NETWORK (1976)

  • Director: Sidney Lumet
  • Writer: Paddy Chayefsky
  • Starring: Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty, and Beatrice Straight
  • Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 (#64), 4 Oscars (Best Actor (Peter Finch), Best Actress (Faye Dunaway), Best Supporting Actress (Beatrice Straight), Best Original Screenplay), 6 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director (Sidney Lumet), Best Actor (William Holden), Best Supporting Actor (Ned Beatty), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing
  • Where to Watch: Rent or Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV

Since I’ve started going through the American Film Institute’s most recent Top 100 list, I’ve tried to reassess movies through a modern-day lens. But none of the movies I’ve looked at felt as “of” 2020 as Network, a movie that came out in 1976. Roger Ebert, writing in the late 90s, said that re-watching it then felt like “a prophecy.” This feeling is even greater in 2020. Having watched this movie and Robert Altman’s Nashville, another great satire of the same period, in the course of a couple of weeks, one thing I have learned is that no matter how much we hear that we are living in “unprecedented” times, that is always nonsense. The post-Nixonian mid-70s, as described in this movie in painstaking, florid detail, feel highly akin in a spiritual sense to whatever we’re living through today.

I can testify from personal experience, as someone whose spouse walked in the room in the middle of this movie and asked, “what is happening here?,” that this is a hard movie to actually describe. In essence, Network starts with a network news anchor at the fictional “UBS,” Howard Beale (Peter Finch) getting fired, possibly going insane, and announcing on air that he will kill himself on air in one week. A young female programming executive (Faye Dunaway) seizes on Beale as reflecting the country’s current anger and seems confused by everyone’s reticence to go along with this. Meanwhile, she has an affair with an older news director (William Holden), and tries to get her show about domestic left-wing terrorists (The Mao Tse-Tung Hour) off the ground.  

Network has received occasional criticism over the years, most prominently from the prominent critic Pauline Kael, for basically being a series of yelling monologues for various characters. But I mean, they’re such good monologues. The one everyone remembers, of course, is Howard Beale’s on-air rant, in which he exhorts his viewers to go to his windows and scream “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” But the scene that really sticks with me is a speech delivered to Beale by the head of the conglomerate that owns the network (played by Ned Beatty, who received an Oscar nomination essentially just for this scene). I’m just going to leave it here. If nothing else, you are about to witness the greatest hand acting of all time.

The real subject of the satire here is the disconnection of television from basic humanity. Faye Dunaway’s character is supremely competent, but in the service of what? Ratings? She would blow up the country if it would win her another ratings point, without a second’s hesitation. Yet at the same time, she is an extremely early example of a modern woman in authority, who is not listened to in situations where men probably would be, described as “arctic” on the basis that she is more worried about her job than her love life. She was, at the time, apparently seen as the out-and-out villain of the movie, but I think she comes off very differently in 2020 than she may have at the time. 

In another of the great sequences in the movie, Dunaway and Holden’s characters go off to the seaside for a romantic vacation. It’s all extremely sweet with the sound off, they go for a candlelight dinner, they walk on the beach, they find themselves in their room making love. But if you turn the sound on, you realize that Dunaway is talking the entire time about work and ratings and her new pilots. She orgasms while shouting about getting “more publicity than Watergate” and then, for pillow talk, whispers about winning back daytime from “NBC and its lousy game shows.” Later, when he breaks up with her, Holden’s character calls her “television incarnate.” It is perhaps ironic that the two roles Holden may be most remembered for are this one, in which he plays an older man falling against his will into a romance with a magnetic younger woman, and Sunset Boulevard, where he plays a younger man falling against his will into a romance with a magnetic older woman.

Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky had risen to prominence a couple decades earlier as a playwright, then hit the jackpot with the seemingly small domestic drama Marty, which started as a play and then became a runaway hit, first as an early TV movie and then as a Hollywood movie with about the same cast and director, going on to win Best Picture and win Chayefsky a screenwriting Oscar. After some fallow years, Chayefsky returned to prominence with 1971’s The Hospital, for which he won his second Oscar. He was always known as an “angry” writer, and Network is probably the height of his anger. My personal opinion is that critics and viewers for whom Network fails to connect are probably not in the right headspace; that is to say, they’re not angry enough. Chayefsky and the director, Sidney Lumet, were good friends, and unusually he spent the entire filming of the movie on set, offering advice to Lumet and the actors.

