There has always been an understated rivalry between the mediums of movies and television. Many years ago it was even thought of as being somewhat of a drastic career letdown if actors/actresses from film decided to depart for the landscape of television. The truth is that for some performers that had stalled or uneventful momentum in motion pictures that the concept of “slumming it” in television actually saved their show business profession. Hence, the boob tube made them relevant whereas the big screen had unceremoniously passed them by.
However, there is also mutual respect that cinema and television share that go hand in hand when shaping our appreciation for entertainment on both the big and small screen. When movies depict the aspects of the TV world giving a sociological, psychological, or emotional perspective then it is not so uncool to be a proud couch potato after all, right? Let’s take a look at a top selection of films that shine a spotlight on the world of TV from various points of view. Whether it be in the form of exposing the politics of a newsroom to the workings of a game show scandal to exposing the nutty antics behind a soap opera production.
The Big Screen to Small Screen: Best Films About Television
1.) Auto Focus (2002) Director: Paul Schradar
Auto Focus was not so much about television as it was about a seriously flawed television personality and his deep-seeded demons that spilled over into revolving obsessions with womanizing/sex, video electronics, and the shady dealings with fame and notoriety. Director Paul Schrader’s vastly underrated biopic Auto Focus delved into the sordid existence of the late disc jockey-turned-actor Bob Crane, star of the iconic military sitcom Hogan’s Heroes.
Husband and father Crane (played with skillful impishness by Greg Kinnear) was likable and charismatic and hit a professional high with his Hogan’s Heroes run but he was also a man lost in his fetish-induced fantasies of sexual trysts and video equipment combining both explosive interests to fuel his fun-loving depravity. Crane loved the ladies and along with video expert and cohort Carpenter (Willem Dafoe) would go on an elicit odyssey of recording sexual orgies with an assortment of female groupies willing to lustfully hang out with America’s favorite prime time prisoner of war colonel and occasional Disney dad. Crane was oblivious to others in his promotional pride of a tawdry lifestyle with fast cuties and cameras. Crane’s horrific and mysterious murder in Arizona back in 1978 remains a key event that many thought was reinforced by his decadent livelihood. Bob Crane was a nostalgic product of television but how ironic that it took his love of video cameras to ultimately destroy him.
2.) Broadcast News (1987) Director: James L. Brooks
Writer-producer-director James L. Brooks’s Broadcast News is a resourcefully sharp, witty, and observational look at television from the high-paced angle of a TV network newsroom. Mixing television workplace professionalism with a love triangle romance is ambitious but Brooks’s clever scripting pulls it off effortlessly.
Spunky news producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) is hormonal over the new reporter in handsome Tom Grunick (William Hurt) who is basically all flash and no real substance. On the other hand, average-looking Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) is a capable news correspondent whose romantic affection for Jane (and quiet resentment for Tom) presents some notable static for all involved.
Broadcast News is thoroughly effective in its comic and dramatic pulses when we get an inside look at the creative process behind the frenetic politics of news programming and the competitive pressures and performances of the faces–both in front and behind the camera–that populate the proceedings. And of course, the talented tug-of-war for Jane’s heart between Altman and Grunick give the trio of Hunter, Hurt, and Brooks considerable cache in the brilliant Broadcast News.
3.) The Cable Guy (1996) Director: Ben Stiller
The much bashed and berated feedback toward Ben Stiller’s The Cable Guy was a fashionable response when it was first released back in the mid-’90s and at the height of spastic comedian Jim Carrey’s rising movie career. Of course, some did not partake in that negative view at all and saw Carrey’s eerie yet over-the-top turn as a clingy cable guy looking for some human companionship despite being a formerly neglected TV tot that the boob tube babysat him in his childhood loneliness as underrated and unfairly misjudged.
The Cable Guy is an acquired taste and if one bothered to pick up Stiller’s off-kilter commentary on our ridiculous preoccupation with TV trivial dependency and pop-cultural preferences then maybe his dark comedy would not have been dismissed as much as it was originally. Some thought Carrey’s wacky turn as cable guy Chip Douglas (a name from TV’s “My Three Sons”…get it?) was repetitive and increasingly grating on the nerves. Others thought it was entertainingly absurd and inspired. Anyway, Chip finds an unsuspecting Steven Kovacs (Matthew Broderick) as the target with which he can hang around and get chummy with at will. But when Steven sees how intrusive and intense Chip is becoming the madness takes off. Now Chip has the remote control to upset the many channels in Steven’s wayward life. The Cable Guy was woefully trashed when it should have been treasured…at least as a cult hit anyway.
