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Posts Tagged ‘Faye Dunaway’

For a nation which supposedly possesses a classless society, the United States of America often does a good job of looking otherwise. There may not be the delineation of society into a stratified series of groups, defined by their economic and educational status, but one frequently gets a definite sense of certain institutions and regions looking down on others – for a relatively young nation, the States often seem to have a definite mad on for age and tradition.

This occurred to me while watching Sidney Lumet’s celebrated 1976 movie Network, which is an example of one medium commenting on the values and workings of another – not entirely unlike The Post, currently enjoying its own moment of acclaim. However, where The Post is a paean to noble journalism, Network is a scabrous satire – but nonetheless astonishingly prescient for all of that.

The key character is Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a long-serving news broadcaster whose ratings have fallen to the point where he is fired by the network (a deadpan opening monologue recounts the high and low points of Beale’s life, all framed in terms of his TV ratings). Approaching old age, and with his marriage a casualty of his career, Beale feels he has nothing to live for and announces live on air that in a week’s time he will commit suicide on television. Naturally, the producers terminate the broadcast and see that Beale receives support.

Network bosses, amongst them Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), are initially minded to fire Beale on the spot, but when a second live appearance – supposedly an apology, which turns into another scatological rant – draws big viewing figures, they reconsider. Plans have been afoot to downsize the news division of the network, simply because it runs at a considerable loss, but rising young programming executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) sees an opportunity here to give the news a bit more glamour and entertainment value, to the horrified disbelief of traditional news editor Max Schumacher (William Holden).

Despite showing every signs of being in the midst of some kind of psychiatric breakdown, Beale is given his own show where he vents his spleen about the modern world. His repeated cries of ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!’ connect with an audience for whom the oil crisis, Vietnam, and Watergate (to name but three) are still a recent memory, and he becomes a kind of folk hero as ‘the mad prophet of the airwaves’. The network executives are delighted, but do they fully understand the forces they have unleashed?

Almost no-one gets everything right when they try to predict the future, but in criticising what he saw as the state of television at the time, Paddy Chayefsky managed to be almost eerily accurate in suggesting the way that TV news in particular would develop over the following years. There’s a general point about ratings-hungry TV executives being totally bereft of any kind of moral compass or principle, happy to put on anything that gets a good score – ‘gutter depravity,’ in Schumacher’s words – but also some more specific things. The movie predicts the rise of reality TV – one subplot concerns an attempt to mount a TV series, The Mao Tse-Tung Hour, based on the doings of a far-left terrorist group, with members of the group involved in the production – and there is, of course, the film’s depiction of how a possibly-unhinged rabble-rousing populist TV star achieves remarkable power and influence in the nation. No one actually mentions ‘fake news’, but you would not be surprised if they did.

The film starts off looking like a sardonic comedy-drama, and it’s only as it progresses that its wilder elements begin to appear, so gradually that they initially seem like throwaway jokes. Many of its biggest laughs come from its most outrageous moments – there’s a scene where the network lawyers sit down with members of the Communist terror group to work out the contract for the new show, and a snarling revolutionary insists on getting her share of the residual fees, while by the end of the film, the network executives are casually and calmly conspiring to organise an assassination in order to solve their ratings problems.

Despite all this, the characters remain well-drawn and well-performed – the film never quite loses sight of the nature of Schumacher’s affair with Christensen, or the effect it has on his wife. Perhaps this is one reason why the film won three of the big four acting Oscars – Finch’s bravura performance in particular obviously deserved recognition, but I must confess to being a little surprised that Beatrice Straight (playing Holden’s wife) won Best Supporting Actress for a performance where she’s barely on screen for five minutes. The cast is strong throughout; this is yet another film featuring a minor appearance by a (fairly) young Lance Henriksen, who sometimes seems to have been hanging around the set of every noteworthy film of the 70s.

On the other hand, writer Chayefsky sometimes seems to have been as fond of a rant as Howard Beale, and in the closing stages of the film it sometimes feels like everyone gets a chance to deliver an impassioned and largely uninterrupted monologue about their personal beliefs. Beale rants about the death of democracy, the network owner speechifies about the deep truths of market economics, Schumacher rails against the moral vacuum at the heart of the TV medium…

Is it true to say that when Hollywood makes a film about newspapers, it generally depicts the men and women who work on them as generally upstanding and heroic figures, but when it does one about TV, it is much less inclined to be complimentary? It certainly feels that way. Perhaps it is just the case of cinema looking up to an elder medium (print) and looking down on a younger one (the tyranny of the cathode ray tube). You can argue about whether that’s entirely justified or not, but the fact remains that Network is an entertaining and well-argued polemic that history has proven to be on the money about many of its claims.

 

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