As a young boy growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey, James L. Brooks had a very curious prediction for how his life might pan out. "I had a specter that I would end up selling women's shoes," he confesses. "I don't know what put it in my mind, but people think they'll end up in a gutter — I thought I'd end up on my knees in a woman's shoe store."
Instead, he ended up in New York City working as a news writer. He eventually made his way to Los Angeles and briefly worked on documentaries. Then, "One New Year's Eve, when I was unemployed," Brooks recounts, "I ran into a guy. And when I said, 'I want to write for television,' it happened to be Allan Burns, who got me my first job, just because that's Allan Burns for you."
After a decade in television, Brooks had his first feature script produced: 1979's Starting Over, which was directed by three-time Oscar nominee Alan J. Pakula. "The second day, I got banned from the set, because if I thought the actors were doing it wrong, I'd visually react to it," he recalls with a chuckle. "I was just this scared, manic creature on the set. So, he correctly banned me from it with a great sentence; he said, 'Jim, when you direct, you don't have to know everything, but you need the illusion that you do.' He was great to me, because he let me be a part of the editing, and then he recommended me for Terms of Endearment when the job was offered to him. I owe him a lot."
For 1983's Terms of Endearment, Brooks' feature directorial debut, he won three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. (Stars Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson won Oscars for Best Actress in a Leading Role and Best Actor in a Supporting Role, respectively.) Brooks earned additional nominations for writing and producing 1987's Broadcast News and 1997's As Good as It Gets, as well as for producing 1996's Jerry Maguire. At age 83, he is still producing — including this year's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. — and will soon direct his first film in more than a decade.
Brooks' films have ended up on Top 5s from the likes of Hong Chau, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Aaron Sorkin, and Justine Triet. As A.frame points out to him that two of the films that get mentioned the most on here are Federico Fellini's 8½ and Brooks' Broadcast News, the filmmaker jokes, "Oh, man! That's almost like being in the same sentence with Fellini, isn't it?"
Below, Brooks shares his own Top 5.
Directed by: Sidney Lumet | Written by: Paddy Chayefsky
Paddy Chayefsky was one of the few screenwriters in history to have power over his films. There was an instance where he fired the director [Arthur Penn], and then I think he tried to fire the second director, and they didn't let him do that! But he was a beautiful writer. That was the Golden Age of Television, when words were words, and then he did Network, and Network stone-cold saw the future.
It's amazing. The female lead — it's hard to call her a heroine — in the picture was a woman that you never saw before. When I first saw it, I recoiled; I thought it was too farcical. Then suddenly that gal started to turn up in real life. It was brilliant, and the speeches were brilliant, and it's a great example of what happens when the writer's in charge.
Directed by: William Friedkin | Written by: Ernest Tidyman
I think The French Connection still has the greatest chase scene ever. That counts! Everybody wants to do a great chase scene, and this is the best ever. I knew Billy Friedkin a little personally, because he came to Chicago as a documentarian and we were briefly in the same documentary house. He was a wunderkinder, and he was electric, and he used to say about an audience, 'You got to put them on the high dive.' He did that.
He was an artist. His first picture starred Sonny and Cher, and then this guy pulls out The French Connection. And 50 years from now, people will still be looking at that movie. It's the thing where the director's talent is so much in evidence for the actors to do some of their best work, so that it's a nuclear explosion, all of it.
Directed by: Woody Allen | Written by: Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman
I remember I saw that movie with a group of people who were all comedy writers, and we didn't know what to do with ourselves afterward! It was like we were sort of stunned and in awe that that picture happened. Forget comedy, it was the best romance — and that picture didn't forget comedy.
Written and Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Any list of the bests has to have a PTA film in it. I arbitrarily picked There Will Be Blood, but every time he's at bat, it's only a pleasure. There's no one quite like him. I think he's in a class by himself, to use a cliché correctly. There Will Be Blood blew me away, as virtually everything he does does to me. Extraordinary performances. It's aggressive. He knows what he wants, he gets what he wants, and he doesn't let you forget it for a minute. It's just great.
Directed by: William Wyler | Written by: Robert E. Sherwood
The Best Years of Our Lives is a real old one that maybe won a dozen Academy Awards or something like that. [It won 7, including Best Picture.] It was a post-World War II picture which was so honoring of the returning warriors, and it was multiple stories. It started with all of them on the same transport coming home, and you had people who were physically damaged and emotionally damaged by the war they'd just been in, and it was so human. You walked out of that movie like it was the best church service you've ever been at. It was a picture that was so good, about something so vivid, and it honored that in a way that you couldn't imagine.