Oscar: Network (1976): Sidney Lumet’s Sharp, Prophetic Satire with All-Star Cast

network_posterNominated for ten Oscars, including Best Picture, Sidney Lumet’s outrageous satire on American TV turned out to be prophetic–it looks less like a fantasy and more like daily reality as the years pass by.

As written by Paddy Chayefsky, the uninhibited tale chronicles a fourth-place network that will air anything for better ratings, including a patently insane, profanity-shouting “mad prophet” of the TV airwaves.

The entire cast, five members of which were nominated for Oscars, is excellent: Faye Dunaway as a ruthless programmer; William Holden as a conscientious newsman; Robert Duvall as a shark-like v.p.; Ned Beatty as Evangelical board chairman; Beatrice Straight as Holden’s long-suffering wife; and best of all, Peter Finch as the mad prophet whose message, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore,” struck a chord with the American public in 1976 and immediately entered into classic movie lore. Finch won a posthumous Oscar for his outrageous role.

Holden’s sentimental anchorman represents the tale’s moral conscience, sort of a Marlboro Man now in menopause, beaten upon by Fay Dunaway’s fitful moods and waves, and object of her manipulations, both sexual and professional.

network_2Faye Dunaway’s role as Diana Christensen, a ruthless, power-hungry television executive in Network, is more of an abstract, or type than a realistic character. In fact, some believe that Dunaway was rewarded with the Best Actress Oscar for being a good sport, poking fun at her own screen image as an ambitious career woman. Diana’s chief goal is to upgrade the network’s ratings, as she unashamedly boasts: “All I want out of life is a 30 share and 20 rating,” for which she is willing to use illegitimate, disreputable means, like a program featuring a terrorists’ organization.

Obsessed with her job, which permeates every aspect of her life, Diana talks about her work non-stop, even during a sexual encounter. Diana is further ridiculed when she sets the tone and speed of this encounter with a sensitive married executive (William Holden). She sits on top of him and reaches orgasm prematurely, thus imitating what is considered to be a typical masculine sexual practice. Efficient and rational, she is cold and incapable of any human feelings.

Some feminists were upset by the film’s use of a woman’s drive toward fame or success as the embodiment of sickness and everything else that’s wrong in our society, claiming that if a man played Dunaway’s role, he wouldn’t have been such a caricature.

network_1A sharply observed and written satire, “Network” does for TV what “Hospital,” also written by Chayefsky, did for the medical profession. It’s an entertaining film, firmly set in the world of TV, that’s daring and uninhibited. Lumet makes the viewers part of the manipulative scheme by positioning them as the viewers of the Howard Beale show.

When Beale, the champion and demagogue gets to be a bore and “old news” and the rating are down, like everything else in TV or pop culture, he becomes quickly disposable, like toilet paper.

What was not noticed at the time is the racial angle, namely that the character who still has some conscience and some feelings (played by William Holden) is Jewish, surrounded by TV’s Goyish elite.

Detailed Synopsis

network_14Howard Beale, the vet anchor of the Union Broadcasting System’s UBS Evening News, is informed by the news division president, Max Schumacher, that he has two more weeks of air time because of ratings. The two friends get drunk and lament the state of their industry. The following night, Beale announces on live TV that he will commit suicide on next Tuesday’s broadcast. UBS fires him, but Schumacher wants to give Beale a dignified farewell. Beale promises to apologize, but once on the air, he launches into a rant and his outburst causes the newscast’s ratings to spike.

To Schumacher’s dismay, UBS decides to exploit Beale’s antics. In an impassioned diatribe, Beale galvanizes the nation, asking viewers to shout out of their windows “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Diana Christensen, head of the programming unit, seeking a hit show, negotiates a deal with a band of radical terrorists (a parody of the Symbionese Liberation Army called the “Ecumenical Liberation Army”) for a docudrama series called the Mao Tse-Tung. When Beale’s ratings top out, Christensen offers to help Schumacher develop the news show, which he rejects, but the two embark on personal affair.

When Schumacher decides to end Howard as the “Angry Man,”  Christensen convinces boss Frank Hackett to slot the evening news show under the entertainment division. Hackett bullies the UBS execs to consent, and fires Schumacher.

network_7Beale is hosting a new program, The Howard Beale Show, top-billed as “the mad prophet.”  It becomes the most highly-rated program on TV, with Beale as a new celeb preaching angry message: “We’re as mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this anymore.”

Max and Diana’s romance withers as the show flourishes, but in the flush of high ratings, the two rekindle their bond, and Schumacher leaves his longtime wife. But Christensen’s fanatical devotion to her job and emotional emptiness drive Max back to his wife.  He charges: “You are television incarnate, Diana, indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality.”

When Beale discovers that Communications Company of America (CCA), the conglomerate that owns UBS, will be bought out by a Saudi Arabian conglomerate, he launches a tirade against the deal, encouraging viewers to send telegrams of protest to the White House.

Hackett takes Beale to meet with CCA chairman Arthur Jensen, who explain his own “corporate policy.” Jensen delivers a tirade in an “appropriate setting,” the CCA boardroom,  describing the interrelatedness of the participants in the international economy and the illusory nature of national distinctions. Jensen persuades Beale to abandon populist messages and preach a new “evangel.” But TV audiences find his new sermons depressing, and ratings slide.

Christensen, Hackett, and the other execs decide to hire the Ecumenical Liberation Army to assassinate Beale on the air. The assassination succeeds, putting an end to The Howard Beale Show and kicking off a second season of The Mao Tse-Tung Hour.

The film ends with a narrator stating: “This was the story of Howard Beale, the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.”

Cast

Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway)

Max Schumacher (William Holden)

Howard Beale (Peter Finch)

Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall)

Nelson Chaney (Wesley Addy)

Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty)

Great Ahmed Kahn (Arthur Burghardt)

TV director (Bill Burrows)

George Bosch (John Carpenter)

Harry Hunter (Jordan Charney)

Crew

Produced by Howard Gottfried

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Screenplay: Paddy Chayefsky

Running time: 120 Minutes