“Apparently, Rosalind Russell finally got fed up with Cary Grant and brought in her own writer, so that she could zing him with some zingers once in a while too,” says Jim Mezon, who is directing Guare’s stage adaptation at the Shaw Festival.
Putting this newsroom chaos back on stage without being able to edit or shift the viewers’ focus is tricky, acknowledge Mezon and his cast.
Nicole Underhay, who is playing Hildy, says that Mezon started her and her co-stars off slowly, “like we were racehorses,” and then gradually built the speed up over the course of rehearsals.
“Now, we’re running,” Underhay says. “And it’s 180 pages of script, so we have to run or nobody’s ever going to go home.” (Usually, a page in a play translates into about one and half minutes of stage time; His Girl Friday is clocking in at under three hours with an intermission.)
Adds longtime Shaw Festival star Benedict Campbell, who is playing Walter Burns: “There are sections that go like the clappers and if there’s just a minor brain fart you feel like you’re stranded in the Sahara Desert.”
From 2012, we seem to think our fast-paced world is a new phenomenon and – like Sorkin – fondly recall a time when news was slower and more considered, digested in a single newspaper or a news-hour telecast.
But His Girl Friday – with its gaggle of dishelleved court-house pressroom reporters writing for morning and evening papers in Chicago, all of which printed multiple editions – feels not far off from the modern cycle of 24-hour channels and newspapers, where early versions of stories are rushed online and then updated throughout the day. (Every time she cracks a quip, you get the feeling that Hildy would still be an ace on Twitter.)
The reporters in the movie are always make the choice is between being first or being right – and, like CNN, which was pilloried last week for getting a Supreme Court ruling wrong – often choosing to be first.
Underhay says: “I think about terms that we use now, like when something goes viral on the Internet – this actual newsroom itself is kind of viral …
“One person them will have an idea, and then the rest of them will just pick up their phones and phone in the same story that they just overheard without actually doing any work on it or any research.” (Online aggregation, anyone?)
What’s also notable is that His Girl Friday and The Front Page’s journalists – even Walter and Hildy (who’s a man in the original play) – aren’t motivated by high-minded goals, or if they are, they keep it to themselves, unlike the blowhards in The Newsroom.
Hildy is as motivated as much by an addiction to the adrenaline of chasing a story as anything, while Walter’s motivations are as diverse as selling more newspapers, currying political favour and, of course, winning back the girl (or guy).
Burns certainly fits the current portrait of what many skeptical of the “mainstream media” imagine an editor to be. “I think the newspaper business is going back to what it was: writing scandalous stories and anything to get people interested in buying papers,” Campbell says. “It’s the same on television, too, isn’t it?”
And yet, unlike in completely cynical recent portrayal of the news business (say, Ken Finkleman’s CBC satire The Newsroom or David Simon’s dark version of The Baltimore Sun in The Wire), there’s still plenty of romance surrounding journalism in His Girl Friday – and the truth does get out in the end.
As George W. Hilton writes in an introduction to an annotated version of The Front Page, “For all of Walter Burns’s preoccupation with circulation and contempt for intellectual honesty, his Examiner has prevented an unspeakable act of political corruption and brought to imminent judgment as contemptible a politician as the nation has ever produced.”
That’s another thing Sorkin doesn’t quite get right in The Newsroom that His Girl Friday does: Self-interest and the public interest aren’t always at odds when it comes to journalism.