4.) Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) Director: George Clooney
Director George Clooney, a product of television shows both short-lived and slightly popular for many years before his booming movie career took off, had managed an impressive directorial effort with the solid and riveting Good Night, and Good Luck.
The companion piece of broadcast journalism and television in the golden age of TV was a perfect forum for viewers to question the integrity and intelligence of the featured newsmakers that shaped the times in America’s pristine and problematic societal scene. There was no political figure as divisive as Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy and his witch hunt for Communism within the fabric of American patriotism in the early 1950s.
It took the intrepid CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow (the Oscar-nominated David Strathaim) and assistance from his TV producer Fred Friendly (Clooney) to challenge the confrontational claims made by McCarthy and reveal him to be nothing more than a promoter of paranoia as his “Commie cause” is ruining the innocent personal and professional lives of individuals affected by his fear-spreading tactics. McCarthy and the House of Un-American Activities Committee were busy stirring up the pot of major concern that kept the country in panic. But Murrow with his TV show as a revealing tool would battle McCarthy’s convictions about a Communists invasion and crack the posturing individual that would become one of the most notorious politicians in American government.
5.) King of Comedy (1982) Director: Martin Scorsese
The concept of fame and fortune in television is considered the Promise Land for any performer looking to become part of the pop-culture prominence. After all, would you risk everything to get sudden name recognition and have the world stand up and acknowledge your talent? Well, this certainly was the case for the persistence of comic wannabe Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro).
In Martin Scorsese’s witty but darkly disturbing King of Comedy, television takes center stage as the medium for which De Niro’s unbalanced dreamer Rupert Pupkin can realize his ultimate goal: becoming the recognizable star that may just rescue him from an otherwise wasted existence of stagnation. Of course, Rupert’s obsession with his media idol in TV talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) will ultimately turn into drastic measures when the idolized television legend rebuffs Pupkin’s attempts to cozy up with him and make an appearance on his TV show. Langford, weary of fanatical worshiping by the likes of the twisted Pupkin and crazed female admirer Marsha (Sandra Bernhard), is kidnapped as his desperate captors look to achieve their showbiz ambitions despite Jerry Langford’s hearty disdain for them. And they say that the influence of too much television is not harmful?
6.) Network (1976) Director: Sidney Lumet
Imagine if Peter Finch’s veteran newsman Howard Beale from Network was around today to witness the corporate callousness and decorative shallowness of mainstream network newscasts nowadays? If you thought Beale’s famous tirade in his signature “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” in Network was defiant try to guess what his rant would be towards the network news broadcasts in the millennium?
Director Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky collaborate to make the devilishly witty Network, an edgy satirical riff on television news and the mindset to nourish these informational broadcasts with nonsensical nuances to keep up with the changing exploitative times.
When Union Broadcasting System (UBS) news anchor Howard Beale is fired due to poor ratings and the network’s insistence on pursuing a flashier format and style for their news department all hell breaks loose. Beale is sick and tired of deceptive news media practices and becomes recklessly unhinged. Sadly, Finch did not live long enough to accept his Oscar for best actor as the detached newsman Howard Beale (it was a posthumous victory for Finch as it was received by the actor’s widow at the ceremony). Network will always be one of the greatest irreverent and insane observations about the coldness and unpredictability of television in any capacity.
7.) Quiz Show (1994) Director: Robert Redford
Supposedly television in the 1950s came of age with its entertaining innocence and reflection of an idyllic middle-America where revolutionary shows such as I Love Lucy, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, December Bride and Leave it to Beaver would put a definite stamp on the Eisenhower-esque sign-of-the-times.
The ’50s saw its share of televised controversy as well, In the world of broadcast journalism news and politics, Americans witnessed the Murrow-McCarthy showdown in reference to the so-called infiltration of Communism. Also, the popularity of emerging quiz shows serving as America’s delightful small screen distraction in the 1950s would soon turn into a serious question of deception, morality, and ethics.
Director Robert Redford’s Quiz Show cleverly tuned into this television trial-and-error travesty by exposing the game show “Twenty-One” and its tampering of being fixed and false for purposes of ratings gold. An investigation is launched when two of the quiz show’s rival contestants are put on display for their tension-building know-how. The fraudulent participants involved underdog Herbert Stempel (John Turturro), a twitchy New Yorker with no photogenic appeal for the camera whatsoever, and dashing Charles van Doran (Ralph Fiennes), the clean-shaven intellect that hails from one of America’s literary established families. With his movie-star looks and debonair demeanor, van Doran became the toast of the town on “Twenty-One” in large part because of the producer’s willingness to feed him the answers to ensure his growing fame and viewership attraction (particularly with females of all ages) for the quiz show’s notable exposure. Television, its loyal viewers, and Stempel (to a certain degree) were all taken in by the televised scam that almost threatened the distinction of the game show genre in its infancy.
