If you think extremist talk radio is a relatively new phenomenon, the release of the 1970 film WUSA on DVD by Olive Films shows just how far back the not-so-grand tradition goes. The notion of reaching out to the fringe elements of society is well-documented here, with Paul Newman as a down-and-out musician with some broadcasting experience who sells his soul by taking a job as a DJ on right wing extremist radio station WUSA in New Orleans. Newman knows he's being used as a pawn for white supremicist tycoon Pat Hingle, but willingly accepts the fame and fortune that he receives when his star begins to rise - despite personally despising the words he reads on the air. In between playing cornporn patriotic ballads, Newman's character, known as Rheinhardt, spouts incendiary rhetoric designed to empower racists who want to combat expansion of the welfare state. Along the way, he hooks up with sexy-as-hell Joanne Woodward, playing an equally down-and-out woman whose fortunes have declined so badly that she is rejected when she applies to be a stripper. If the film seems especially harsh on the right wing fringe, liberals aren't spared, either. Anthony Perkins plays a stereotypical do-gooder, a true believer that LBJ's war on poverty would result in the establishment of his Great Society. What he fails to realize is that he, too, is being used as a dupe by community leaders who are secretly being paid off by WUSA management. Thus, both the forces of right and left collaborate to ensure inertia among opportunities for the impoverished.
British quad poster.
The film is directed by Stuart Rosenberg, reuniting with Newman after their success with Cool Hand Luke several years earlier. Rosenberg makes fine use of the New Orleans locations, with most of the action set in the seamy underbelly of the town. (Though there is a major sequence filmed inside the old Playboy club, replete with bunnys spilling out of their costumes). Newman's Rheinhardt is a self-loathing individual who surrounds himself by burned out hippies (Don Gordon among them, cast against type), floozies and beat poets who mouth pretentious gibberish. With all these misfits and miscreants sittin' around drinkin', sweatin' and screwin' in the Big Easy, you half expect Tennesse Williams to pop up in a supporting role.
The film boasts a first rate supporting cast that includes Laurence Harvey (terrific as a corrupt fire-and-brimstone Evangelist preacher), Cloris Leachman, Michael Anderson Jr., Moses Gunn, Wayne Rogers, Clifton James and future horror film star Robert Quarry. Despite receiving prominent billing, Bruce Cabot is bafflingly under-used and relegated to a cameo with one line of dialogue. The overall impact of the movie is unsatisfying on most levels. Robert Stone's screenplay is all over the place and as the story meanders, it becomes less interesting to follow. There are few sympathetic figures to relate to. Newman's cynicism toward life and the people around him is so unrelentingly heartless that it undermines the considerable power of his performance. It's perhaps the most unlikeable character he's ever played. He's always portrayed loveable rogues, but there is nothing admirable about Rheinhardt. The one pure character in the film is Perkins' social worker, but he seems to be channeling every neurotic tic from Norman Bates' closet. When he realizes he has been used as a pawn, even his character goes over the top in a finale at a political event that had to be inspired by The Manchurian Candidate - especially since Laurence Harvey is present. Also undermining the central thesis is that, while we are constantly told how dangerous and evil the WUSA broadcasts are, we never hear anything but the most benign examples. What passes for outrageous in this movie wouldn't keep one member of Rush Limbaugh's audience transfixed for more than a second.
Despite its flaws, WUSA is intriguing to watch, if only because of all the talent involved - and in particular, Woodward's excellent performance. It's easy to understand the cynicism of the movie, if one takes into consideration the turbulent times in which it was made. It still has relevance today, when so many people on both sides of the political spectrum are content to get their "news" from propaganda outlets that are short on fact and long on rhetoric; where nuance and objectivity are considered disposable concepts and a politician who deliberates instead of making knee-jerk decisions is considered "weak". These folks are perfectly happy to be used as gullible dupes by modern day Elmer Gantrys who stand in front of a flag and mouth loud, if meaningless platitudes about patriotism, even as they mask some pretty chilling prescriptions for fixing society. WUSA captures this phenomenon quite effectively and the movie still has something to say. The problem is that it takes a long and twisted road to say it.