Friday, October 2, 2009

1976 - Network

After four months in the city, I have finally landed my first theatrical role. My New York stage debut will be in the York Shakespeare Company's upcoming production of The Merchant of Venice, performed in repertory with Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta in November and December. So, while Jude Law is playing Hamlet down the road on Broadway, I will be playing Solanio in Merchant and Ferneze in Malta, and I'm very much looking forward to treading the boards again, especially in the Big Apple. I've always had an interest in Shakespeare, which began in high school, I think, when during our studies of Othello, the teacher allowed me to read the part of Iago, which remains my dream role to this day. Then, watching Olivier's Hamlet solidified that interest and I now look forward to the handful of Shakespeare adaptations that this project will throw my way.

Today, I viewed the last of the 1976 nominees...

Sidney Lumet
Paddy Chayefsky
Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty, Beatrice Straight
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
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...


  1. First off, congratulations Matt on landing the parts in the York Shakespeare Company. Will you be listed at some point as one of the members? I have enough trouble understanding some of Shakespeare's prose, yet alone trying to speak it. Do your parts require a specific accent? I hope this leads to bigger things. Break a leg!!

    Now, on to "Network." In one of my earlier posts, I mentioned that I had trouble with one of the 1976 films. Well, that film was "Network." I watched it again last week to see if any of my issues dissapated over the years. They actually did somewhat, and I could see much of its brilliance. As with most of the other contenders in 1976, the production crew on "Network" was top notch. Lumet, Chayefsky, Roizman, and that cast. However, make no mistake about it, this is Paddy Chayefsky's show, and his voice dominates it.

    I do have three issues that still nag at me. As great (and preachy as you say) as the writing is, some of the dialogue just doesn't sound natural. Maybe I can buy into Ned Beatty's evangelical rant, but at times Faye Dunaway's motor mouth just spouts lines that seem too written. I had that problem with some of Richard Dreyfuss's dialogue in "The Goodbye Girl" as well - and that can be blamed on Neil Simon.

    Secondly, I felt the Angela Davis/Patty Hearst type subplot was too over the top and drawn out.

    Finally, and I think this is my major issue, there is just too much screaming. I know the screenplay is filled with anger, but it seemed everyone (including William Holden, who I think gave the most measured performance) had too much to yell about.

    Chayefsky certainly gave us a look into the future of television, and all those shows you mentioned I avoid with a passion.

    So, many pluses and a few minuses will probably put "Network" out of the running for Best of '76 for me, although it certainly is on many critics lists as a must-see film.

  2. It's kind of interesting, actually. After I watched it, I read a couple of articles mentioning all the yelling, and I honestly hadn't noticed. So I guess I must have been fairly engrossed but, in retrospect, there IS a lot of yelling, you're right.

    And, yes, there is definitely a lack of naturalism here, certainly as compared to Taxi Driver and All the President's Men. And, for that matter, even Bound for Glory and Rocky are probably a little more naturalistic. I figured it was all part of the satire. But maybe that's being too forgiving.

  3. I still remember sitting next to you while you read Iago. I remember thinking, 'He's pretty good at this.' I also like to think the way I sat there inspired you.

  4. Never really cared for this one too much.

    Sal D