Depicting stupidity intelligently is a paradoxical nightmare. Movies rarely even attempt the feat, opting instead for caricature; well-meaning idiots get treated onscreen very much like drunks (their close cousins), with that one quality exaggerated to the point where it overwhelms everything else about them. While such a barn-broad approach works fine for comedy, though, it’s usually a huge mistake in a dramatic context. Rather than stumbling every step and slurring every line, an inebriated character should be perceived as making a constant, aggressive, failed effort to appear sober. Likewise, portraying someone who’s not very bright shouldn’t entail divesting the person of virtually all cognitive function. Dumb people are trying to be smart. They’re just really bad at it, which can be a source of massive frustration for them.
Broadcast News is one of the few films I can think of that acknowledges this struggle in detail and at length. Two of its three main characters—producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) and reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks)—are Mensa candidates; not only can they walk and chew gum at the same time, but Aaron actually brags aloud, while alone at home, about his ability to sing along with “Midnight Train To Georgia” while simultaneously reading a book. Rising-star anchor Tom Grunick (William Hurt), by contrast, sometimes has trouble just putting together a simple sentence. After meeting Tom at a conference, Jane invites him back to her hotel room, partly because he’s handsome and partly because he compliments her on a speech she’s just given that went over badly. Her lust gets infected with contempt, however, as it becomes increasingly clear that Tom’s IQ falls well below the 50th percentile. It’s a unique dynamic for an incipient romance, delving into emotions that Hollywood generally ignores.
Arguably, Tom, as writer-director James L. Brooks has conceived him on the page, is a bit of a fantasy. In your dealings with the dimwitted, you may have observed that such folks are rarely this self-aware about their limitations; more often, stupidity and arrogance are directly proportional. But the idea here is to give Hurt an opportunity to flail helplessly, which he does with amazing precision. Think about how unusual it is to see a character pause for as long as Tom does just trying to articulate what he wants to say. “You keep thinking I’m somebody who… who lacks confidence,” he tells Jane, and a small eternity passes during that ellipse, during which the wheels grinding in Tom’s head are practically audible. When words fail to arrive on cue, he instinctively turns to gestures as a means of deliverance; you can see him try to project strength with his body language, in order to counteract the weakness inevitably suggested by hesitation. It’s not a subtle performance, exactly, but Hurt successfully creates the impression of low intelligence as a sort of disability—not a learning disability (at least as it manifests in this scene), but a processing disability.
In theory, that should make Tom more relatable and likable, especially when buttressed by his candid self-criticism. Brooks and Hunter shrewdly opt for another route, however. Jane begins the scene in seductress mode, though it’s a comically clumsy version of seduction that’s meant to indicate how little experience she has in this department. The very first shot has her kneeling at the side of the hotel bed, with her arms outstretched across it—a blatant invitation from someone who can’t quite bring herself to strike a pose on the bed itself (though she’ll try that in a moment, when Tom ignores her request for a backrub). He’s trying to confess to professional incompetence; she’s trying to seduce him. When Tom admits that he doesn’t understand half of the copy he reads on-air, though, Jane’s face crumples. Her tone instantly switches from supportive to combative, and she can’t conceal a look of disgust at various points. She even puts her shoes back on, which makes no sense—it’s her room, so he’d be the one to leave (as he in fact does shortly thereafter). That can only be a symbolic message: “I’m not interested in sleeping with you anymore.”
Brooks started out in TV sitcoms (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi), and he’s never fully managed to shake off some of that genre’s worst tendencies. There are two big close-ups in this scene, employed to ensure that we register a significant shift in the character’s mindset, and they both smack of television. One could perhaps make a case for Hunter’s close-up, as the aforementioned face-crumpling moment might not play at a greater distance. Hurt’s corresponding, frame-filling close-up, however, which underlines Tom’s anger after Jane chews him out, assumes that the audience is collectively even dumber than Tom, and that we’ve somehow failed to notice Hurt’s increasingly livid expression in the over-the-shoulder shot. (He even says “Whoa,” pre-Keanu, accompanied by a visible recoil.) More egregious still is Tom’s exit line: “I hated the way you talked to me just now. And it wasn’t just because you were right.” Not only is that a typical TV “button” (there’d be a commercial break immediately afterward), but its cutesy wit betrays everything this scene has previously communicated about Tom, who’s not supposed to be quick with a bon mot.
Thankfully, Brooks and Hunter immediately follow up this miscalculation with the glorious detail of Jane furiously pulling off her nylons, as if attempting to alleviate her emotional discomfort by removing all physical discomfort. Her agitation is understandable—this complete stranger, with whom she’d been hoping to at least make out a little, just unburdened himself to her, and she responded by attacking him, pretty viciously. What’s more, there’s an intellectual elitism underlying her rant, of which she may or may not be conscious. While Jane carefully couches her objections in terms of Tom’s lack of qualifications for his job, she’s clearly just as appalled by the fact that he didn’t go to college, and by his admission that he doesn’t write. Even the question “Did you go to college?” is obnoxious, really. While the love triangle that develops among Jane, Tom, and the perpetually friend-zoned Aaron isn’t precisely the story of a smart woman who falls for a stupid man (actually, it’s about ethics in TV journalism), Broadcast News at least takes stupidity seriously. That’s more than can be said for practically every movie before and since.