Just learned earlier this week that The New York Daily News cut its news staff by 50 percent, from 80 reporters and editors to 40. It’s a sad day for New York, the surrounding boroughs and the tri-state, because the city’s unique and irreverent voice, already decimated in recent years due to a harsh economy, is being stifled all the more.
It’s not that they always got it right, but there were those oh-so great headlines one could never forget: “Ford to NYC: Drop Dead,” or the latest from just last week: “Open Treason: Trump backs enemy Putin over U.S. intel.”
News reporters there write/wrote with flair and style; one has no other choice when you’re working copy length is 200 to 300 words. As a journalist, what defines you is what you do in painting a portrait with a palette of key and concise words. For many, the easel has now been removed and the choice of pastels and watercolors with an unconscionable stroke brushed aside. My heart goes out to them. I’ve been there and done that more times than I care to remember and it’s heartbreaking, each and every time.
It doesn’t take much to tell a story with just a few words to create a haunting, lasting and defining image. Just talent, experience, insight and a whole lot of tenacity.
Think of acting. Some actors are known for long-winded monologues, others could carry an emotional scene with just a line of dialogue and a sublime or penetrating look in their eyes.
Take Spencer Tracy, in my opinion, the greatest actor of his day and who today remains unsurpassed. In the film “Pat and Mike,” with Katharine Hepburn, she plays a tennis star and he’s a shady sports promoter. He takes her to a major league baseball game and in one memorable scene, she’s taken aback by the capacity crowds and the jeers directed at the ball players.
“I can’t believe the size of the crowd,” she says at one point. “Don’t these people have jobs to go to?” Tracy half smiles and shrugs his shoulders. “They’re all attending their grandfather’s funeral,” he responds.
In the classic film “Bad Day at Black Rock,” directed by John Sturges, Tracy portrays a maimed Army veteran visiting a remote, hole-in-the wall Arizona town, once home to a Japanese-American soldier killed in action while saving his life. He is far from welcomed in this dusty place where all the inhabitants bear an unforgivable secret. Tracy’s character has use of only one arm. When he checks in at the town’s only hotel, he asks for a pack of cigarettes from the desk clerk. Tracy, while doing his lines, deftly removes the top cellophane and metal foil using his good hand and his teeth, withdraws a cigarette with his pursed lips and then, reaching into his pocket for a pack of matches, draws one out, folds it back and strikes the match with nimble fingers. All the while, the dialogue is not lost, only given more emphasise due to the character’s determination.
It’s said that Tracy practiced that effort for two solid weeks to make it look second nature for the character he portrayed. At the start of filming, he reported to the MGM wardrobe department where he was issued a new, blue pinstriped suit. He immediately balked, noting that his character was down on his luck and just getting by. Tracy drove to a second-hand shop in downtown Los Angeles where he found an ill-fitting suit with worn, shiny elbows and trouser seat to match. It worked. Just a small detail that always goes unnoticed. His worn fedora was his own favorite hat that had its own character.
What’s the point? It’s all in the details, those said and unsaid, those seen and unseen: For a writer or an actor, it’s about accuracy and setting the mood to tell the story with few words and a memorable impact that leaves a reader or viewer pondering the message for days, weeks, months and even years to come.
Hats off to you Spencer, and all those at The New York Daily News who plied their craft with resolve, little thanks and still made it look easy.