8.) Soapdish (1991) Director: Michael Hoffman
In some cases, the daytime soap opera is considered the “red-headed ugly stepchild” of television entertainment. But for others, daytime dramas are as addicting as water is to a goldfish. We all know the standard ingredients for a soap opera: insanely attractive performers, outrageous plot twists, outlandish outcomes, developed rivalries, and the interruption of an annoying TV commercial between scenes. Hey, some of our established actors and actresses hailed from soap operas as a training ground for their careers elsewhere in TV, film, and theater.
Director Michael Hoffman’s Soapdish is an extended parody of the nuttiness that takes place on a fictional daytime program where backstabbing and creative complications pile up evenly in front of the camera and behind the scenes. Longtime soap opera diva Celeste Talbert (Sally Field) wants to remain on top of her game but her co-star in Montana Moorehead (Cathy Moriarty) wants to badly usurp her stardom as the mainstay on the show. Among Montana’s (and a fellow scheming TV producer) plans to throw Celeste off her comfortable perch while hiring Celeste’s former lover Jeffrey Anderson (Kevin Kline) to join the cast and distract her professional nemesis. Soapdish boasts some mighty names in Oscar winners such as Field, Kline, and Whoopi Goldberg not to mention past Oscar nominees in Robert Downey, Jr., Moriarty, and Elizabeth Shue (as Celeste’s and Jeffrey’s unknown love child Lori Craven).
9.) The Sunshine Boys (1975) Director: Herbert Ross
The mastermind at odd couplings is back at work with Neil Simon being the creative engineer behind the play The Sunshine Boys. Thankfully, the film adaptation of 1975’s The Sunshine Boys at the directorial hands of Herbert Ross was equally as quirky and funny large in part because of the film’s teaming of Walter Matthau and George Burns (who won the best-supporting actor Oscar for his role that year).
Willy Clark (Matthau) and Al Lewis (Burns) were the successful vaudeville comedy duo known as Lewis and Clark. On stage, they created some magical moments that could challenge one’s untapped funnybone. However, both men could not tolerate one another way from the laughter and applause. Lewis and Clark simply did not get along away from the stage. After they split up the comedy act they headed their separate ways.
When Willy’s TV producer nephew Ben Clark (Richard Benjamin) wants to reunite his uncle and Al Lewis on a TV variety show thus bringing together the old-time comedic twosome that may make for memorable entertainment the notion looks very promising on paper. However, does Ben have what it takes to convince these obstinate old coots that burying their lengthy heated animosity for a special one-time TV appearance could be beneficial for all in the long run? The bickering and clashing demonstrated in The Sunshine Boys does not seem to get its rightful due in comparison to Simon’s much preferred and better known The Odd Couple.
10.) The Truman Show (1998) Director: Peter Weir
What would you feel like if you lived your life day by day while not realizing that your existence is for the casual amusement of a vast television audience that you are not even aware of in the first place? If the answer is “no thanks” then you might not feel envious of Truman Burbank’s (Jim Carrey) publicized predicament in Peter Weir’s whimsical social setting dramedy The Truman Show.
Truman is a televised experimental prop whose livelihood is fake. His house, neighbors, backyard fence–they are all non-existence and serve as the deceiving backdrop to allow this TV-trapped guinea pig to go through the motions in an unusual way to indulge this unknowing sap. Truman and his program aptly called “The Truman Show” is a sensational hit around the globe but how will clueless TV star Truman Burbank act to his celebrity once he realizes his likeness, privacy, and movements have been seized for worldwide spectators to ponder? Weir’s The Truman Show is absolutely innovative and perceptively telling of a media-minded culture that knows no bounds when subjecting its subject matter to exploitation at any cost.
In the day and age of accessible social media that reveal everybody’s private and public in the millennium years, The Truman Show seems awfully passe and cliched. Still, over twenty years ago The Truman Show was a radical gesture in how television can turn its screws on you in delivering the reluctant broadcast goods.
EdTV (1999) Director: Ron Howard
Fright Night (1985) Director: Tom Holland
–Written by Frank Ochieng
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight.