Five Film Favorites: Movies About Television

Andy Griffith and Patricia Neal in "A Face in the Crowd."

Six decades ago television was supposedly killing off both the radio and the movie-making industries. Over that span the impact of television on popular culture has had no equal, yet radio is still with us. And, it seems that no matter how much it costs to make feature films, Hollywood will continue to figure out a way to keep doing it.

To survive, the radio business had to change. The dramatic programs, variety shows and situation comedies that had been pleasing loyal audiences throughout the 1930s and ’40s disappeared in the ’50s. Wall-to-wall canned music, together with live news and sports coverage filled the bill, instead. Eventually, through niche programming radio found a way to co-exist with its younger broadcasting bully.

In Hollywood the panicked producers turned to eye candy and gimmicks to win back customers, who were moving to the suburbs and watching whatever was on TV’s small black-and-white screen. Television didn’t have anamorphic lenses, Technicolor or Marilyn Monroe. Eventually, Hollywood sold off its old features to television and found a way to make profitable movies that were different enough from what the networks were beaming into America’s living rooms.

Television forced those two established forms of media to change in order to survive. The Internet is now in the process of imposing a similar change-or-die scenario on the publishing industry.

Of course, one of the things that Hollywood has especially relished doing that television couldn’t/wouldn’t do so well was to present unflattering inside stories about how the people in the TV industry operate. All of which leads us to this week’s list of five film favorites — movies about Newton Minow’s “vast wasteland” of television.

Here are my favorites along those lines:

“Broadcast News” (1987): Directed by  James L. Brooks; Cast: William Hurt, Albert Brooks, Holly Hunter

“The China Syndrome” (1979) Directed by  James Bridges; Cast: Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas

“A Face in the Crowd” (1957) Directed by Elia Kazan; Cast: Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau

“Magnolia” (1999) Directed by  Paul Thomas Anderson; Cast: Jason Robards, Julianne Moore, Tom Cruise

“Network” (1976) Directed by Sydney Lumet; Cast: Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, William Holden

Truth be told, I wanted to put “Medium Cool” (1969) on this list, but it’s been so long since I’ve seen it that I didn’t. “Broadcast News” took what would have been its place. And, I almost put “Wag the Dog” on the list, but since it made an earlier list and it would have been a bit of a reach, instead I added “Magnolia.”

Yes, it’s a reach, too, but I still love its audacity. That scene where all the characters sing the Aimee Mann song, “Wise Up,” rode a risky sort of edge as adroitly as I’ve seen on the big screen (see video below).

This will be the last of these lists from this scribe, at least for a while. Next week a new list-maker will fill this space with his opinions about favorite films.

Play safe stay cool.

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