Tuesday, July 4

Good 70s Films: Network

1976 Drama
From MGM
Directed by Sidney Lumet

Faye Dunaway
William Holden
Peter Finch
Robert Duvall
Beatrice Straight
Ned Beatty
Wesley Addy
William Prince

I can remember when folks thought no studio would undertake the production of this movie.  And later they claimed it would never be shown on television.  Well, they were proven to be mistaken but what few would have predicted is that 41 years later we in America are living its truth.

If you don't already know, let me deliver the glad tidings:  this is one of the most beautifully written screenplays we could ever hope to see and one that sends out a powerful message. It features acting that is the stuff of dreams.  Had there been a SAG awards show in 1976, this group would easily have won for best ensemble. I would have given an Oscar to every one of them but luckily three did come away with gold statuettes... only one of two films, I believe, to claim this honor.  I am about as close as I could be to claiming Network as the best film of the entire decade although I frankly admit that my objectivity here vanished many years ago.

Paddy Chayefsky beat up the television industry with a screenplay that focuses on a failing network that monstrously exploits the mental breakdown of one of its anchors so that it can increase its shares and ratings. Naysayers of the day found the screenplay preposterous but one doesn't need to be terribly media-savvy today to know that what Paddy had to say has come true.  It was scary then and it's scary now.

Both Chayesfsky and director Sidney Lumet were there in the bosom of early television. And while both had much success, they were critical, if not cynical, of how things were turning out. Each saw the medium as having a great ability and responsibility to inform, instruct, educate and yes, entertain. Each also thought television wasted its enormous potential by focusing on sitcoms, game shows and mindless cop, lawyer and doctor dramas.  One needn't pause too long to wonder how they would have felt about today's reality TV, the handing out of red roses, The Duck Dynasty, all those shows with herds of children in their households and, lest we forget, the Kardashians.   Do we have time for Jerry Springer and Glenn Beck or hearing you are not the father?  

Chayefsky wanted to write about the real elephant in the room... corporate greed and the dumbing down of America.  He knew he had to develop a plot that was audacious if not outrageous to secure the attention of the masses to show them how gullible they are and how they are being led down the proverbial path that strips them of their individuality.

The great writer gives us anchorman Howard Beale (Finch) who is in a bad way.  His ratings keep slipping, his wife has died, he has no children, his drinking has increased. Now his friend, the head of the news division, Max Schumacher (Holden), tells him that he's going to be fired.  As they drown their sorrows at the local watering hole, Howard asks for one more show to say goodbye and Max capitulates, sans corporate approval.  As a result Max is fired.

Melancholy as ever, Howard tells Max he's going to blow his brains out on his 7 p.m. broadcast.  Max doesn't believe him and before long Howard has a plan... he will kill himself at the end of the week.  He will keep his public abreast of his comings and goings. As he does so, his ratings increase, attracting the attention of management.

Howard's message has gone from strident to apparent lunacy. The worse he gets, the higher his ratings. The network, UBS, starts to see some revenue, its bills are getting paid and it's being talked about.  Before it's over for Howard, he ends his ravings by nightly fainting on the air.  He is called the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves as he counsels listeners to wake up.  He tells them the news is bullshit, that they're being duped and manipulated.  He chastises them for being stupid and easy.  He encourages them, in full manic and panic mode, to get up, go to the window and stick your head out and yell I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore.  

(While we're at it, the line has become one of the most famous in movie history.  Who hasn't said I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore?  Why just the other day I heard an irritable person say it on some cable network.  Imagine.  The American Film Institute lauds it the 19th most famous movie line of all time.)

Max is rehired by UBS' chairman of the board, Ruddy (Prince), who was also the man who fired him.  He wants Max to fight with him against Hackett (Duvall), the mouthpiece for the corporation, whom neither of them likes or trusts.  Hackett wants Beale off the air.

