”I’m giving you a shot as a reporter. You thought I came by to f— you,” craggily handsome veteran TV newsguy Warren Justice (Robert Redford) challenges dewily pretty neophyte TV newsgal Tally Atwater (Michelle Pfeiffer) early in their relationship in Up Close & Personal. So much for sophisticated, adult repartee in movies about the glamorous world of journalism, a tradition that began with His Girl Friday and ended, apparently, with Broadcast News. ”This isn’t about lipstick,” Warren lectures Tally at another point early in her career, when she is preparing for an on-the-scene live report and he is, as ever, helpfully nearby to marvel at her spunk. ”This,” he says, pointing to some poor immigrant shnooks, ”is about them.”
Well, no, actually, this un-newsy star vehicle, written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne and directed by Jon Avnet, is about lipstick. Also about hair color, in all its Clairol variations, as Tally undergoes successive image makeovers from tackily dressed desk assistant to successful, expensively stylish-looking network newscaster. The tough facts of the drug-addled tragic life on which the story is so exceedingly loosely based — that of the late news anchor Jessica Savitch — have been jettisoned, replaced with a soft celebration of a photogenic romance acted out between rudimentary lessons in journalism. (Warren sez: ”Yesterday’s history. News happens today.”) It’s a variation on A Star Is Born — the story Dunne and Didion (with Frank Pierson) themselves rewrote for Barbra Streisand in 1976. It has, as news directors might say, no peg.
But Up Close does have a human-interest hook: Redford and Pfeiffer, shimmering side by side and making box office accountants happy. Warren comments that Tally ”eats the lens,” but it is these two pros who work at licking the camera, basking in their gilt twosomeness. Avnet, whose direction of Fried Green Tomatoes and The War showed a talent for atmosphere, gives his stars plenty of display space, and, minus anything sharper to hang their characters on (he’s generically disillusioned, she’s generically ambitious), they display the generic idea of TV newsfolk in love. When she’s not covering a prison riot and he’s not fulminating about the increasing shallowness of news coverage, the two gambol — gambol! — on a beach like couples in a Metamucil commercial.
Into such an unfocused story, the introduction of Stockard Channing as a smart, biting non-blond rival is a welcome sight. If Redford and Pfeiffer seduce the camera, Channing (who roused To Wong Foo… more than a carload of drag queens ever could) grabs the mike and makes a fast, powerful impression as a woman, no longer so young, who knows exactly what the smiley new gal in the office means in the big picture. Tally Atwater is, as Albert Brooks’ character in Broadcast News also knew, ”the Devil,” but in Up Close & Personal, she doesn’t get her due. Instead, real-life conflict has been reduced to light banter in the name of putting on a happy news face. C