Switching Channels (1988)
Character Name: Blaine Bingham III
Reviewed by Dawn Jones (firstname.lastname@example.org)
"A rich tycoon obsessed with clothes and the colour of his hair" is the way Christopher Reeve describes in his autobiography the character he plays in this film. Switching Channels is a box office comedy based on the 1920's Broadway play, The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles Mac Arthur about journalism of the printed kind, before computers became available. This play was familiar to Reeve, who after finishing Superman II, returned to the stage after a four year absence to perform The Front Page at the Wiliamstown Theatre Festival. For Switching Channels the play was updated for the 80's where typewriters have been replaced by satellite dishes and cable TV channels. The story is updated by basing it in and around the modern fast paced world of journalism, at the TV studio for SNN news (Satellite Network News), a fictitious network, clearly inspired by CNN (Cable News Network). Reeve's character is a successful businessman and owner of Bingham Industries, an athletic equipment company (look for the governor on a "Bingham" exercise bike). The film was released in cinemas in March 1988 and also includes Burt Reynolds, Kathleen Turner, Ned Beatty (he previously worked with Reeve in Gray Lady Down, Superman: The Movie, and Superman II), and Henry Gibson.
Set in Chicago, Illinois, the film revolves around a love triangle between TV director John L. Sullivan, referred to as Sully (Reynolds), and his ex-wife and most popular journalist with a "nose for news", Christy Colleran (Turner). Completing the triangle is Christy's new found love interest Blaine Bingham (Reeve), who in contrast to Superman has a fear of heights. Having met on vacation and successfully wooed Christy, Blaine falls prey to Sully's humorous attempts to keep him and Christy apart. An underlying story that runs alongside the love triangle involves the fate of Ike Roscoe (Gibson), a gentle criminal, and scheming politician Roy Ridnitz (Beatty) who'd do anything to become governor. As part of his plan to keep Blaine away from Christy, Sully tries to persuade Christy to do a final report in order to try to get greater public interest in the proposed electrocution of Ike Roscoe, and persuade the governor to pardon him.
My favourite scenes in this film of Reeve as Blaine Bingham are when he looks very suave and debonair, but is actually a complete idiot (which is pretty much most of the time!). For example when Christy is on holiday and has hired a small rowing boat to take on the river, she loses the oar and finds herself stranded. Out of nowhere comes Blaine in his own speed boat, cruising along comfortably (operating the boat was no doubt a familiar process to Reeve who first learned to sail at aged 8). When he spots Christy he stops and asks if she needs any help, gesturing to take his hand. She politely accepts and Blaine pulls Christy onto his boat, but not before Christy is literally dunked into the river and quickly pulled out again by Blaine who towel dries a very shocked and wet looking Christy before taking her to dinner. When Christy returns from holiday, she introduces Blaine to the SNN security guard. They're both clearly physically attracted to each other and when a passionate kiss ensues between them before Christy goes to tell Sully of her new relationship, the security guard waves some paper to fan herself, as if to say, "Whew! It's hot in here!" This is just one of the many examples of physical comedy throughout the film from Reeve and other cast members that adds to the comic banter spoken. My other favourite scenes would have to be when Blaine falls prey to Sully's jokes to which he seems completely oblivious. For instance, the scene in which Sully asks about what kind of dye he uses in his hair - Blaine's response is not one of someone who's taken aback by such a remark. Also humorous is when Blaine finally gets a little annoyed with Sully who continually makes snide remarks. However the highlight of the film is the elevator scene in which Reeve as the acrophobic Blaine has a complete panic attack in a glass elevator of a shopping mall. Reeve says about the scene, "My character, Blaine Bingham, is afraid of heights. In one scene, he's in one of those exterior, glass type elevators, when he reaches the 27th floor -- whammo! He goes bonkers. Such a delightful diversion from Superman."
