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Network (1976)

March 30th, 2007 · 3 Comments

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Howard Beale (Peter Finch) – network news anchorman for “UBS TV,” whose viewer shares have declined in recent years – receives word from the president of the news division, Max Schumacher (William Holden) that he’s to be fired effective in two weeks. The old friends get “properly pissed,” and at the bar, Beale tells Max that “I’m going to blow my brains out right on the air, right in the middle of the six o’clock news.” Max tells him he’ll get a hell of a rating, “a fifty share, easy.”

But sure enough, Beale tells viewers that he’s going blow his brains out on the air next Tuesday. Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), a spineless hatchet man for the conglomerate who owns UBS, conducts damage control. Hackett infuriates Max when he hauls him in front of a shareholders meeting and announces that management is putting his news division under corporate control.

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Max permits Beale to go back on TV for a dignified farewell, where Beale launches into an obscenity laden tirade. Max lets him continue, and Beale goes out live to 67 affiliates. Max is fired, but an entertainment producer named Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) with the ambition of a laser beam notifies Hackett that the show shot to a 27 share:

“Howard Beale went up there last night and said what every American feels, that he’s tired of all the bullshit! He’s articulating a popular rage.” Diana thinks they should put Beale back on the air and keep him on. Hackett sees the potential to turn out a hit for the last place network, and Max is retained to produce the show.

Beale goes on the air and urges viewers to respond to the ills of society by getting up, going to the window and yelling “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” The Howard Beale Show becomes the fourth highest rated show on television, “Surpassed only by The Six Million Dollar Man, All In The Family and Phyllis, a phenomenal state of affairs for a news show.”

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Max refuses to continue to exploit Howard for ratings and is fired. He later bumps into Diana, and the two begin an affair. Beale is awarded his own news/variety hour, but runs afoul with management when he rails against the impending sale of the conglomerate which owns the network to a consortium of banks and insurance companies, which he prophesizes will endanger American democracy.

Beale is summoned before the CEO, Mister Jensen (Ned Beatty), who launches into his own gospel. He convinces Beale that there’s no such thing as America, or democracy, “There is only IBM and ITT, and AT&T, and Dupont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of today.”

The mad prophet changes his tune, but a kinder, gentler Beale who preaches corporate cosmetology does not go over well with viewers. Shares plummet, and Diana and Hackett decide the only way to turn their fortunes around is to have Beale shot, live on TV.

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It came to the attention of playwright and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky that a major worldwide company was in negotiations to buy ABC. It occurred to him that once a multinational corporation took over a network, they might try to make the news division a profit center, enabling them to bastardize the news and turn it into entertainment.

Working with producer Howard Gottfried, Chayefsky spent a year writing and reworking a spec script about this. Once it was ready, Gottfried set up a deal with United Artists, but studio head Arthur Krim wanted the pair to meet with his executive vice president of business affairs first. The VP had a problem with Howard Beale he wanted to talk about. Chayefsky got up and walked out of the meeting.

Chayefsky knew director Sidney Lumet from when both men worked for CBS, and called Lumet to ask if he wanted to do a movie about television. Lumet didn’t ask for (and wouldn’t have received) final cut, preferring to make Network in collaboration with its screenwriter.

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Chayefsky was on the set every day, went to dailies every night, and watched the actors to make sure they could say what he had written. Instead of being given a credit that read “written by” or “screenplay by,” he assumed the credit “by Paddy Chayefsky,” as he would have had this been a stage play.

The finished product would be my pick for best screenplay ever made. There are great movies that came close to being shot, beat for beat, exactly as they were written – Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond, and later, John Sayles, did it when they directed their own material – but Network stands alone. It’s the greatest black comedy ever made, and instead of becoming a product of its day, has actually grown more relevant as a social statement as the years have passed.

Movies don’t get more visionary than this one. Chayefsky saw where we were headed; toward an era of globalization, or “one vast and glorious ecumenical holding company,” in the words of Mr. Jensen. An era when news commentators preach their own version of the news, reality shows dominate the schedule, and the only thing left to do for ratings is to kill somebody live on TV.

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The cast is one for the ages. Chayefsky suggested Peter Finch to Lumet, and the British actor gave the performance of his career. William Holden gives a great interpretation of male menopause, looking alienated and sad throughout. Dunaway plays a great soulless seductress, while Robert Duvall is hilarious playing the greatest ballbusting prick in the history of the movies. These are all actors who have the ability to be funny, without trying to be comedians.

Director Sidney Lumet has never been known as a visual stylist, or a hitmaker, preferring to focus on adult stories, usually taking place in New York. Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon are two of his most popular with another, the Sean Connery-Dustin Hoffman-Matthew Broderick caper Family Business also worth renting.

