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When Network opened at theatres nationwide in November of 1976 it caused an instant sensation. People were either crazy about it or thought the film was just plain crazy. So when the film received ten Oscar nominations the following year and won four of them, it was hard to tell if it was justly rewarded or simply a case of Hollywood praising the total skewering of its longtime nemesis, television. In any case, Network still stands as one of the most potent, imaginative satires produced by a major studio, and the line, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" became one of the key catch-phrases of the 1970s.
The line is delivered by Peter Finch as Howard Beale, a news anchor on the verge of insanity. When executives of the fictional United Broadcasting System tell him he is being fired after 25 years in the job, he goes on the air and tells his audience he plans to commit suicide on his final broadcast. Ratings go through the roof, and suddenly everyone is tuning in. On the night of his promised suicide, he relents, telling the audience instead to rebel against the insanities of modern life, to go to their windows and scream the famous line into the streets. They do, and the nerve Beale has touched is soon turned into a ratings bonanza by programming executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), a ruthless child of the television age who cares only about her work and career. She gives Beale a weekly show to do whatever he wants, and audiences are mesmerized by his unpredictable, ranting behavior. The only voice against it is Max Schumacher (William Holden), head of the news division, who is fired because of his opposition. Nevertheless, Schumacher is drawn to the ambitious Diana, and he leaves his wife to move in with her. Christensen pushes ahead with her programming schemes and soon has a series starring a real-life group of terrorists. Beale begins to believe his viewers are mindless masses whose lives amount to very little, but when he expresses that on air, his superstar status crumbles. With ratings plummeting, the network executives decide to approve Diana's plan to end the show with a literal bang, using the terrorists who have been turned from idealistic revolutionaries into ratings-hungry TV stars to bring "The Howard Beale Show" to a bloody conclusion.
This scathing indictment of the television age was the brainchild of a writer who made his mark in the medium two decades earlier. Paddy Chayevsky was one of the leading lights of what came to be known as TV's Golden Age, a time in the 1950s when live drama was a broadcast staple and TV news had yet to totally usurp the daily paper as the number one source for information. Although some of Network's most negative critics believed he was lashing out at the industry that had launched his career, the truth was that Chayevsky actually had a very positive experience writing for the small screen; in 1953 he debuted his teledrama, Marty, which went on to become a quadruple Oscar-winner in its 1955 film version. But he was always wary of the medium and its potentially negative influence; his son later spoke of how Chayevsky restricted him from watching much TV and constantly railed against the "junk" he felt was being shown. In 1955, he tried to sell NBC on a spoof of the medium about a host on a local Ohio station who creates an outrageous variety show that ends up knocking Ed Sullivan's weekly series off the air. And by the 1970s, the changes in television had given him even more reason to lament its affects on society. "It's all madness," he said. "People are instant now. Thanks to TV we have all developed a ten-minute concentration span." He reserved his harshest criticism for what he saw as a small corporate elite taking complete cultural, political and social control of the medium and gaining the power to "make or break presidents, popes, and prime ministers."
As expected, Network was trashed by people in television, particularly in the news divisions. It was called tasteless, distorted, heavy-handed and accused of playing into the hands of "the incredible inferiority and hate complex on the part of the people in the print media," according to Today show producer Paul Friedman. TV journalist Barbara Walters feared the movie would harm the image of TV and insisted there would never be "that kind of show-biz approach to the news;because we will never let it happen."
Not every film critic was enchanted with the picture either. Many thought Chayevsky had sacrificed dramatic integrity by peopling his script with irredeemably vile caricatures and hollow shells who served only as mouthpieces for the author's own political diatribes, as when he put into Beale's dialogue a rant against the takeover of U.S. companies by Arabs and other foreign nationals. But audiences ate it up (even if they happily returned to sitting in front of the small screen for hours after seeing the movie). Had it not been for the enormous underdog success of Rocky (1976), Network might have taken more statuettes, including one for Best Picture. Still, it claimed four winning for Chayevsky's screenplay, Peter Finch as Best Actor, Faye Dunaway as Best Actress, and Beatrice Straight for her tiny role as Schumacher's jilted wife. By the time of the ceremony's broadcast, Finch had died and his Oscar was awarded posthumously. The awards show's producer insisted he wanted to keep it upbeat and told Chayevsky to accept instead of Finch's widow, who might be inclined to weep at the podium. But Chayevsky called her out of the audience and she came onstage to read an acceptance speech Chayevsky had written for her.
Dunaway was awarded for a role she was not sure she wanted to do in the first place. The studio initially wanted Jane Fonda, but Chayevsky did not agree with her politically. Jill Clayburgh, Marsha Mason, Diane Keaton, and Candice Bergen were names also bandied about before Dunaway was chosen. She loved the script but noted that it gave no vulnerability to Diana, no sense of what she might have been before television turned her into a woman whose only dream in life was "a 30 share and a 20 rating." But she went along with Chayevsky's conception and director Sidney Lumet's warning that she would not be allowed to sneak in any weeping or softness, and that it would remain on the cutting room floor if she did. Dunaway's husband at the time, rock musician Peter Wolf, and others close to her told her she should not do it. In her autobiography, she said they were trying to protect her, worrying that people would confuse her with the character and think badly of her. She never regretted her decision to take the role, but she did slyly remark she wished she had people around her later to talk her out of playing Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest (1981), a film that had a negative effect on her career and image.
Director: Sidney Lumet
Producer: Howard Gottfried
Screenplay: Paddy Chayevsky
Cinematography: Owen Roizman
Editing: Allen Heim
Production Design: Philip Rosenberg
Original Music: Elliot Lawrence
Cast: Peter Finch (Howard Beale), Faye Dunaway (Diana Christensen), William Holden (Max Schumacher), Robert Duvall (Frank Hackett), Ned Beatty (Arthur Jensen), Beatrice Straight (Louise Schumacher), Wesley Addy (Nelson Chaney), Conchata Ferrell (Barbara Schlesinger), Kathy Cronkite (Mary Ann Gifford), Darryl Hickman (Bill Herron), William Prince (Edward George Ruddy).
C-122m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon