Why Broadcast News and Holly Hunter’s Performance Still Resonate 30 Years Later

Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection

According to Academy Award forecasts, Holly Hunter will likely be nominated next month for her fifth Oscar, for her performance in The Big Sick. If and when she receives that nomination, it will come exactly 30 years after her first, the one she earned for her work in Broadcast News.

James L. Brooks’s romantic-comedy masterpiece was released on December 16, 1987, two days before another instant-classic rom-com that also would be nominated for multiple Oscars: Moonstruck. Both films were intelligent, critically acclaimed mainstream box-office hits with smart, complicated women at their center. Back then, we completely took it for granted that major Hollywood studios would continue to widely release films that fit that description. We had no idea how good we had it that December.

Broadcast News has many fantastic qualities that have made it a beloved favorite that still resonates today. As the Ringer pointed out in a recent lengthy piece, it’s one of the more astute journalism movies ever made. It’s also sharply written, filled all the way down the line with multilayered characters, and one of the best D.C.-based movies of all time. (It gets extra points for taking place in the nation’s capital without having any politicians as major characters.) Even Rebecca Pearson on This is Us gave the film a shout-out earlier this season; I’ve never agreed with her judgment more than I did when she tried to convince the rest of the Pearsons to rent Broadcast News from their local Blockbuster.

Of all the vital elements in the movie, though, the most vital is Hunter’s character, the gifted network news producer Jane Craig, both because of the way Brooks wrote her and the way Hunter brings her to life. At a moment when women have become more vocal about the issues they face in the workplace — in terms of sexual harassment and other ways they feel marginalized — it is particularly fascinating to relook at that role.

Jane Craig is a feminist heroine in a way that few female romantic-comedy protagonists since have been, even the ones we consider strong and independent. Unlike most leads in the genre, her reason for existing in the world writer-director Brooks created — which, as he tells the Ringer, was built around the notion of a feminist heroine — is not so she can find a guy. Yes, the story is grounded in a love triangle, one that places Jane as the pivot point between Tom, the slick anchorman played by William Hurt, and Aaron (Albert Brooks), the more traditional reporter who carries a torch for her. But Jane’s existence is not predicated on being in a relationship. Her first love — her true love — is her job.

Jane is never more in control, more aglow, more her fully actualized self, than when she’s in the middle of a chaotic control room calling the shots, feeding questions into Tom’s earpiece, shouting orders at whoever happens to call her on the phone (“Do it or I’ll fry your fat ass!” she screams at some unfortunate woman named Estelle) and making sure every moment lands as smoothly on the TV runway as it possibly can.

“I had no idea she was this good,” Paul (Peter Hackes), the network president, says with awe while watching her in action. There’s something exhilarating about this for the audience, too, because we get to observe a woman onscreen excelling at a job that puts her in total charge, earning her colleagues’ full admiration while doing it. Even better, Jane achieves all that without ever needing to compromise who she is or apologize for it. Reality, as we’ve long known and been reminded over and over again recently, is typically much more complicated than that, especially for women in media, or women in any field who rise up the ranks. With Broadcast News, Brooks and Hunter, via Jane, show us how things operate in the news business. But they also show us how they could and should be.

“It must be nice to always believe you know better.  To think you’re always the smartest person in the room,” Paul says to Jane in another scene.

“No,” she protests, with total sincerity. “It’s awful.” Jane’s not being glib. She knows she always sees the big picture when others are only seeing a small part of what’s in the frame, and the pressure that comes with that gift weighs heavily on her. She doesn’t mean to sound arrogant when she says this. But she also doesn’t worry for a second about whether she sounds arrogant, either. Again: no apologies.

The fact that all of those conflicting traits and feelings (confidence, insecurity, truthfulness, frustration) come through so clearly just from the way Jane says those three simple words — “No, it’s awful” — is all because of Hunter. Prior to Broadcast News, the actress’s most high-profile role was as a baby-napping cop in Raising Arizona, a part that demonstrated her ability to play spirited women and make extreme moments of comedy both funny and grounded in recognizable behavior. But Broadcast News established what I think of as the quintessential Hunter role: the warm, whip-smart spitfire, an older, softer, more maternal version of which she becomes in The Big Sick. Jane Craig is a pitch that lands right in the center of Hunter’s strike zone, and she hits a grand slam home run with it.