In 1974, while Chayefsky was already writing Network, a local news anchor in Sarasota, Florida, Christine Chubbuck, actually did shoot and kill herself on air, becoming the first person in history to kill themselves on live television. Chubbuck was suffering from depression, but also unhappy with changes in direction by her bosses, announcing before she shot herself that this was “in keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts.” This apparently provided Chayefsky with the inspiration for Howard Beale’s “mad prophet of the airwaves.” 

Beale is portrayed by an Australian actor named Peter Finch. I had only previously heard of him from this role, and that’s because, though he had a long career, this is the only movie he ever did that I’d heard of before today. He had actually won three BAFTA awards, one for playing Oscar Wilde, and acted opposite everyone from Audrey Hepburn to Julie Christie. The producers had apparently been reluctant to cast him because they didn’t believe that he could convincingly pull off an American accent (this was a quarter century before House). Finch engaged in a whirlwind publicity tour for the movie, believing this to be his only chance to win an Oscar. Unfortunately, he had a shocking heart attack in the middle of the tour and died.

Finch then became the first actor to win an Oscar posthumously. The Oscar producers insisted that, as a matter of protocol, the award should be accepted by another person related to the film, rather than Finch’s wife. Many suspected that this was because Finch’s wife, Eletha, happened to be Black, and the Academy thought it would be bad optics to have a Black woman accepting an award for a white man when no Black woman had won an Oscar on her own behalf since Hattie McDaniel for Gone With the Wind. When Finch won, Chayefsky went up to accept the award… then immediately called Eletha up to the stage, where she got to give the speech after all. He remained the only posthumous recipient of an acting Oscar until Heath Ledger’s win for The Dark Knight in 2009 (Ledger was, of course, also Australian).

Another surprise at that ceremony was the win of Beatrice Straight for Best Supporting Actress. Straight plays the bereft wife of Holden’s character, who he goes back to in the end. Like Beatty, she essentially had one scene in this movie, and a total of only 4 minutes of screen-time, but if another scene screams “Oscar clip!” more than that one in the history of movies I haven’t seen it. In a movie full of great scenes, I usually forget about her. She remains the acting Oscar winner with the least amount of screen time in the performance they won for.

As I’ve said, Network feels, to a somewhat bizarre degree, like all you’d have to do is change a few words and it could be set in 2020. This is particularly striking given that its set in a specific world that barely exists anymore (the evening network news) and that at one point Howard Beale screams for his viewers to “drown Gerald Ford in telegrams.” The most obvious way, of course, is in the course television itself has taken. What at the time must have seemed like insane exaggeration today feels almost like a documentary. If Glenn Beck had walked out onto the gaudy, jazzed-up set Dunaway creates for Finch’s show and started ranting, the movie would work just as well. Bill O’Reilly for years had a segment on his show literally called “Mad as Hell.” 

On another level, the film involves a basic generational conflict, not dissimilar to one we can see reflected today, though perhaps in reverse. One reading of the film is that it centers on an older “greatest” generation being thoroughly confused, depressed, and eventually displaced by the younger baby boomers, who seem willing to destroy everyone and everything in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Not only that, they’re annoyed with their elders for not being willing to do the same. Now, we have a younger generation that is supremely annoyed with what their elders have done in the name of money and success, without sufficient human considerations.

Early in the movie Holden and Finch’s characters go out for a drink. Finch says he’s going to kill himself on air. A drunk Holden blackly jokes that they should make it a weekly feature. “The Death Hour, we could call it. An assassination every week. The ratings would be through the roof.” Drunken chuckles. Later in the movie, a very put together Dunaway enthusiastically pitches her idea for The Mao Tse-Tung Hour. “We’ll start each week with a different act of terrorism!” She doesn’t understand why that would be a problem. The ratings, after all, would be through the roof.

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