Today, I viewed the last of the 1976 nominees...
Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty, Beatrice Straight
4 wins, for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Screenplay
About as scathing as satire gets, Network explores what happens when television executives take control of reality. With the lowest rating news program in the country, the network heads at UBS give long-time news anchor Howard Beale his walking papers. The next night, Mr. Beale announces live on air that, during his final show next week, he will commit suicide on national television. Inevitably, the ratings skyrocket, and before he has a chance to end his life, the brains behind UBS exploit Beale's deteriorating mental state by substituting traditional news programming with a hyped-up variety-style show with Beale's insane ravings as the headlining act. Each episode, Beale's rants conclude with him collapsing on the stage from some kind of mental exhaustion whilst the audience applauds with enthusiasm. Soon, the entertainment division of the network, led by the cold-hearted Diana Christensen, has completely taken over the news department, developing all sorts of morally decrepit programs.
He couldn't have realised it at the time, but Paddy Chayefsky's much lauded script is probably more accurate now than it was in 1976. In fact, considering the current slate of sensationalist programming, it may be fair to say that the TV industry's integrity has declined quite a bit since then. Mind you, as discussed last week, there is also a large number of very clever and thoughtfully entertaining shows on air, so it goes both ways, I guess. Nonetheless, I would love to have seen Chayefsky's reaction to shows such as Jerry Springer and The Biggest Loser and World's Wildest Police Videos and the seemingly endless array of Judge Judy rip-offs. The exploitative nature of these manipulated reality shows is exactly what he was writing about. Not to mention the tabloid journalism passed off as news and current affairs on some networks. It's all about the ratings and the truth just gets in the way.
At times, though, the satire within Network plays out a little too cartoonish and unbelievable. That might be due to my direct comparison with the brilliant naturalism found in the two previous films in this project, namely Taxi Driver and All the President's Men, but I still feel that Network could have benefited from a little more subtlety. It's certainly a preachy film, and it doesn't let the general public off the hook, either. They're just as accountable as the network heads. They're the ones watching all this crap.
Despite its moralising, the drama is still very gripping. The events of the snowballing story unfold in such a captivating way that you often think it couldn't get any more crazy ... and then it does. Right up to the very end. The final scene (skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to know how it ends) displays the ultimate exploitation. The network has terrorists kill Beale live on air and, as his body slumps to the ground, instead of a chaotic scene of TV crew members scrambling for cover, the main studio camera simply rolls closer to the bleeding mess in order to capture the perfect close-up.
Despite a spectacular year of acting performances, the cast of Network managed to secure five acting Oscar nominations, winning three of them. Peter Finch won his posthumously, and his famous "I'm as mad as hell" speech is particularly inspired. And as implausible as his character may seem, he's really only one step away from Bill O'Reilly and some of his colleagues. Faye Dunaway gave the standout performance, in my opinion, as the wonderfully arrogant yet ultimately insecure head of the entertainment division, who seems to be sexually aroused by high ratings. Finally, Ned Beatty appears in his second 1976 Best Picture nominee (along with All the President's Men) delivering an almost evangelical tirade.
So, another year down. The verdict for 1976 is up next...