Entertainment Weekly | No.317 | March 8, 1996
NOT NECE- SSARILY THE NEWS
By Benjamin Svetkey | Photographs by Ken Regan/ Camera 5
Anchorwoman Jessica Savitch’s short, tragic life read like a melodrama. So why was she cut out of the picture when Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford made ‘Up Close & Personal’?
IT WAS THE PERFECT PITCH. It had sex, drugs, violence, a meteoric rise, and a sudden fall—everything a movie executive could possibly want. Best of all, every word of it was true. But as Jeffrey Katezenberg sat in a Disney suite in early 1989 listening to the story of Jessica Savitch’s tragic life—how she climbed to the top of the TV news business, becoming one of the most successful women of her time, only to be undone by her own inner demons—one question formed in the studio chief’s head: “Does she really have to die in the end?”
The answer, as it turned out, was no, she didn’t. and Savitch’s fatal auto accident in 1983, when her car ran off a rain-soaked road in New Hope, Pa., trapping her in a muddy canal, wasn’t the only detail of her life that didn’t make it into the final cut of the new Michelle Pfeiffer-Robert Redford newsroom drama, Up Close & Personal (opening March 1). Some of the other little factoids you won’t be learning about the famed anchorwoman: She was a cocaine addict. One of her boyfriends beat her up. Her second husband hanged himself. She was notorious for her off-camera temper tantrums. And she was responsible for one of the most infamous on-air flubs in television news history.
“This movie isn’t about Jessica Savitch,” points out director Jon Avnet, sounding as exasperated as a tobacco executive on 60 Minutes. “This movie is suggested by Jessica Savitch.”
All righty. In that case, the film Avnet ended up making suggests Savitch as a scrappy but gorgeous newshound named Tally Atwater, who starts out a Miami weathergirl and ends up a network superstar. Along the way she gets trapped in a prison riot, goes through more hairstyles than RuPaul, and falls in love with a handsome newsman given the only-in-the-movies name of Warren Justice. Commercially, the film has tons going for it, including the first-time pairing of Pfeiffer and Redford (as Justice, of course). It also has classy screenwriting credits (husband-and-wife team John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didon) and, in Avnet, a director with both a deft, delicate touch (Fried Green Tomatoes and The War) and a hard-nosed business sense (he produced Risky Business).
Still, one can’t help wondering if this is really the same film that was once subtitled The Jessica Savitch Story—the one based on the 1988 Savitch biography Golden Girl. Because after nearly 30 rewrites over six years, any resemblance to persons living or dead has been made entirely irrelevant. In fact, the de-Savitching has been so extreme that even the film’s stars sometimes wonder if things got out of hand. “There was very interesting stuff about Savitch that I would have loved to kept,” says Pfeiffer. “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.” Redford sees missed opportunities too: “There was a scene in which my character just hauled off and slugged her,” he says. “And then she kneed him in the groin. I loved it.” Alas, it too was cut.
So what happened? How did Savitch get written out of her own movie? Why, as they say in the news biz, did the lead in this story get buried? Here’s the scoop.
“SEE THAT SWELLING? Around her nose? See? It’s definitely swollen.” The videotape on the screen is of Savitch’s humiliating brain-fade episode during a 43-second NBC News Digest in 1983, in which she blinked woozily at the camera, slurred her words, and mangled the word constitutional. And the man with his finger on the pause button is Up Close’s executive producer Ed Hookstratten, who also happens to be a top TV-news talent agent, representing Tom Brokaw, Bryant Gumbel, Tom Snyder, and—until her fatal crash—Savitch herself.
The digest incident was a startling moment in a startling career. At the height of her success, a TV Guide poll ranked Savitch the fourth most-trusted news anchor on TV. She was a pioneer in the industry, one of the first women ever to anchor a nightly news show. But watching her on that Digest tape, all you see is a lost soul disintegrating on live TV.
Both of Savitch’s biographies, Alanna Nash’s Golden Girl and Gwenda Blair’s Almost Golden, blame the screwup on cocaine. But the Hook—as Hookstratten’s clients call him—offers a different story as he fiddle with the VCR in his photo-lined Beverly Hills office. “She had quite a serious deviated septum,” he says. “So she had an operation. And she was taking painkillers. And the day she had the [roblem with the update she had overslept and dressed in a hurry. She hadn’t eaten. All she had was a cup of coffee. And she took a painkiller. And when she did the update, the heat from the camera lights made her flub a line.”
