charismatic romantic partner.

In the film, a tension grows between them and within us, because for a long period of the film they do not act on their feelings. This is an effective device that is too little used in modern movies, where one significant exchange of glances can substitute for months of courtship. Because these characters are good, attractive and because we care about them. We want to them to fall into each other’s arms and when they don’t that just makes for a more romantic and compelling movie. Pfeiffer and Redford heat up the screen and steal the audiences hearts. They take this fairy tale and make it breathe, like true movie stars are supposed to do. “Up Close and Personal” is as pure of an example of that old fashioned Hollywood romance and star power, two things that movies so rarely provides us these days.

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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