Director Brooks knows romance
When Reese Witherspoon feels her love life is veering off track, rather than call a girlfriend, she turns to 70-year-old director James L. Brooks for guidance.
“He’s been a really great confidante and is really caring and interested in people’s lives,’’ the actress says during an interview at a hotel. “I tell him a lot and he gives me romantic advice, especially when I’m dating. He has a wealth of knowledge about romantic dynamics and I don’t know where it comes from.’’
It could stem from more than four decades of guiding fictional women through rocky personal and professional terrain. Brooks created “The Mary Tyler Moore Show’’ and “Rhoda’’ in the ’70s and went on to write and direct several films, including “Broadcast News,’’ “Terms of Endearment,’’ and “As Good as It Gets.’’ So who better to dish with than the man who walked Mary through countless dates, finally found Rhoda a husband, and, in “Broadcast News,’’ helped Holly Hunter’s character understand that her career would always be her first love? Brooks, who wrote and directed “How Do You Know,’’ which opens Friday, says he spends a lot of time thinking about romance, so he’s happy to share his perspective. In fact, in his latest film, he makes the case that in the face of life’s uncertainties and pitfalls, love has become an increasingly important commodity.
“Everybody went to war on our ability to trust, so I think the last stand is, ‘honey, give me your hand,’ ’’ he says in his hotel suite last week. “The truth is people are so afraid to make sentimental films, but the point of this film is true. It’s the fact that really bad things can happen to you and the right person can walk through the door and make things better. The problem remains large, but your spirit rises and the problem shifts in position a little. It doesn’t quite occupy center stage and I think that’s true and romantic.’’
The film revolves around a love triangle made up of Lisa (Witherspoon), a professional softball player who has just been cut from the team; Matty (Owen Wilson), a shallow but well-intentioned major league baseball player; and George (Paul Rudd), a straight-laced, neurotic businessman who has been accused of a crime he did not commit. George’s relationship with his father, Charles (Jack Nicholson), is fraught with professional and personal conflict.
While making the film Brooks came to understand that the relentless training and pain female athletes endure could cause women to shunt aside their emotional needs. Witherspoon’s character, he says, is a cautionary tale of what women lose in their quest to compete.
“I’ve done other things where the woman needed to believe in herself and have drive and fight everything that was against her, but that was at the height of feminism, when you just needed to be strong and march forward,’’ Brooks says. “But, in that march, something got threatened. I think strong and vulnerable seem counterintuitive, but you need both to survive as a woman.’’
For a guy, Brooks sure spends a lot of time pondering the plight of women, which he doesn’t find surprising given his background. His father was an alcoholic who was in and out of his life until leaving permanently when Brooks was 12.
“I was raised primarily by women,’’ Brooks says. “I had a mother who almost killed herself to survive, I had a sister who was eight years older who was like a second mother, and my mother had two sisters. In the environment I grew up in, I heard a lot of female perspectives.’’
And what he didn’t learn from listening, he learned from research. He honed his investigative skills when he created “Room 222,’’ a groundbreaking television series about an integrated Los Angeles high school with an interracial faculty. The show ran from 1969 to 1974.
“Research didn’t mean hanging out at school for a week,’’ says Brooks. “Research means you go back to the school over months and months and months and talk to people. You have to earn the right to tell their story because you’ve spent that kind of time researching. It’s my favorite part of the process.’’
When preparing to make “Terms of Endearment,’’ his 1983 film about the contentious relationship between a single mother (Shirley MacLaine) and her grown daughter (Debra Winger) stricken with breast cancer, he says he spent months talking to single mothers in Houston, where the film is set.
“I found out specifics — the phone calls were everything,’’ Brooks says. “The fact that mothers and daughters talk to each other three times a day, even when they’re not getting along, is remarkable. “
But even the most sensitive male feminist needs some male-bonding projects every now and then. So in 1978, after spending years at MTM Enterprises, which produced “Mary Tyler Moore,’’ “Rhoda,’’ and “Phyllis,’’ Brooks and some other MTM veterans left to create their own production company, where they developed “Taxi,’’ which ran from 1978 to 1983. The Emmy-winning show, which starred Judd Hirsch, Danny DeVito, and Christopher Lloyd, depicted the lives of New York City cab drivers.
“The purest joyous professional experience I ever had was ‘Taxi,’ ’’ Brooks says. “We loved every second of it as we lived every second of it — it wasn’t just in retrospect. It was a great company of actors and we were all the right age for it. I had just come off of these women shows, so it was a very conscious decision on my part to do a predominantly male show.’’
High praise indeed from a man who seems to find pure joy in virtually everything he does. He makes films with relative infrequency, which on the one hand frustrates him and on the other allows him to embrace each project and character he creates. His last film, “Spanglish’’ (2004), was a critical failure, which frustrates Brooks immensely. One of his greatest professional disappointments was that audiences seemed to despise the wealthy woman played by Tea Leoni, a character he says was actually vulnerable but misunderstood.
“He is almost ego-less in a way — he just wants what’s best for his characters,’’ says Kathryn Hahn, who plays George’s nurturing, pregnant secretary in “How Do You Know.’’ “And, because he loves his characters so much, you feel like he’s fallen for you — that there’s a reason you’re there and not somebody else. Just to be under the wing of that kind of faith gives you such freedom.’’
Although Brooks doesn’t know what his next project will be, he says he’ll probably stay clear of romance for a while.
“I’ve been thinking about love and romance for four years now so I’ll probably do something else,’’ he says. “Of course there’s always an element of it — male/female relationships are not just a concept for me.’’
As for his own relationship status, the twice-divorced, self-described incurable romantic says he’s been with someone for a while.
“I’m working on it,’’ says Brooks, who creates his own real-life laugh track. “You can’t let that part of you stop existing. Yes, things change, but you’ve still got to believe in true love.’’
It sounds like he might just make it after all.