It was precisely to clear up such matters that Hookstratten bought the film rights to Golden Girl in 1988. As a friend of Savitch’s, he’d been interviewed for the bio several times. “He kept saying it would make a great movie,” remembers Golden Girl author Nash (who, it should be noted, is a contributing music reviewer for ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY). “Before I even had the damn thing finished, he was calling to ask if I had the movie right sold. Then, the day we signed the contract, he told me that this movie was good to be about the Jessica he remembered, not the one with all the psychological problems. That’s when I started worrying.”
Hookstratten had never made a movie, but he had a close friend who had—John Foreman, producer of Prizzi’s Honor and The Man Who Would Be King (Foreman had a fatal heart attack in 1992 but is listed in Up Close’s credits as an executive producer). Foreman brought in some friends of his own—screenwriters Dunne and Didion. “They had cowritten A Star Is Born with Streisand,” says Hookstratten. “And we saw this as a similar sort of project. A woman climbing to the top of her field.”
With Foreman’s connections, it was a snap setting up a pitch meeting at Disney—an audience with Katzenberg himself, no less. But it quickly became apparent that significant alterations in the story would be needed. “In two or three meetings [with Disney], we decided that there was a story in a young female journalist and her trials and tribulations,” says Hookstratten, “but we decided to eliminate some of the negative aspects. We decided to go in a different direction, so that we didn’t have to leave her in a ditch in the end. We just didn’t think that would be very commercial.”
Perhaps—but after Hookstratten bought the rights to Golden Girl, ABC Productions (which, ironically, is now part of the Disney empire) purchased the rights t Savitch’s other biography. Ultimately, Almost Golden was produced as a TV movie on the Lifetime cable network, with Sela Ward as its star. It included Savitch’s cocaine use, her abusive boyfriend (onetime NBC news director Ron Kershaw, who died of cancer in 1988 and is played in the Lifetime flick by Ron Silver), as well as her supposedly uncommerical death. When it aired last September, the biopic scored the second highest ratings of any cable film ever.
“I probably would have liked for it to stay closer to [Savitch’s] story,” says Pfeiffer. “But I guess that would have been just too dark. We really wanted to make a love story.”
“Look, Disney was never going to make the Savitch story,” says a source who witnessed Up Close’s early development. “She was never going to die in the end. Look at the movies Disney makes. Look at the history, especially in the late ‘80s.” he points to one history lesson from that era called 3,000, a gritty drama about a prostitute trying to crawl out of the gutter. Disney bought the idea, had the script rewritten, tacked a Roy Orbison song on the soundtrack, and called it Pretty Woman. The studio was punished for its artistic hubris with worldwide ticket revenues of more than $453 million.
Still, there are some at Disney who say the studio would have been happy to make a depressing Savitch biography, bummer ending and all. “None of the negative stuff bothered us,” insists David Hoberman, who, under Katzenberg, headed Disney’s Touchstone Picture (he now has a producing deal with Disney; Katzenberg, who left the studio in 1994 and later cofounded DreamWorks SKG, declined to comment for this story). “It wasn’t like we made a conscious decision not to do a Jessica Savitch film. That’s just the direction the film started moving in, the course that it started to take.”
That course, it turned out, was really more like a grand tour of development hell. For years, the studio, and producers toyed with different casting combinations and directors, trying to find the formula that would land it on the screen. Kathleen Turner, Meg Ryan and Robin Wright were mentioned for the lead role. John Frankenheimer, John Schlesinger, Penny Marshall, and Tony Richardson were considered to direct. Meanwhile, the Dunne/Didion team kept churning out rewrites. “They walked off the project many times,” chuckles Hoberman. “We keep changing our minds. First we wanted to go in one direction, then another. There were a couple of times we had to beg [Didion and Dunne] to come back.”
The experience must have made a deep impression on the writers: Dunne is writing a book about his years on the film—which may explain why he and Didion wouldn’t comment for this story. Still, some details of their earlier drafts have surfaced. Originally, Redford’s character wasn’t early so heroic. He was an alcoholic and, like the biographers’ version of Kershaw, abusive and self-destructive. A certain whiff of doom still lingers around the character, but most of the original darkness was brightened up by the final draft. The meanest thing he does in the movie now is make Pfeiffer pick up his dry cleaning.