Jane is a passionate person who wears her feelings on her sleeve, her collar, and her oversize ’80s shoulder pads. When she’s angry, you know it, as Tom finds out when she bursts into his office, shouting at him for not returning a phone call. (“I’m great if I’m helping your career. But when I’m a woman for a second, I get immediately fucked around by you!”) Hunter has always known just how to use her natural Southern accent, either coating her words with it so they sound folksy and warm, or, as in this example, spiking the punch with it so everything she says has a real kick.

Jane also goes on more than one crying jag in Broadcast News, and Hunter lets it all go in those scenes, for a few seconds, then reels Jane’s feelings right back in again. Those bursts of emotion could make Jane seem like a stereotypical female basket case, but they don’t. Instead, they tell us something about how she, and women in positions like hers, compartmentalize. She works in a high-stress job, in a position of authority. She can’t afford to completely lose it in front of her colleagues. So she does it, always, when she’s alone and has a brief moment to herself. Hunter plays these episodes not as if Jane is a hot mess, but like she’s releasing a valve that she knows must be released, then getting on with things.

Hunter has the same issue that Jane does: As an actress, she naturally comes across as the smartest person onscreen, and in Broadcast News, also the most fearless. I love every single two-shot in which the petite Hunter has to crane her neck to look up at Hurt or Joan Cusack, who plays one of her colleagues, and is completely undaunted by the height differential. As Jane, she’s such a powerhouse that it’s clear that she deserves better than Aaron — who is an even more whiny jerk than you may remember — or Tom.

She doesn’t realize that about Tom, though, until a key turning point in the movie that has to do with a story Tom does on sexual assault. His breakthrough moment at the network is a piece about date rape in which Tom tears up while interviewing a victim.

Aaron dismisses the entire story as unworthy of the news, as hard to believe as that sounds in #metoo 2017. (“I think you really blew the lid off of nookie,” he says to Tom sarcastically.) But every woman in the newsroom — including Jane, who ordinarily would cringe at the sight of a reporter so blatantly emoting — is moved by it. Unlike Aaron, her best friend and her journalism soul mate, she sees some value in covering sexual assault as a real issue and showing some humanity while doing it. At least she does until Aaron points out that Tom could not possibly have cried in real time during his reaction shots because the crew only had one camera.

Jane reviews the raw footage and discovers that Aaron is right: While Tom was affected by his subject’s story, he conjured the tears afterward, on purpose, to insert his own feelings into the story. Hunter’s face while she’s watching that footage goes on a real journey, from desperation to have her admiration for Tom upheld to utter disappointment. From her expressions, you know the relationship is over before the breakup fight at the airport even starts. (Hey, even a film as great as Broadcast News can’t avoid every rom-com trope.)

Tom does two things that Jane cannot abide. He violated journalism ethics as she sees them, and he made Jane feel duped. The subtext — that he engaged in a deception that won her over, while reporting about women that men take advantage of — makes it that much worse. (The fact that Hurt’s former girlfriend, Marlee Matlin, has written about being sexually abused by him while he was making Broadcast News adds a whole other subtextual layer to this.)

In the final section of Broadcast News, the movie jumps seven years into the future, where after becoming the network’s first female D.C. bureau chief, Jane gets promoted again to become the managing editor of the network, a job she got because Tom knew she was more qualified for it than he was and recommended her for it rather than trying to tear her down. She sees both Tom and Aaron for the first time in a long time. It’s clear that, while she has deep affection for both of these guys, she doesn’t need them at all. Jane is more deeply involved with her first love: being a newswoman.

It was great in 1987, and is still great now, that Broadcast News finds a happy ending by allowing its female lead to live happily ever after without a man. It was, and is, also great that Jane is rewarded for having so much intelligence, passion, and ambition, qualities that are apparent because she’s played by the formidable and appealing Holly Hunter. But as 2017 comes to an end, it’s especially uplifting to watch Broadcast News, because it’s a film in which a woman working in a tough business succeeds, not in spite of the men around her, but because those men recognize her talent and are rooting for her, too.

Why Holly Hunter in Broadcast News Resonates 30 Years Later