Network was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Finch, Dunaway and Beatrice Straight – who appears briefly as William Holden’s dignified wife – all won, while Holden and Ned Beatty received nominations. Chayefsky won Best Original Screenplay, and also accepted the Oscar for Finch, who died two months before the telecast at age 61 of a heart attack.

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Tags: Black comedy · Famous line · Midlife crisis

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Edward Copeland // Mar 30, 2007 at 10:27 am

    I’m with you about Network perhaps being the best screenplay ever, but since I’d written about the movie not too long ago, I figured I should do something else. It never gets old and it grows more prophetic with each passing year. One thing though: My memory may be faulty but I remember in my head the narrator saying “the two friends got properly pissed” because of the alliteration. I may be remembering wrong though.

  • 2 Paul // Apr 5, 2007 at 6:22 am

    I would also agree that it is one of the better screenplays to read. The Writer’s Guild of America listed it #8 on their top 101 screenplays list. I’d have to say that as good as the script is, the directing is a little lackluster. But that seems to happen with a lot of Paddy’s movies. Funny, because Sidney Lumet is a director that had earned final cut on his other pictures – that’s so hard for director’s to achieve and he was willing to forsake it for this film.

  • 3 Robert // Apr 9, 2007 at 10:38 am

    Another great post Joe! One of the more interesting aspects of the screenplay seems to be the narration itself, which one of your respondents mentioned in passing. A Canadian screenwriter who has a blog noted in a review of Chayefsky’s screenplays that many of his scripts have narrator characters and overt narration, but that in his opinion it’s used to best effect in Network.

    The narration in Network seems to give the film a sort of pseudo-documentary quality that creates an interesting juxtaposition with the more intimate dramatic scenes (that of Max and his wife discussing his affair comes to mind), scenes which almost make the viewer forget the fact that the film begins with the overt statement, “This story is about Howard Beale…” until we’re brought out of the story (and back into the “story”) by the narrator again. Obviously, Chayefsky wants to blur the distinction between “reality,” the “real life” of human relationships that seem to be possible for those who aren’t a part of the “television generation,” and the narrative authority of “the story” (news or dramatic) as it scripts the “realities” of those who are.

    Max’s funny speech to his wife about Diana (and the industry ridden badinage of his earlier conversation with Diana about their affair) touches on this:
    “I’m not sure she’s capable of any real feelings. She’s the television generation. She learned life from Bugs Bunny. The only reality she knows is what comes over her teevee set. She has devised a variety of scenarios for us all to play, as if it were a Movie of the Week. And, my God!, look at us, Louise. Here we are going through the obligatory middle-of-Act-Two scorned wife throws peccant husband out scene. But, no fear, I’ll come back home in the end. All her plot outlineshave me leaving her and returning to you because the audience won’t buy a rejection of the happy American family. She does have one script in which I kill myself, an adapted for television version of Anna Karenina in which she’s Count Vronsky and I’m Anna.”

    But even this seeminlgy “real” distinction between the “television generation” and “non-television generation” seems to be a part of the pseudo-realities of people living their lives as if they were narrated media events. It’s funny to think that the “Mary Ann Gifford Story” predates MTV’s The Real World by over a decade. And that The Real World opens with the narration “This is the true story, of seven strangers,” etc.

    A great screenplay/film seems to be one that can’t possibly be be translated into another medium. One that makes full use of the medium. Network couldn’t be done as a play or a novel and capture the different ideas allowed by the juxtaposition of dramatic and doucmentary film techniques. It might be interesting to compare the narration in Network to the way it’s used in Altered States to see what Chayevsky is up to. And to compare the novel of Altered States (Chayevsky’s sole) to both films. The only old movie I can think of with a narration is “Mr. Blandings Builds his Dreamhouse” in which the character of Bill Cole gives the intro and outro and comments along the way, but I’m sure there’s a lot that are more obvious and famous. After the murmur of “Rosebud” at the beginning of Citizen Kane you get the Narrated newsreel footage which seems to be in this tradition — a tradition in which such narrations aim at giving more “reality” to the fictional narrative rather than more fictional narrative to “reality.”

    As a side note, I recently watched Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven again and was struck by the way he used the old image of the spinning newspaper that then freezes and let’s the viewer read the headline. Only he has the paper spinning just a couple of seconds longer than one might have seen it in movie from the from the 30s or 40s. The extra length and that it’s in a documentary make it quite funny, and it seems to be in the vein of Chayefsky but in reverse.

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