While watching the hit reality show, Survivor, the grand daddy of all reality programs, I recall seeing the dangerously delusional Coach, tell a story about being captured by cannibals in South America. On another, Hell’s Kitchen, one of the contestants threatens to take the host, a world renowned Chef outside and beat the hell out of him. Manifestly irresponsible characters are they not?? If anyone ever doubted that Network (1976) was not a prophetic film, revealing the future of television, take a look at the reality programs on TV today. More so than any other single film, Network commented on society’s obsession with television, and the ability of the programmers to get their audiences to believe whatever they wanted them to believe. The film was extraordinary back in 1976 when it was first released, but its power has grown, and as reality TV became more and more popular, dominating the airwaves, Network became something astounding, a dark foreshadow of the things to come. Brilliantly written by Paddy Chayevsky, the film explores the goings on within UBS a fictional network, one of the big four that trails ABC, CBS and NBC. The long time news anchor of the network news program, Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is being fired, and announces on television,
live I might add, he plans to blow his brains out on live television one week from that night. Stunned at his friend’s bizarre proclamation, Max Schumacher (William Holden) the long time head of network news, takes him aside and tries to talk some sense into him, giving him another shot over the protests of the executives above him. Beale goes on and announces that his suicide announcement was an act of madness, that after the death of his wife, and impending loss of his job, he was sick and tired of the “bullshit”. Incredibly the ratings go up when Howard says “bullshit”, as audiences find something incredibly honest about what he is saying. Still he is pulled off the air and spends the nights in Max’s home, sleeping on the couch.
One of the programmers, Diana (Faye Dunaway) wants the new division, and will sleep with Max to get at it. When that fails she sleazes her way to it through Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), the hand picked head of the network, answering only to Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) who owns CCA, the company that has purchased UBS. Stunned Max resigns, only to re-consider when asked to stay and help fight Hackett. Howard meanwhile is visited by a vision of something, (an angel?), who tells him what he must do and on live television, soaking wet, the throes of something greater than he, he tells the people to “get mad…say I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take anymore.” What is incredible is that they do. People rise out of their chairs go to the windows, throw it open and scream to the heaven that very thing. Overnight Howard Beale, in the throes of a full scale nervous breakdown is the talk of network television, and Frank Hackett is looking like the golden boy. Fired, Max can no longer help his friend, and watches the evening new become a joke, with Howard set up in his own show in which he rants about whatever is on his mind. When he hits too close to home he is summoned to see Mr. Jensen, who launches into a tirade about Howard meddling in the forces beyond his knowledge, and he will not stand for it. And then Jensen says to Howard what the angel has said, when asked “why me”. They both reply to Howard, “because you’re on television…dummy.” Howard tells Jensen he has seen God. And he returns to the show where he rants and raves about spending, about companies governing the world and not countries and gradually people begin to lose interest. Max who has left his wife for Diana watches in disgust as she lets it happen, not aware that she is dealing with a human being.
The film’s most shocking and pivotal moment comes in a board room. Sitting around in chairs the executives have gathered to find out what they should do about Howard Beale. Casually it is stated, ‘I guess we’ll have to kill him”, and a solution is found, and on live television, Howard is gunned down.
And television continues relentlessly on.
A dark and foreboding film, that is also a vicious black comedy, Network was among the best reviewed films of 1976, and was nominated for a whopping ten Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director (Sidney Lumet), Best Actor (Peter Finch, William Holden) twice, Best Actress (Faye Dunaway) and Best Screenplay. While campaigning for the Academy Awards, Peter Finch died of a heart attack before being nominated for Best Actor, even though his role is very much supporting. On Oscar night the actor became the first to win the award
posthumously, winning Best Actor, while Dunaway won Best Actress and Beatrice Straight, in an eight minute scene took home Best Supporting Actress. The film’s brilliant script also won for original screenplay, but it lost Best Film to Rocky (1976) the Cinderella story of the year.
The performances in Network are legendary beginning with Finch, who resembles an old wounded lion king, with his graying mane and forlorn looks. But there is a rabid intensity when he goes before the camera to rant about what people should do, and it is purely electrifying to see. That said he is on screen perhaps twenty minutes, no more, and should have been in the supporting actors category. William Holden gives a terrific lived in performance as Max, a sad man who leaves his wife for a young woman who makes him feel alive even though he knows he is in for a world of heartache. Holden had not given a great performance since the fifties, but with this he found the role of a lifetime as Max, the world weary news executive who stands by and watches his beloved news division turned into a laughing stock. As Hackett, the hatchet man for corporate, Robert Duvall is superb, bombastic and hateful. The manner in which he dismisses Max, as though he was a piece of garbage is alarming in its callousness, and the bright gleam in his eyes knowing he is the golden boy for the network, yet living in fear it is all gong to go away. Dunaway, though often limited as an actress is at her best here as the grasping, television incarnate Diana, who like her namesake (the huntress) smells a kill and goes after the news division to put her own bizarre spin on it. She could not care less about Howard, does not even likely realize he is mentally, but knows he can get her great ratings. The fact she launches into an affair with a fired Max, the man she usurped is inconsequential to her, it simply does not matter. Underneath the tough, caustic woman is a lady quaking with fear about the reality she will someday be forced to face. There is a quiet hysterical quality to her performance that is alarming in its intensity, and when Max tells her that one day she will throw herself out of a window, we believe him.
In a stunning cameo, one that I never get tired of watching is Ned Beatty as the God like head of the corporation Mr. Jensen, who preaches to Howard like a fire and brimstone minister. Equally fine is Beatrice Straight long known for her work on the stage, stunning here as Max’s devastated, heartbroken wife who cannot believe her husband of twenty five years has cheated on her.
Director Sidney Lumet emerged in the seventies as one of the great directors of actors, able to guide brilliant work from performers, and at one time it seemed that Oscar nominations came attached to the films he was making. From 1973, through 1982, thirteen actors were nominated for Academy Awards in Lumet films. His best work of the seventies was this extraordinary film, that superbly balanced its scathing message with dark comedy emerging as a cautionary tale that we did not listen too. Television became the circus that was predicted in Network, television became a joke, but a dark and nasty joke. The film remains a masterpiece, one of the greats of the seventies, and something that thirty years later retains every bit of its vicious bite.