I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore !
Paddy Chayefsky is the only person to have won three solo Academy Awards for screenplay writing (both adapted and original), and it’s his third Academy Award winning script for the brilliant film Network, released back in 1976, that is the focus this week.
His screenplay for Network is often regarded as his masterpiece and has been hailed as “the kind of literate, darkly funny and breathtaking prescient material that prompts many to claim it as the greatest screenplay of the 20th century.” from 101 Greatest Screenplays – Writers Guild of America.
The film starts with Howard Beale, the longtime evening newscaster for UBS, learning that he just 2 more weeks on air due to declining ratings. Then on the following evening he announces on live television that he will commit suicide on next Tuesday’s broadcast:
It was the role of a lifetime for English born Aussie Peter Finch, one which resonates just as strong today as it did 46 years ago.
He would go on to win the Oscar for his performance but he never got to enjoy it as he died of a heart attack during a promotional tour for the film a couple of months before the Oscar ceremony. He was only 60 years old.
His boss and close friend Max Schumacher (played by William Holden in yet another brilliant performance in this film) manages to dissuade UBS from firing Beale from which he says he will apologise on air for his outburst which then descends into more farce as he says live on air “I just ran out of bullshit”.
But Beale’s outbursts have caused ratings to rise and UBS decide to exploit the situation through the machinations of programming chief Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway in yet another top performance) who gets the evening news show under her entertainment programming division.
During an evening storm, Beale turns up at UBS and galvanises the nation with one of the most memorable 5 minute rants you’ll ever see in a movie:
Which leads to Beale now hosting a new program called The Howard Beale Show with him top-billed as “the mad prophet of the airwaves”:
Schumacher leaves his wife of 25 years for Christensen but their romance withers as Christensen’s stock rises:
I always thought Bill Holden was so unlucky not to win the Oscar, although he was nominated. He gives arguably his best performance on film as he perfectly captured the weariness of an ageing man trying to rekindle his youth whilst all around him his world is collapsing.
Ultimately Beale’s show begins to tank in the ratings and UBS executives decide to have Howard assassinated on air which would also provide a boost in a season opener; where the films ends with Beale shot on air.
The final voiceover proclaims “this was the story of Howard Beale. The first know instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings”.
Today, the films acts like a prophecy in the way it attacks not only television but also of the society that supports and devours it.
The film is unrelenting, hysterical, loud and an exhausting experience that is superlatively acted by its marvellous cast and expertly directed by Sidney Lumet who not only had to handle the egos of his cast but also the constant notes and suggestions from Chayefsky.
It’s another film from the 1970s which would no longer be made to today, which is more the pity, as it was a smash hit on release as adult audiences lapped up its anger at the society they were living in which probably hasn’t really changed all that much given all the bullshit that’s still going around in the world today.