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THE LATE SHIFT, 1996
Movie Review

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THE LATE SHIFT MOVIE POSTER
THE LATE SHIFT, 1996
Movie Reviews

Directed by Betty Thomas
Starring: Kathy Bates, John Michael Higgins, Daniel Roebuck, Bob Balaban, Treat Williams
Review by Matthew Toffolo



SYNOPSIS:

A dramatization of the rivalry to be the successor of Johnny Carson as the host of "The Tonight Show."

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REVIEW:

Back in the day I used to do a side job in the film industry and be what you call a house sitter. For insurance reasons on the days off on a film production there always needs to be somebody present either at the studio or on set on location. So they would hire punks like me to just hang around while no one else was around and 'watch the set'. It didn't pay well but it wasn't like I was actually doing any work. Plus, there was always free food left over by craft services.

So one weekend I had to go to a suburban home and hang out for 12 hours as they were in the midst of shooting some TV movie of the week and the production was using this home as it's main location. I'm sure the family was either sent packing to a far away destination compliments of the production, or at least sitting pretty in a 5 star local hotel. I remember arriving in a rush to relieve the night guy as it was a last minute job from my agency and I was ill-prepared. Usually I brought my writing materials, a radio so I could listen to the ballgame and a book to read. These 12 hours always used to fly by because I kept myself very busy. This time though I was in panick because I brought nothing and if you've got nothing to do and need to kill 12 hours, the time goes extremely slow. I can imagine how prison imates feel.

When I got there I needed to find something to do right away without touching anything. Most of the house was 'HOT', meaning that the set decorators of the film had each room done up for the week's shooting and they would know right away on Monday morning if something was out of place. I couldn't risk losing this no-work job and dare turn on even the television. But I knew I wouldn't be able to make it if I didn't have something to do so I went into one of the owners closets and starting digging. And then I found it.

There was the hardcover book of THE LATE SHIFT buried in the back of a closet. You could tell right away that it hadn't been read as it looked like it was just bought from the book store. Perhaps a gift one of the owners got for Christmas or a birthday and had no interest in reading it. But I most certainly was. Is was a book about a subject I didn't know much at the time about but was very interested. So I opened it and began to read it.

It was almost 12 hours to the minute when I finished the book and my shift was completed. Not bad for a days work.

Now almost 10 years later I watched the film.

The Late Shift on the surface really isn't that interesting of a story. Johnny Carson retires and NBC needs to figure out who it will be to replace him. Either their 12:30am guy, David Letterman, or the guy who has guest hosted Carson for years, Jay Leno? Whoopie do da day. In the grand scheme of life, this really isn't that big of a dilemna. But what made this a page turner of a book and a great adapted film is that the characters are so rich. And it's not necessarily Letterman or Leno. It's their team of handlers and the TV executives making the decisions that will determine where Letterman's and Leno's careers will go. They say in life that it's all about who you hang around with. And it's definitely true in The Late Shift.

Eventhough she basically leaves the movie 2/3rds into it, the character of agent Helen Kushnick (played by Kathy Bates) is the real key to this film. In the first scene we get to know her you think she's just a sweet grandmother type who does for her key client Jay Leno what's not only best for them but what's best for everyone else. Then you find out that she has a bit of a control problem and seeks to instill power over everyone around her when she grasps The Tonight Show for Jay. Leno is potrayed as a hard working nice guy who probably needed someone like Kushnick in order for him to really gain ground in the industry. But the question is raised how far is too far for an agent? Leno seems to be getting screwed by both sides, his agent and the TV execs, while at the same time getting what he's always wanted. A nice compromise that he doesn't seem to mind.

Then there's David Letterman. A bit of an anti-social guy who is only happy when he's doing his show. There's a lot of artists like this in the industry. Many of them suffer from manic-depression and there are many theories for this. One of them is that performing is their drug, just like crack is for someone else. And they need to perform in order to receive their high on life. But when they're not, they are miserable. They are people of extremes never being able to find the balance. And they don't want to either because they think they'll lose their performing edge. So their stuck being happy for an hour a day and miserable the rest of the time.

Letterman is a guy who doesn't really have an agent. But he and his people know he needs one in order for him to gain what he wants: The Tonight Show. Enter super producer Mike Ovitz. A legend in the industry. When Letterman meets him he feels like he's met the Godfather and begins to feel safe for the first time.

In the end they pick one guy over the other because he's easier to control. While the other guy goes to another network and the late night wars really begin.

This is a good movie to see to witness the real birth of late night TV. It was only 1990 when there was just NBC who really had a late night audience. Now every network is in the race and Jay Leno as of this writing is set to move to 10:00pm. The late shift is going primetime.

Good film. This film won Best Director and Best Cinematography, and was nominated for five other categories. The screenwriter was nominated, and rightly so. Taken from a short story that first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1933 by Maurice Walsh, Green Rushes, Frank Nugent was able to weave a story rich in subtext and conflict.

The collector’s edition of the DVD includes an interview with Maureen O’Hara where she reminisces about filming The Quiet Man, and is well worth watching.

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