‘Network’ (1976) — Madder Than Hell (And Loving Every Minute of It)

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Peter Finch as Howard Beale in Network
Peter Finch as Howard Beale, the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves, in Network

For satire to be truly effective it must consist of the following essential elements: irony, wit, sarcasm, parody, exaggeration, and a surefire sense of the absurd. In addition, it should be devilishly clever as well as hysterically funny, with the laughter sticking in one’s throat.

Where the movie Network (1976) is concerned, not only are these elements present but there’s also an air of urgency to the characters — real-life characters placed in patently preposterous positions — along with the seemingly distraught situations that Oscar-winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky (The Hospital) and director Sidney Lumet (Twelve Angry Men, Fail-Safe) have placed them in.

Much of the film’s story line revolves around aging television anchor Howard Beale (an exhaustively manic and over-the-top Peter Finch, in his final screen appearance), who heads up the nightly newscast for the fourth-rated UBS TV network. Howard is on his last legs, a man with precious little to live for confronting an existential crisis of the profoundest kind. But instead of bowing out and retiring gracefully from the newsroom, Beale threatens to blow his brains out on the air, much to the consternation of news division heads, especially excitable corporate flunky Frank Hackett (a perfectly realized Robert Duvall).

Faye Dunaway & William Holden
Diane (Faye Dunaway) & Max (William Holden) in Network

Despite the best efforts of fellow newsman and old pal Max Schumacher (played by veteran thespian William Holden, whose worn features betray more than a hint of resignation and sadness) to basically keep him in line and out of trouble, Howard escapes from Max’s apartment — in the pouring rain, no less. Making a beeline for the television studio, the beleaguered anchorman delivers one of cinema’s most unforgettable lines:

“I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.’ ”

His erratic behavior becomes a lifeline for Beale as well as a godsend for the network, thanks to an ambitious rising star in the news division named Diane Christensen (beautiful Faye Dunaway at her absolute sleaziest). She sees the eccentric anchor as her ticket to fame and fortune: the “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves,” so she claims — something akin to Andy Griffith’s cracker-barrel creep Lonesome Rhodes (from Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd) crossed with our own Glenn Beck, a presumably insane fellow who could give the struggling network the ratings boost it sorely needs. Beale’s buddy Max, however, sees it as an exploitation of his friend’s delusional demeanor.

The question that was raised at the time of the movie’s premiere was this: could television networks be THAT ratings conscious (and that unscrupulous) as to program a show with the title The Mao Tse-tung Hour, about radical leftists attempting to overthrow the U.S. government? Or be seriously touting someone by the name of Sibyl the Soothsayer as a reliable newscaster? You bet it could! Nowadays, this is what passes for so-called “entertainment.”

If you’re still unconvinced, try tuning in to cable’s Long Island Medium. How about listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio, or anything on Fox News for further proof? Network was the trailblazer in this respect, the most prescient and forward-looking feature Hollywood has ever produced.

Beatrice Straight as Louise
Louise (Beatrice Straight) confronts husband Max (Holden) about his affair

Finch deserved his posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar (the first ever awarded to a deceased performer) as the “making-it-up-as-he-goes-along” Mr. Beale. Theater actress Beatrice Straight won the Best Supporting Actress Award for her scene-stealing turn as Holden’s estranged spouse, Louise. And Dunaway literally ran away with the Best Actress honors for her lead role as the scheming, duplicitous Diane, who always acts in her own self-interest.

With Ned Beatty, brilliant as the evangelical head of the network, Mr. Jensen (“You … will … atone!!!”), Arthur Burghardt (an actual vegetarian) as the Great Ahmed Kahn, licking his chops over a bucket of fried chicken; and Wesley Addy, Bill Burrows, Conchata Farrell, and Kathy Cronkite as the slogan-spouting, Patty Hearst-lookalike Mary Ann Gifford, along with Ken Kercheval, Lance Henriksen, and a host of others.

They’ll be talking about this one when we’re old and gray, it’s that relevant. A shocker of an ending tidies things up nicely… well, sort of. For the “network,” anyway.

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

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