NETWORK (1976) revisited

March 17, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It was the year after ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and the year before ANNIE HALL. 1976 was good for the underdog as Sylvester Stallone’s ROCKY won the Oscar for Best Picture, edging out such (now) classic films as TAXI DRIVER, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, and the film we are going to talk about here, NETWORK.

I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” That’s the lasting quote most recite when asked about NETWORK. And since those folks are generally energetically emphatic as they recall the line, it says quite a bit about the influence and ongoing impact of the film. In fact, many believe much of what the film warned us about has come to pass – and is even happening right now!

The story begins with (fictional) UBS network news anchor Howard Beale being let go after many years on the job. His personal issues have become a problem, and unlike his competitors Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor, he’s no longer dependable. With two weeks remaining until his final broadcast, Beale goes off script and creates a firestorm of emotion in the viewing audience as he promises on-air suicide and rants about TV programming, journalism, and society as a whole. People across the country take him up on his direction to go to the window and yell out the above mentioned catchphrase. What follows cuts to the core of the film’s theme. Beale’s friends worry about his mental well-being, while others at the network are concerned only with the ratings bump, and how best to capitalize on his revived and re-engaged audience.

What had previously been a respectable newscast, transitions into what we recognize today as a Reality TV show. Beale is provided a pulpit to rail against the establishment and the general public for its acceptance or surrender. He criticizes those who have given up reading books and have allowed TV to guide their thoughts (sound familiar?). Beale proclaims “television is a carnival” even as he becomes its lead barker, and proudly accepts his new label as “an angry prophet denouncing hypocrisies of our time.” It’s now been over 40 years since the film premiered, and the parallels to today’s world are crystal clear.

As with any quality film, there are multiple sub-plots and story lines, as well as numerous characters we get to know. There is an ambitious program director willing to make her mark by any means necessary. All of this turmoil occurs while UBS is going through a corporate takeover, so we get a glimpse at the behind-the-scenes political wranglings of those in power and those striving to be. An inner-office romance blends with the reckoning that accompanies middle age, and the resulting cracks in a long-term marriage. In yet another jab at the TV industry, a brainstorm leads to the birth of the “Death Hour”, an idea for a series based on the illegal and often violent actions of a terrorist group called the Ecumenical Liberation Army. The negotiations with this group are either the funniest or the most dangerous of the film, depending on your perspective. In keeping with the era, we are reminded of the ongoing economic recession, and get news flashes on the situation with kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, plus the two assassination attempts on then President Gerald Ford. These doses of reality add the necessary gravitas to the film to prevent it from dipping into soap opera territory.

 The cast is stellar and deep. Peter Finch plays Howard Beale. Mr. Finch died in January 1977 at age 60, and a couple of months later was named the Oscar winner for Best Actor, becoming the first acting winner to be so awarded posthumously (later joined by Heath Ledger). He was previously nominated for SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY (1971). Although he was talented and had a fine acting career, he might be best remembered in Hollywood lore for his ongoing affair with Vivian Leigh, who was married to Laurence Olivier at the time. Sir Olivier was also Mr. Finch’s acting mentor. In his role as Howard Beale, Finch got to chew scenery at the level every actor dreams of.

Faye Dunaway plays the ambitious program director Diana Christensen. She won the Oscar for Best Actress, and had previously been nominated for BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967, a role she chose over Elaine in THE GRADUATE) and CHINATOWN (1974). She also appeared (with her NETWORK co-star William Holden) in THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974), and is unfortunately remembered for her frightening portrayal of Joan Crawford in MOMMY DEAREST, giving wire hanger nightmares to an entire generation. Her first marriage was to Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band, and more recently you’ll recall her as co-presenter with Warren Beatty, and part of the calamity at the 2017 Oscars when LA LA LAND was erroneously named Best Picture before the confusion was cleared and MOONLIGHT was awarded the statuette. Dunaway’s Diana is unabashedly ambitious and flounces through the newsroom taking no prisoners. Her relationship with Holden’s character has one of the more unusual on screen love-making sequences, as she continues to talk shop as things heat up.

