“Mad as Hell: The Making of ‘Network’ and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies” by Dave Itzkoff

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Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network,” a brutally funny and depressing view about American television, is one of the most highly acclaimed (and sadly prescient) satirical films ever made.  Scripted by Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, it was critically lauded and was also a decent-size box-office hit, a rarity for a satirical film.

Dave Itzkoff’s superlative account of the making of “Network” and its influence on modern news / broadcasting is a wonderfully entertaining read and is recommended for anyone who has an interest in comedy, 1970s Hollywood, broadcast journalism, and Chayefsky.   Itzkoff not only paints detailed backgrounds of all the principals involved, but also quotes many of the actors who had minor but pivotal roles in the film.  Itzkoff’s last chapter deals with the influence of “Network” among broadcast journalists, including some (Glenn Beck, allegedly a huge fan) who seem to have missed the point of the film entirely.

My own feelings about the film are positive, but a little mixed.  In the plus column are the acting performances by Peter Finch, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Beatrice Straight, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty and several others.  Also in the plus column is Lumet’s realistic, almost deadpan direction which is the appropriate tone for a movie that gets increasingly outrageous.  And yes, Chayefsky’s script is very good and is justly famous as one of the greatest scripts of all-time.  Chayefsky’s hellish vision of television news devolving into cheap entertainment seemed outrageous in 1976, but is nowhere near as ridiculous as what passes for “news” these days.

However, the problem is also … Chayefsky’s vision.  The film’s strident tone, the shrill manner in which the dialogue is often delivered, and the endless harangues and speeches really grate on the nerves.  Unlike most films, this can’t all be blamed on the director (Lumet), since Chayefsky was the one who insisted on complete creative control (probably one of the only writers who had this much autonomy over what they wrote).  Whatever you don’t like about Spike Lee or Aaron Sorkin (who always deliver their points with a sledgehammer) can be traced directly back to Chayefsky’s script for “Network.”  The most grating character is, ironically, the one who is supposed the be the voice of reason, William Holden’s Max Schumacher.  While I agree with some of the sentiments of what he has to say, the tone comes off as unbearably smug.   I don’t know how much of that is due to the way Holden interpreted the character or what he’s been given to say.  Either way, in the second half of “Network,” Schumacher comes off as pompous and self-righteous and it leaves a bad taste.   I realize I shouldn’t be showing this scene out of the context of the film (I urge you to see it in full and make up your own mind), but it’s the clearest example I can find for why this film doesn’t sit well with me, even thought I admire it very much.

“Wise Blood” (1980) dir. John Huston

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The problem with coming up with an all-time Top 10 film list is that afterwards, you think of a lot of films you should have included instead. “Wise Blood” is one of them.

Based on Flannery O’Connor’s novel, “Wise Blood” is about Hazel Motes, an angry young man who is fed up with religion and wants to start a new church, without Christ. Several things get in his way and inevitably, the more he tries to run away from religion, the more it seems to creep into his life. Believe me, this is not a pro-religion tale by any means. The fact that Hazel can’t escape religion is seen as ironic and comically awful.

Brad Dourif should have gotten an Oscar nod for his performance as Hazel, if not the statue itself. This is one of the best acting performances I’ve ever seen and it’s definitely the best thing Dourif has ever done. He plays the entire role like a caged rat, but ready to bite the head off anyone who gets in his way. The supporting performances by Ned Beatty, Harry Dean Stanton, and Amy Wright are all terrific.

This was kind of a comeback film for legendary director John Huston. He made this during a low point in his career, got a lot of praise for it, and then two years later got the “honor” of directing the film adaptation of “Annie” in 1982 … yeah …  my thoughts exactly.  But Huston soon directed “Under the Volcano” and “Prizzi’s Honor” and acquitted himself quite nicely.

Long very hard to find, the Criterion Collection came out with a beautiful DVD of this approximately 5 years ago. This is a great, great movie.