That is until production chief Diana Christensen (Dunaway) tells Hackett about the increased shares and ratings.  That is all he cares about.  On a nightly basis Howard tells his audience that Hackett is one of the men he's warning them about.  Diana knows UBS must do something audacious.  She wants to use Howard for all he's worth and is at the ready to discard him when his ratings go down... and she knows they will.  She makes it known that she also wants a series focusing on a terrorist group and hopes to show actual bank robberies, bombing bridges, kidnapping heiresses, assassinating ambassadors. She wants to broadcast apocalyptic doom.  The American public wants someone to articulate its rage, she admonishes.  What one is immediately immersed in about Diana is how ambitious, calculating and totally heartless she is.  

Max deeply cares about running the news division with some integrity and doesn't care much about ratings and shares.  That thinking makes him a liability.  It always seemed to me he wouldn't have had an affair with Diana; he seemed too smart to not know there was not only no future with her, there wasn't much present either.

Max had been told he is to run the news division himself but Diana tells him that if he doesn't work with her on Howard's show, she will take it over herself.  Max says he won't work with her and when Ruddy dies around this time, Hackett fires Max for good.

Some critics of Network have said it didn't have vivid dialogue as much as its characters gave speeches. I won't argue the point because I see that a couple of them are speeches... and needed to be. I never got hung up on speeches or not but absorbed  the breadth and brilliance of the words and the emotions that kick up in me when I hear them.  Holden is involved in most of these important scenes with  all of the key players.  Dunaway, Finch and Beatrice Straight all won Oscars for Network and they had no scenes with one another.

Holden's goodbye to Dunaway is, in fact, a speech and it's one we'd all wish we could handle so well if in a similar situation. At the end of it, as he stands over her as she lay on the bed... You're madness. There is nothing in you that I can live with.  TV incarnate, indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy.  All in life is reduced to
the common rubble of banality.

There has arguably not been an admission-of-cheating scene played more beautifully than when Holden tells Straight as his regal but deeply upset wife that he's in love with another woman.  It is perhaps the most personal moment of the film.  I was so taken in by this scene and perhaps so were Academy voters since they gave a relatively-unknown Straight a supporting Oscar for a total of about five minutes screen time. Watching and listening to her rake Holden over the coals for his betrayal is nothing short of stunning. It just blows me away... still.

A little backstory on that magnificent scene: Lumet said Chayefsky dogged him all over the sets, usually offering solid advice.  But when it came to the Holden-Straight scene, Lumet told the writer, hold on, I can handle this one.  I've been divorced more times than you have.

Howard hasn't killed himself, much to Diana's and Hackett's dismay, and worse, his ratings have slipped.  Ned Beatty, as the big corporate money man, feels the need to step in and counsel Howard with the granddaddy of the few truths being told... it's all about money and nothing, he screeches, else.  He fearsomely tells a stunned and mute Howard you have meddled with the primal forces of nature and (louder) you will atone.  (It is an engrossing segment and in its weightiness, Beatty nabbed an Oscar nod for another five-minute role.)

Howard, his madness now in full bloom, returns to the air with newly-relished invectives.  He's going to step the pace up a bit.  He tells Max he knows he is imbued with a special spirit.  He has, he postures, entered an electromagnetic field and is on the verge of some great truth.  

He rages on air about TV being a circus, a carnival, a football network.  He denounces its rampant philistinism and says it's about everything but the truth and is trafficking in allusion.  After a brief comment or two about America and democracy, he advises there is no America or democracy... just IBM, ITT, AT&T, DuPont, Dow Chemical, Exxon. Screaming out that the world is a business, he asks plaintively, what happened to simple human decency?  

Howard's audiences like that his rantings inflame them. They
want to be mad as hell but this new Howard takes away their hope and they react in the worst way possible.  They stop tuning in. The ratings plummet and the equally-vicious Diana and Hackett decide on a new course. Howard will have to be assassinated... on the air, of course. 

And he is.

The End.

As one of my favorite actors ever and one of the best, I think Holden should have won the Oscar for best actor for Network.  Yes, I realize that Finch won for his showier role and it is deserved but Holden's performance is rich with nuance and his gift for such
natural likability is ever present.  His character is the only one that bends and certainly the only one who offers any hope. He is the solidifying spark plug, the conscience of the piece, the voice of reason.   Holden transfers his amiability to Max who is a grownup Boy Scout, smart, honorable, sensitive and still provides a glow of sexual magnetism.  It was the actor's last great film.  It is also the last of the nine films he appeared in that were Oscar-nominated for best picture. That's quite a record.