William Holden plays Max Schumacher, the veteran news director forced out of his job for placing more importance on protecting his friend Howard than in increasing the ratings and revenue of the broadcast. Mr. Holden died in 1981 at age 63 from injuries sustained during a fall. He was a Best Actor Oscar winner for STALAG 17 (1953), and a nominee for NETWORK and SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950). Mr. Holden also appeared in other classic films as PICNIC (1956), THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957), THE WILD BUNCH (1969), and THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974). He once shared an apartment with baseball great Hank Greenberg while both were serving in the military (1943), and was Best Man at the wedding of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. As Max, Holden captures the middle-age frustrations of a man unwilling to live with the cultural change of the new conglomerate owner, and equally uneasy with a marriage that has grown too stale. His stereotypical fling with the exciting younger woman ends as expected … only with a world class monologue.

Robert Duvall is Frank Hackett, the cut-throat front line manager brought in by the new owners to shake things up and create some profit.  Mr. Duvall is still working today at age 88, and began his career on TV in 1960. He won a Best Actor Oscar for TENDER MERCIES (1983), and was nominated six other times for performances in THE GODFATHER (1972), APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), THE GREAT SANTINI (1979), THE APOSTLE (1997), A CIVIL ACTION (1998), and THE JUDGE (2014). He also appeared in BULLITT (1968), MASH (as Frank Burns, 1970), THE GODFATHER II (1974), THE NATURAL (1984), and Larry McMurtry’s classic western series “Lonesome Dove” (1989). You might also remember him as Boo Radley, quietly hiding behind the door in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), though he’s likely best remembered for a certain character’s love of napalm in the morning. Duvall’s Hackett is a symbol of blind ambition and thirst for power.

 Beatrice Straight won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for playing Louise, Max’s scorned wife. She’s only in only a couple of scenes, and her approximately 5 minutes on screen remains the briefest to win an acting Oscar. Ms. Straight acted in very few movies, and spent most of her acting career in TV projects and on stage, though many will recall her as one of the scientists in POLTERGEIST (1982). When Louise rips into Max, she’s speaking for the untold number of middle-aged women who have been in that situation … simultaneously angry, hurt and afraid.

Ned Beatty plays Arthur Jensen, an eccentric network executive, and with basically one powerful and memorable scene, received the only Oscar nomination of his 45 year career. Mr. Beatty’s first screen appearance was in DELIVERANCE (1972) and his pig squeals haunted many viewers (including yours truly). He has also played delicious villains, the everyman, and buffoons, and appeared in such fine movies as NASHVILLE (1975), ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (NETWORK’s Oscar competition), SILVER STREAK (1976), SUPERMAN (1978), SUPERMAN II (1980), THE BIG EASY (1986), RUDY (1993), and more recently as the voice of Lotso in TOY STORY 3 (2010). He hasn’t acted in the past 5 years, and turns 82 years old this year.

You might think that is already an incredible lineup of acting legends, but we aren’t done yet. Wesley Addy appears as network executive Nelson Chaney, and Mr. Addy was also in one of my favorite film noirs, Robert Aldrich’s KISS ME DEADLY (1955). Kathy Cronkite plays radical activist Mary Ann Gilford, and Ms. Cronkite is the daughter of news icon (and University of Texas graduate) Walter Cronkite (who also appears in clips). Conchata Ferrell is part of the UBS creative team, and Ms. Ferrell is now best known as Berta on “Two and a Half Men” and as the pizza shop proprietor in MYSTIC PIZZA (1988). Ken Kercheval plays Merrill Grant, and “Dallas” fans will recognize him as JR Ewing’s nemesis, Cliff Barnes. Making a brief appearance is Lane Smith, whom we all remember as Joe Pesci’s opposing counsel in MY COUSIN VINNY (1992), and in a blink-and-you’ll miss it role in the terrorist negotiation scene is an uncredited Lance Henriksen. Mr. Henriksen now has a cult following after his chilling role in ALIENS (1986). He’s also appeared in many other classic films over the years: DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975), CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), THE RIGHT STUFF (1983), THE TERMINATOR (1984), and he has over 250 screen credits. Lastly, you might recognize the voice of the film’s narrator. Lee Richardson is an actor and the voice of more than one hundred commercials.

