Peter Finch in 'Network' (1976)

All this week we'll be highlighting some of our favorite scenes from Oscar-winning films and performances leading up to this year's Academy Awards on Sunday night.

The Republicans were voted out of office after eight traumatic years, the incoming Democratic administration was offering the nation change -- and along comes a movie that says it's all bulls***. Sidney Lumet's Network was released in late November 1976 and tried to rile up a country that was celebrating its bicentennial after being worn down by Watergate, a gasoline shortage, and raging inflation.

I didn't see Network during its initial theatrical release, but I certainly heard about the scene I've embedded below. Kids at school were quoting variations on its most memorable line ("I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"), which became an enduring catchphrase. Since then I've watched the movie at least a dozen times, and Peter Finch's stirring delivery of this speech, as newscaster Howard Beale, never fails to electrify me.

It's the context of the speech, though, that touches me now, and provides some evidence why Finch won Best Actor over his fellow nominees: Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, Sylvester Stallone in Rocky, Giancarlo Giannini in Seven Beauties, and William Holden. (Finch, who died on January 14, 1977, was the first individual in Academy history to be honored posthumously with both a nomination and a win.) Holden appears briefly in the scene, expressing his dismay because he knows his friend Howard is suffering from a mental breakdown. Faye Dunaway, who won the Oscar for Best Actress, shows up, too, oozing odious charm as a ratings-hungry exec.

Network
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Network also garned Academy Award wins for Beatrice Straight (Supporting Actress) and Paddy Chayefsky (Original Screenplay). with additional nominations for Ned Beatty (Supporting Actor), Lumet (Director), Owen Roizman (Cinematography), Alan Heim (Film Editing), and, of course, Best Picture.

Each time I watch it, I'm struck by how much it feels like a stage play, complete with lengthy, uninterrupted speeches for each its of its featured players, including Robert Duvall. But what magnificent speeches!

Who can forget Ned Beatty lecturing Finch in that darkened boardroom: "You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and you will atone!"

Or Beatrice Straight admonishing her cheating husband: "I'm your wife, damn it. And, if you can't work up a winter passion for me, the least I require is respect and allegiance."

Or Holden confessing to Dunaway: "I miss my home, because I'm beginning to get scared s***less, because all of a sudden it's closer to the end than the beginning, and death is suddenly a perceptible thing to me, with definable features."

All quotes above come from IMDB, which also has the following trivia tidbits:

  • Henry Fonda, Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, and George C. Scott all turned down the part of Howard Beale.
  • To date, it is one of only two films to win three Academy Awards for acting. The other is A Streetcar Named Desire.
  • Beatrice Straight appears on screen for only five minutes and 43 seconds, the briefest performance ever to win an Oscar.

Network is scarily prescient about reality television as well as network news shows -- heck, entire news networks -- that favor opinionated editorializing. The film also anticipates the Internet, in the sense that it acknowledged that passionate personal opinion is what truly galvanizes audiences. Beyond all that, and as stage-bound as it may be, it's still a hell of a movie.

And that reminds me: "All I know is that first, you've got to get mad! ... I want you to get up and go to your windows ..."