I have always had an affinity for newspaper themed films. As a kid in Junior High, I had, for a short period, illusions of being a newspaper reporter. I’m not sure what exactly sparked this interest, but while the desire to be a reporter died my love of films with newspapers/reporters has remained strong. Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, Sam Fuller’s Park Row, Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men, Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday, Alexander MacKendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet, Richard Brooks’ Deadline U.S.A. and more recently Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight are just some of my favorites. As you can tell from this small list, newspaper reporting can be an heroic endeavor or it can be down and dirty, even scandalous.
A forgotten film in this genre is Between the Lines. It was directed by Joan Milken Silver (Head Over Heels, Hester Street) from a screenplay by Fred Baron, based on a story by Baron and David Helpern. By 1977, when this film was released, the counterculture/youth movement was crumbing into a disco haze of white leisure suits and Bee Gees falsettos symbolized by John Travolta strutting down 86th street in Brooklyn eating a double slice of Lenny’s Pizza to the beat of Stayin’ Alive. As Bob Dylan sang in the mid-1960’s, The Times They Are a Changin’…once again. Only this time young people weren’t interested in revolution, protesting or changing the system; there goals were more hedonistic. They only wanted to dance and party.
With the rise of the counterculture in the 1960’s, as well as the Vietnam anti-war movement, the civil rights movement and the feminist movement, underground newspapers representing the growing and influential youth market of the time were beginning to pop up throughout the country. The height of the underground press was from 1965 thru 1973. Some of the most prominent newspapers were the Berkeley Barb, San Francisco Oracle, the Rat (NYC), the Rag (Austin, Texas), the Los Angeles Free Press, the latter generally considered the first underground in the U.S., and the Boston Phoenix. The Phoenix became the model for the fictional Back Bay Mainline in Between the Lines.
The Mainline is losing money. Ad revenue is way down. No one in the organization really cares about making money except the one geek on staff, Stanley (Lewis J. Stadlen); he is the guy in charge of advertising. Stanley is a nerd in a world of hipsters. He gets no respect or is paid much attention to from the rebellious group. Among them are founding member Harry Lucas (John Heard) whose idealism, by 1977, has faded thanks to an apathetic public. Harry has been in an on and off relationship with house photographer Abbie, (Lindsay Crouse). Other members of the paper’s staff include music critic Max Arloft (Jeff Goldblum), Michael (Stephen Collins) another writer for the paper, and a wanna-be novelist, his girlfriend, and a writer herself, Laura (Gwen Welles), David (Bruno Kirby), a newcomer to the staff still trying to get his first big story, Ahmed (Joe Morton), Stanley’s assistant, Lynn (Jill Eikenberry) the paper’s secretary, and Hawker (Michael J. Pollard) whose name says it all. He hawks the paper out in the street.
The film works best as a document of its times, capturing the shabby conditions, the idealistic anti-establishment attitude of the characters, and finally the realization that it’s all about to change; unfortunately the film fails to reach deep down into the idealism of radical movement. It also works as a look at the relationships that developed, and some that unravel. Harry and Abbie were lovers, living together. They split, but it’s not over. Both seems to want it both ways. Michael gets a book contract toward the end of the film, and his self-centered character, which we knew he had all along, spills over when now as a “published author,” he puts down his fellow newspaper colleagues as not real writers. He also practically demands Laura move with him to New York despite her misgivings. Then there is Jeff Goldblum’s music critic. Goldblum almost steals the film from the rest of the cast. Tired of scrounging by on seventy five dollars a week, he demands a raise, which the paper’s editor, Frank (Jon Korkes) tells him the failing paper cannot afford to give him. Later, when Max speaks to a group of students about music, his frustrating financial situation sneaks out, “They say rock and roll is here to stay. But where? Certainly, not at my place, it’s too small!”
Speaking of rock and roll, one of the real highlights of the film is the appearance and performances by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. The Jersey shore band performs two songs during a club scene and are heard doing two other songs on the soundtrack including, I Don’t Want Go Home.
Reality, finally hits the group when a publishing tycoon named Roy Walsh (Lane Smith) arrives and basically announces life at the Back Bay Mainline is about to change. For him, the Mainline is just another newspaper in his empire of newspapers, and the days of anti-establishment and anti-commercialism are over. Anyone who doesn’t like it can leave.
Filmed on location in the Boston/Cambridge areas, this was Joan Milken Silver’s second feature length film. Her first feature was the well-received Hester Street. In between, she made the PBS short, Bernice Bobs Her Hair, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story. Silver and her husband, Raphael formed the independent Midwest Film Productions company and had managed to work outside the Hollywood system. Between the Lines was a launching pad for many in the cast previously mentioned. One cast member I did not make reference to earlier is Marilu Henner. Best remembered for her role as Elaine Nardo in the TV series, Taxi. Henner had a small, and revealing, role as Danielle, a stripper interviewed by John Heard and Lindsay Crouse’s characters. It was Henner’s film debut.