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  • Benjamin May

The Late Shift (1996) Review

It is 1991 and rumors abound that Johnny Carson will soon retire from hosting The Tonight Show. It is clear to the NBC executives and decision makers that there are only two men in the running to replace him: David Letterman and Jay Leno. Both men want the job, and have their winning qualities: Letterman is Carson's personal favorite, considered a more adventurous comic talent and something of the heir apparent. Leno, on the other hand, skews to a wider audience and is easier for the executives to manipulate. A bitter business battle erupts over who will take over the show, full of seedy behind the scenes machinations and corporate backstabbing; presented for your viewing pleasure in Betty Thomas' 'The Late Shift.'


Based on Bill Carter's non-fiction book of the same name, 'The Late Shift' is a fascinating, informative and entertaining peek behind the show-business curtain at a very turbulent time in television history. The narrative is tense and thrilling, exposing the cutthroat world of T. V in a satirical way which recalls Sidney Lumet's 'Network,' while still adhering to the facts. The film also features well-rounded versions of many real-world figures, from Letterman and Leno to Warren Littlefield and Michael Ovitz.

The film's versions of Letterman and Leno are particularly interesting and multi-faceted. The screenplay takes a stab at explaining their reasons behind wanting The Tonight Show, and tries to show us the 'real people' behind the entertainers. Ed McMahon used to joke that whenever he was approached by fans, the first question he was asked was always "what's Johnny Carson really like?" While the film can't and doesn't show us what Letterman and Leno are really like- or Carson, for that matter- their cinematic caricatures as written seem to be close enough to the real thing as to be memorable and impressive.


On the other hand, the dialogue often drifts into the expository, and some moments feel melodramatic; particularly those of a confrontational nature. Mac Ahlberg's cinematography is nothing to write home about either, appearing flat and dull. While it is a T. V movie- and therefore one's expectations should be lowered when it comes to visuals- there's no excusing generic work. On this point, the prosthetic make-up used for Leno is distractingly amateur in appearance, making the character look quite ridiculous and cartoonish.

Daniel Roebuck's performance as Leno is less ridiculous, but still rather cartoonish. Setting aside the awful make-up, Roebuck hasn't got Leno's voice right, and sounds like a bad impressionist on the Howard Stern show. He says his lines with conviction but without Leno's speech patterns or timing. Additionally, he plays the man as if he were a little slow; which seems a bit of a strange choice. As time goes by, you settle into the performance somewhat, and Roebuck isn't terrible; he just doesn't deliver a notable or accurate interpretation of Leno.


With John Michael Higgins, it's a different story. He is pitch-perfect as Letterman; he's got the voice, the look and the mannerisms down flawlessly. It is arguably one of the finest, most accurate portrayals of a real person ever in film. He plays Letterman as a work-obsessed, slightly neurotic hypochondriac- but one with charm and wit a-plenty. The film may be slightly biased towards Letterman, and chances are you will be too after watching it; due in large part to Higgins' commanding performance.

Of the supporting cast, Kathy Bates and Treat Williams must be mentioned. Bates plays Leno's manager, Helen Kushnick, a manipulative, vicious businesswoman with no morals and a mouth like a sailor. She is terrific, giving a wild performance that justly won her a Golden Globe that year for Best Supporting Actress. Williams plays Michael Ovitz- a sleek agent who takes Letterman on as his client- and is brilliant; smooth and calculated like a coiled, corporate cobra ready to strike. Of note to some may be Rich Little, who does a cameo as Johnny Carson, which is thankfully brief, as it is embarrassingly, jarringly inaccurate.


'The Late Shift' is an interesting, informative made-for-T. V-movie concisely recounting the infamous Late-Night Wars of the early 90's. Featuring fine performances from the likes of John Michael Higgins and Kathy Bates, the film rockets along at a brisk pace, providing entertainment all the way. While Daniel Roebuck's performance as Leno and the cinematography leaves a bit to be desired, the film is still wildly entertaining; showing us the dog-eat-dog world of showbusiness in a clever, frank way. In short, 'The Late Shift' is a made for T. V gift.


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