NETWORK was directed by the great Sidney Lumet. He received one of his 5 Best Director Oscar nominations … the other four were 12 ANGRY MEN (1957), DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975), PRINCE OF THE CITY (1981), and THE VERDICT (1982). He also directed THE HILL (1965), SERPICO (1973), MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974), RUNNING ON EMPTY (1988), and his final film BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD (2007). Mr. Lumet received an honorary Oscar in 2005, and died in 2007 at age 86. One of Lumet’s four wives was Gloria Vanderbilt, and his book “Making Movies” is a must read for any aspiring filmmaker.

Writer Paddy Chayefsky gets much of the credit for the success of NETWORK, and rightfully so. The script is a work of art, and brought him one of his three Oscars. The other two were MARTY (1955) and THE HOSPITAL (1971), making him one of only five three-time writing winners. He also wrote cult favorite ALTERED STATES (novel and screenplay) and adapted PAINT YOUR WAGON (1969) for the screen. Mr. Chayefsky’s influence can be seen (and especially heard) in the dialogue written by Aaron Sorkin, one of today’s most celebrated writers. Mr. Chayefsky died in 1981 at age 58.

The film won 4 Oscars (Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay) and was nominated for six others. The 3 acting wins tie it for most ever with A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951), and it’s the only movie to date with 5 acting nominations. It’s also highly probable that NETWORK is the only film where the Best Actor and Best Actress don’t share any screen time together. Owen Roizman was nominated for Cinematography, and his other nominations include THE EXORCIST (1973), TOOTSIE (1982), WYATT EARP (1994) and THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) … that’s right, he filmed the infamous car chase scene. Alan Heim was nominated for Editing, an Oscar he would later win for ALL THAT JAZZ (1979).

Relevant seems too weak as a description to make the point of how the film’s message stands up today. Television should be a vehicle that informs and educates instead of serving up drivel like dating and quirky personality shows. Of course entertainment is an important piece of the puzzle, but we shouldn’t end up holding an empty bag. One of the final scenes in the film highlights the lack of scruples from the executive team. A final decision is made that at first seems over-the-top, but is it really so hard to believe? Howard Beale is a man who has lost, or is losing, his mind – but the network milks him until that cash cow is dry. We can’t help but note the themes that still hit home today: corporate and personal greed, ambition, grief, mismatched relationships, the misuse of power, the willingness to sit back and accept, and the fear of life with no purpose.

ROCKY was the only 1976 film to eclipse $100 million at the box office, and in addition to the other Oscar nominated films listed in the first paragraph, 1976 also blessed us with horror classics CARRIE and THE OMEN, thrillers like MARATHON MAN (“Is it safe?”) and KING KONG (Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges), BOUND FOR GLORY (the 5th Best Picture nominee) and Barbra Streisand’s A STAR IS BORN, comedy classics BAD NEWS BEARS and THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN, and Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, FAMILY PLOT. 1976 was also the year we lost Agatha Christie, Busby Berkeley, Howard Hughes, Fritz Lang, Dalton Trumbo, Alastair Sim, and Sal Mineo (a still unsolved murder). Forty-three years later, NETWORK lives on as a lesson we have yet to learn.

***NOTE: another thing to notice is the natural teeth of Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall and Peter Finch. Comparing it to the blindingly bright pearly whites of today’s actors provides quite the contrast.

watch the trailer:

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