TV Squad Ten: The best movies about television
by Allison Waldman, posted Feb 20th 2009 11:02AM
As much as there have been movies about the theater and movies about movies, the films that have been made about television are some of the best ever. This year alone, there are two movies nominated for Best Picture of the year by the Academy Awards that are all about television -- Slumdog Millionaire and Frost/Nixon. Without TV, neither of these films would exist. Looking back, here are the films about TV that set the standards by which Slumdog Millionaire and Frost/Nixon are measured.
10. Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)
This film was a labor of love for actor-director-writer George Clooney, telling the story of CBS news anchor Edward R. Murrow taking on Senator Joseph McCarthy for inciting and leading a communist witch hunt. The movie accurately re-created the look and feel of the early 1950's TV both in front of the camera and behind it. Murrow's advocacy journalism was controversial then and now, a fact made clear when Ed's campaign rattles the cages of his bosses. Clooney appeared in a supporting role, but the spotlight was clearly on David Strathairn who gave a brilliant performance as Murrow and earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Clooney was recognized with an Oscar nom as Best Director.
9. Anchorman, The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
Local TV news proved to be fodder for this Will Ferrell comedy, set in the mid-1970s at a San Diego station where Ron Burgundy is the kingpin. As the anchorman, he's loved by women and admired by men. Ron's fiefdom is turned upside down when he's given a female co-anchor (Christina Applegate). Like the real situation it was inspired by -- ABC hiring Barbara Walters to co-anchor the nightly news with Harry Reasoner in 1976 -- Anchorman poked fun at the era, the woman's movement and TV news. "You stay classy, San Diego," Ron's sign-off, has become a classic line.
8. Galaxy Quest (1999)
What's the true impact of television in the broader scope of things? In the world of Galaxy Quest, a popular science fiction TV show (clearly Star Trek) is interpreted by aliens to be the real thing and the actors are asked to bring their characters to life to save a doomed species. Sounds far out, but with comedy and a touch of poignancy, Galaxy Quest does justice to both principals -- the actors who are trapped by TV success, as well as the die hard fans who adore the mythic qualities of the show and want to believe it could be real. To its credit, the film never mocks fans. The superb cast included Tim Allen as the Shatner-esque commander and Alan Rickman in the Nimoy/Spock role -- a classically trained actor who becomes famous playing an alien and gets stuck in the role.
7. The Truman Show (1998)
Bordering on science fiction, The Truman Show actually in many ways prefigured the reality TV craze in which we're still mired. Written by Andrew Niccol, Peter Weir directs, presenting the life of Truman Burbank, a man who's every moment of life has been the fodder of a television show. It's a TV program in which every hour of every day is constantly on, only Truman has no idea that he's the star of his own show. He's oblivious because he is living in an unreal bubble that's a facsimile of life, not reality. Jim Carrey gives his best performance and the look and feel of the movie remains unforgettable.
6. The Late Shift (1996)
Even though it was technically a TV movie, The Late Shift had to be included in this Top 10 because it nailed the late night talk show wars in a way that no other film has managed to do. Based on Bill Carter's book and directed by Betty Thomas for HBO, The Late Shift lifted the curtain to show us what really happened when NBC chose Jay Leno to replace Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show instead of David Letterman, thus leading to Letterman's move to CBS. The film is filled with insider information about the stars we love and think we know.
5. Quiz Show (1994)
In 1957, Charles Van Doren appeared on the game show Twenty-One. The TV industry was rocked when it was revealed that Van Doren had been supplied with answers and thus a fraud had been perpetrated on the public. That was the story director Robert Redford brought to the big screen in Quiz Show. The film showed the game show fervor during those early days of TV, when the entire nation seemed to be caught up in the players. Paul Attanasio's screenplay also examines questions of conscience, Van Doren's as well as the others involved in the lies. After the Twenty-One scandal, quiz shows went bust and it took years for them to restore credibility with the viewing public.
4. Tootsie (1982)
Starring Dustin Hoffman and directed by Sydney Pollack, Tootsie is not only a brilliant comedy -- written by Larry Gelbart -- it's also the best movie about TV soap operas. Dustin is Michael Dorsey, a difficult actor who can't get a job, so to prove his worth, he dresses as a woman to land a major role on the New York soap Southwest General. As "Dorothy Michaels," Michael becomes a daytime diva, big enough to make national magazine covers and spike the ratings. He's such a success as Dorothy that to get his life back, he exposes the truth during a live broadcast. The depiction of the soap world included casting Doris Belack (a vet herself from One Life to Live) as the soap's producer, Rita Marshall, a character based on General Hospital's Gloria Monty, the woman behind the Luke and Laura craze.
3. My Favorite Year (1982)
From 1950-1954, one of the greatest musical variety shows on TV was Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. The writers' room was legendary, including Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Selma Diamond, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin, a young Woody Allen, and an even younger Mel Brooks. My Favorite Year fictionalized a week in the life of that show, with Mark Linn-Baker playing the Brooks character who's charged with caring for an over-the-hill, drunken swashbuckler movie star (based on Errol Flynn), expertly played by Peter O'Toole. The film, shot in and around 30 Rockefeller Plaza, captured the halcyon pioneer days of TV when every weekly broadcast was a live, high-wire act.
2. Network (1976)
Writer Paddy Chayefsky knew television well. He'd written the landmark TV drama, Marty. Director Sidney Lumet was also a TV vet, having directed 12 Angry Men on TV and on the big screen. Network satirizes television as it was in 1976 and predicted how outre it was going to become. Ostensibly, the film centers on anchorman Howard Beale, on the verge of being fired because of low ratings. When his on-air nervous breakdown -- "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" -- resonates with viewers, he's given a new show and becomes the mad prophet of the airwaves. The film concludes with Beale murdered on air because his ratings dropped. Network cleaned up at the Oscars and truly predicted TV today, including the likes of Jerry Springer, Cops and Jackass.
1. A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan, A Face in the Crowd captures the power of television when it was a new, emerging medium. With a star-making performance by Andy Griffith -- pre-Andy of Mayberry -- the movies tells the story of Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, a country singer and crowd-pleasing comic who talks like a good old boy in the Will Rogers tradition, but in fact has a dark ambition and venal nature. The scene in which Rhodes is exposed as a charlatan with contempt for his viewers is a movie classic, capturing exactly how TV can break a star as quickly as it makes one.