At any rate, in 1994, Up Close was finally ready for production. Avnet would direct and coproduce, provided Disney agreed to a budget of $40 million to $50 million. Katzenberg had always insisted on a budget under $40 million, but the new Disney studio chief, Joe Roth, loosened the purse strings. More importantly, two huge stars had been lured to the project—and rather easily at that.
“I just thought it was a good, tough love story,” says Redford. “A good dynamic of two raw characters. I thought the collision of those two was interesting.”
Pfeiffer liked the script too but had other, more important considerations—an adopted 2-year-old daughter and a newborn son. She told Avnet, “If you can shoot the location stuff in four weeks, I’ll do the movie.”
TO DUNNE AND DIDION, a new director and two new stars meant only one thing—new rewrites. Even as the film geared up for principal photography, their script was being picked apart by a whole new set of experts. “Everybody gave notes,” says Pfeiffer. “I gave notes. Bob gave notes. The studio gave notes. Anyone and everyone gave notes.”
The writers and the director got off to a particularly rocky start. “It was like oil and water,” laughs Avnet. “They’d send me the nastiest faxes. I would ask them to try something, and they’d send back a fax with a note: “This scene is dangerous to your health. It is inexorably cute.’ They were really witty. I enjoy witty people, so we ended up working together very well.” (“I guess we’ll find out how well when Dunne’s book comes out,” cracks Pfeiffer.)
Dunner and Didion even walked off the film again, only to be coaxed back by Redford. “They had done all these drafts and I think they were a little burned out from the futility of the exercise,” Redford says. To smooth things over, the actor hosted a meeting between the writers and the director at his ranch in Utah. “Just to make sure we were all on the same page” is Avnet’s spin. Dunne and Didion returned to the picture.
Then, at one point close to filming, another writer, Anthony Drazan (Zebrahead), was brought in, presumably to give the script a happiness injection. But the actors revolted. “Certain people felt the script needed more humor,” remembers Pfeiffer. “But it was kind of scary because it was very close to shooting and Bob and I didn’t like [the new script]. We really responded to Dunne and Didion’s writing. Their draft was very much a mood piece, and you can’t really f— with that.” Most of the rewrites were discarded.
By all accounts, relations between Avnet and his stars went much more smoothly, although there were some tense moments. “Jon’s trick was to get me really mad so I would bulldoze through a scene,” says Pfeiffer. “And when I realized he was getting exactly the reaction he was looking for, I’d get even madder.”
“Jon is aggressively smart,” says Redford. “He’s that kid who used to piss me off in grammar school, the one that sat in the front and waved his hand after every question. He’s the guy you always wanted to punch. But his ego is in a good enough place that he could honor whatever experience I brought to the table. He was very open and collaborative.
The cameras finally started rolling in March 1995—but there were still creative differences. Redford and Pfeiffer kept pushing for a darker interpretation of the materials; Avnet wanted a more up-with-people approach. “We were kind of a weight dragging Jon down,” says Pfeiffer. “He was always going in the lighter direction, finding the humor.”
In fact, at times it almost sounds as if Pfeiffer would have preferred to go back to the film’s original concept—the Jessica Savitch story. “I read the book [Golden Girl] when I was doing my preparation,” she says. “But I wish that I had read it earlier in the development of the movie. I never even read Didion and Dunne’s earlier draft—their original, original draft—and I probably should have. At one point I did talk to Avnet about adding more of that angst, whatever it was that was driving her, that certain damaged quality.”
Redford was a bit miffed about losing the scene in which he slugged Pfeiffer—“It was absolutely quintessential to their characters,” he says—but he was less in love with the Savitch tale than Pfeiffer was. “I would have been more interested in her story as a director,” he says. “There wouldn’t have been enough of a part for me as an actor. There were, like, five guys in her life when she died.”
In the end, after all the rewrites and faxes and meetings, only one genuine anecdote from Savitch’s real life actually made it into the movie: the fact that as a Philadelphia anchorwoman, Savitch became so popular a local band wrote a song about her (“The evening lady of the air/Welcomes me in my easy chair,…/Jessica, I love you so,/I want you, don’t you know”).
As far as Avnet is concerned, that is more than enough. “I had no interest in doing a biographical piece on a very self-destructive woman,” he says, leaning back in a chair in his L.A. office and casually flossing his teeth. “It’s just so depressing. The abuse. The drugs. Her husband’s suicide. You’d have to be a bit of sadist to enjoy that sort of thing.”