I have always loved my Holden anecdotes (and there are so many). He thought it was a hoot that he and fellow alcoholic Finch were given a drunk scene to start the film.  He was originally offered the role of Howard Beale but preferred playing Max Schumacher.  He went public about his ill feelings toward Dunaway when they made The Towering Inferno two years earlier and was more publicly expressive about liking her on this movie and complimentary of her talents.  As Max he delivered a stirring lesson on the indecency of cheating when Holden himself was a life-long, very public philanderer. Finally, when Max and Diana are having one of their better moments, she refers to their many-splendored night, an obvious allusion to the actor's monster 1955 hit, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.  Thanks, Paddy, that was cute.

Dunaway shows what she's quite capable of doing when the restraints are lifted.  This actress understands Diana Christensen perhaps like no other she's brought to life. This is a character who freely admits all she really has is her job and she offers that she does it quite well.  She has no man, no kids, no pets, no hobbies. She concedes she's a bum lay and later proves it, aboard Max in bed, taking a brief moment to scream out a quick orgasm, all the while telling him all she wants out of life is a 30 share and a 20 rating.  Throughout the film, Dunaway, eyes sparkling and moving like a panther, delivers frenzy and whirling dervish with such an astonishing flourish that her not winning an Oscar would have been simply unthinkable. The actress has enjoyed a handful of stunning performances but this one, for me, goes to the top.

Like Holden, with whom he formed a mutual admiration, Finch turned in many wonderful performances and his Howard Beale is unquestionably one of his finest moments. He knew he was not first choice but I cannot imagine anyone better.  After both performers were nominated for best actor, Holden said he knew Finch would win.  Finch wanted it badly, too... this kind of recognition after a long career... but he would never know he won because he died shortly before the telecast.

Fourth-billed Duvall brought forth another of his memorable characters.  There is some great yelling in this film and Duvall's Frank Hackett can stand proudly among them.  I think of him as every bit a corporate Santini. I thought Duvall's name should have been among the best-supporting actors. 

Character actor Prince was his usual steely self, a noble successor to former character actor, George Macready (Gilda's husband). Wesley Addy is a put-upon, lower-rank executive who points out that the debacle of Howard's show violates every canon of respectable broadcasting and is told by Hackett that we're not respectable, we're a whorehouse.

Helping give Network its authenticity is the behind-the-scenes realism especially in the newsroom scenes.  I clearly got that if you want stress in your job, this is the field for you.  The business scenes were all done in documentary-style and while done in color, they felt black and white.  

Network was nominated for 10 Oscars. Aside from the winners and nominees mentioned so far in this peace, Chayefsky also won and Lumet, Owen Roizman (cinematography), Alan Keim (editing) and the film itself were nominated.

In 2006 the Writers Guild of America honored Chayefsky's screenplay as one of the 10 best in American history. 

In 1964, the American Film Institute ranked Network as the 64th greatest film of all time. That's very sweet, but it should be higher. There are so many of us who think that the failure of the Oscar voters to not bestow its best picture award to this great film is one of their most egregious errors.  And of course it's especially horrifying considering they did name Rocky.  Sometimes these people don't know great when it sits down next to them.

As for the parallels to American life today, it would be ludicrous to deny them. Just for starters Chayefsky wrote about madness, lies and liars, money-loving corporations that run the government, disregard for the masses, public betrayal by the powerful, attempts to stage-manage the news, ramblings by delusional public officials, talk of Russia, dishonor, meanness, bleakness and more that I'm forgetting. Some say Chayefsky wrote this as a scathing satire.  It doesn't feel so satirical although it is scathing and it certainly is prophetic.  If one finds Network too depressing, try waking up and looking around you.  Isn't it time for all of us to open those windows?  Note the first two words on the above poster. Take a look at Network. It's your guide book to tomorrow.

Aaron Sorkin, no stranger to political and/or insightful writing, has opined that Chayefsky and his script for Network have been a major inspiration for his own writing.  Sorkin once wrote no predictor of the future-- not even Orwell-- has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote Network.  

Next posting:

1 comment:

  1. Rocky for god's sake! Give me the proverbial break!
    Keith C.