Blaine is not only one of the most amusing characters that Reeve has played, but also the most unique. Reeve says, "Bingham is a deadly combination of someone who is rich, vain, sexy and stupid -- all at the same time. He makes for an amusing character --especially when he falls prey to Sully's connivance to stop him from getting Christy." With blonde hair, shades, and pastel coloured suits Reeve's appearance changes considerably - and he does look incredibly vain and somewhat stupid. Looking back at the film in his autobiography, Reeve's comments are largely negative. About the elevator scene Reeve writes, "Before I knew what was happening I had signed a contract and found myself on location in Toronto making a fool of myself." However he has a charm than wins you over, and it's easy to see why Christy fell for Blaine who gave her much more attention than her ex husband Sully had done over the last few years.
It was originally intended that Michael Caine would play the part of Sully. Having previously worked with Caine in the successful Deathtrap, Reeve was looking forward to working with him again in Switching Channels. However the delayed filming of Jaws IV meant that Caine would not be finished in time for the start of the shooting schedule for Switching Channels, and the role was given to Reynolds.
Shot in 1987 on location in Chicago, Montreal, Toronto, and Miami, the film was directed by Ted Kotcheff and produced by Martin Rasonhoff whose work includes TV series such as, The Beverly Hillbillies and, The Addams Family. Though you would never have guessed it watching the film, Reeve revealed that the atmosphere on set was tense as Turner and Reynolds did not get on well, and so Reeve has the added burden of acting as the referee. He writes, "Trying to be funny while dealing with personal problems and a tense atmosphere on set was absolutely exhausting." The personal problems Reeve was referring to was his separation from long time girlfriend Gae Exton with whom he'd had two children - Matthew and Alexandra, and so he was emotionally fragile. He'd also just finished the not so good Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and had hoped that doing a comedy would cheer him up. With this in mind it's not surprising that Reeve has little fond memories of working on Switching Channels.
When the movie was released at cinemas, it proved unsuccessful. Reeve writes, "At the previews that fall I could tell by the half-hearted response that Switching Channels would go down the drain." Reeve believes that this was due to a number of factors: "Material that was too broadly written, the lack of chemistry between Burt and Kathleen, and my own over exertions in the role of Blaine Bingham III." I think that this statement is a little harsh. Watching the film you would be oblivious to the real life tensions between Reynolds and Turner. If Reeve does over exert himself in the role, it appears part of his character Blaine who is naturally a little "over the top".
The film was released on home video soon after its release at the cinema. I urge you to see this film. If you've enjoyed comedy films produced by Martin Rasonhoff such as Silver Streak, this film is no more disappointing, even if it didn't get good reviews. For me, it was one of the first non-Superman films of Reeve's that I saw (the only other non-Superman work being Sleeping Beauty - but in that film he was still the "hero" of the piece). Switching Channels is definitely a favourite Reeve film of mine. Blaine Bingham was one of the few comedy roles for film that Reeve took. Seeing this film for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised to find Reeve playing a completely different character to that of Clark etc. And it really was amusing to see this actor I'd always thought of as Superman with blonde hair, playing a character that went out of his way to charm a TV journalist (Turner). Later, when catching more of his work on TV, and reading Still Me, I would learn of the diverse range of characters that Reeve has played both on stage and on screen.
The Reeve character is unnecessary much of the time, but Reeve has fun with it anyway, with his floppy tailored suits, his newly blond hair and his willingness to accommodate the obviously derailed Turner. Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, March 4, 1988.
Christopher Reeve brings a nice macho wimpitude to the role of her new beau-he's Clark Kent with a preening attitude. Richard Corliss, TIME, March 14, 1988.
The joker in the cast is Christopher Reeve, in the Ralph Bellamy role as the square, the outsider who doesn't know how the news people feel about their work. Reeve's entire performance is slapstick: he's like Clark Kent sexed up. Blaine is so infatuated with the image of himself as hip, wired man of the world that he dresses romantically in pale blue and yellow, and has his hair colored Mellow Sun Tone. Reeve sustains this foppish stunt, and his jerky, rattled movements are neatly timed. Pauline Kael, The New Yorker, March 21, 1988.
The acting adds little. Yuppie jokes are aimed at Reeve, but he flattens them by personifying too aptly the banality of his character. Tom O'Brien, Commonweal, April 22, 1988.
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