All together now: "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" That's the famous catchphrase uttered by "mad prophet of the airwaves" Howard Beale in 'Network,' a movie that, in the 35 years since its release (on November 27, 1976), has come to seem less and less like satire and more like a blueprint. There's nothing too far-fetched anymore in screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky's vision of a TV industry where newscasting has become indistinguishable from entertainment, where programmers will try pretty much anything for ratings, where reality TV stars will try pretty much anything to grab their 15 minutes of fame, and where the goals of global corporatism override the best interests of the state and the individual. Of course, 'Network's critique applies to the film industry as well; it's hard to imagine today a Hollywood studio that would greenlight a comedy that so brazenly bites the bites the hand that feeds it. Then again, in the age of Occupy Wall Street, there might be some resonance in a movie where citizens across the nation start chanting Beale's bleat. Read on to learn about the horrifying on-air suicide that inspired the legendary movie, the behind-the-scenes buzz on its unprecedented Oscar victories, and its ties to contemporary stars Heath Ledger, Tim Robbins, and George Clooney.
1. The germ of the idea for 'Network' came from the real-life on-air suicide of Sarasota, Fla. TV reporter Christine Chubbuck, who killed herself during a live newscast on July 15, 1974. In a Howard Beale-worthy pronouncement, Chubbuck had said, "In keeping with Channel 40's policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first: attempted suicide," then shot herself behind the right ear. That same month, Paddy Chayefsky began writing 'Network.'
2. Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet were well-poised to deliver a warts-and-all portrayal of the TV industry. Both had gotten their big career breaks during the golden age of television in the 1950s, when live dramas were common network fare. Chayefsky won the first of his three screenwriting Oscars for 1955's 'Marty,' based on his own 1953 TV drama script. Lumet's legendary directing career, which spanned nearly 60 years, also began at the dawn of TV and included one of the first news/entertainment hybrids, the CBS series 'You Are There,' in which historical events were re-enacted as Walter Cronkite pretended to report on them. Lumet broke into movies with '12 Angry Men' (1957), which, like 'Marty,' was a remake of a play written for TV.
3. Like Lumet, Chayefsky's real name was Sidney. "Paddy" was a nickname that the Jewish Chayefsky had picked up during his Army service in World War II, when he claimed to be half-Irish in order to request permission to attend Mass and get out of KP duty.
4. MGM and United Artists agreed to finance and distribute 'Network' in the wake of Chayefsky's lawsuit against the latter over royalties from his previous movie, 1971 medical satire 'The Hospital,' the source of his second screenwriting Oscar.
5. Finding an actor authoritative enough and unhinged enough to play Howard Beale was tricky. Henry Fonda had the gravitas, but he reportedly rejected the role as "too hysterical." The filmmakers finally found their Beale in the fearless Peter Finch.
6. As Max Schumacher, the TV exec who is the film's flawed moral center, the filmmakers had to decide between durable leading men Glenn Ford and William Holden. Holden's recent success in 'The Towering Inferno,' as the mogul behind the doomed skyscraper, tipped the scales in his favor.
7. For Diana Christensen, the ambitious, charismatic, soulless programmer, the studio wanted Jane Fonda, but Chayefsky vetoed her because he disagreed with her politics. Other actresses on the wish list included Candice Bergen, Jill Clayburgh, Diane Keaton, and Marsha Mason. Faye Dunaway finally agreed to take the role, aware of warnings from Chayefsky and Lumet that she'd be allowed to impart no vulnerability to the character. Dunaway's advisers, including her then-husband, J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf, feared she would get typecast as cold and heartless women if she took the role. That didn't happen, though she did get typecast a few years later after her notorious portrayal of Joan Crawford in 'Mommie Dearest,' and she joked that she wished the naysayers had been around to talk her out of that one.
8. To play Louise, the wife Max cheats on when he has an affair with Diana, the filmmakers cast Beatrice Straight. The actress came from an old-money East Coast family (she was a cousin of Gloria Vanderbilt), and she'd won a Tony in 1953 for playing Elizabeth Proctor in Arthur Miller's 'The Crucible,' a betrayed-but-defiant wife role not too different from Louise Schumacher. Before her casting in the movie, she was probably best known for lending her aristocratic bearing to the role of Lynda Carter's regal mother on TV's 'Wonder Woman.'
9. Ned Beatty agreed to take on the small but key role as corporate titan Arthur Jensen, whose lecture to Beale about the cosmic power of global corporations is one of the film's funniest and scariest sequences. Years later, Beatty would remark that actors should never turn down a job, citing his experience here. "I worked a day on 'Network' and got an Oscar nomination for it," he reportedly said.
10. For research, Dunaway met with NBC daytime programming vice president Lin Bolen to find out about being a woman in the mostly male world of the TV executive suite. In the process, she picked up many of Bolen's mannerisms and speech rhythms. Bolen said she thought the performance was accurate as far as capturing her idiosyncrasies but was appalled by the character's amorality.
11. An in-joke: Max and Diana refer to their fling as "a many-splendored thing." Holden, of course, had been the star of 1955's romantic drama 'Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.'
12. Diana spends much of the film deciding Howard's fate, and yet she's so detached from the notion of Howard as a flesh-and-blood person that there's no scene in the film where Dunaway actually speaks to Finch.
13. Throughout all of Howard's different broadcasts, he appears to be addressing the same studio audience. Look for a man with long hair and a beard who's wearing a black vest; he appears at every taping.
14. By the time 'Network' was made, Lumet's former 'You Are There' host Walter Cronkite had become the most trusted news anchor in America. His tie to the film's satire of the news business: his daughter Kathy plays the kidnapped, Patty Hearst-like heiress.
15. Long before his appearances in 'The Terminator' and 'Aliens,' Lance Henriksen showed up in 'Network' in a small, uncredited role as a network attorney.
16. It's long been claimed that one of the assassins at the end of the movie is Tim Robbins, making his film debut. The uncredited actor certainly resembles the future 'Bull Durham' star, but Robbins, who was 17 when 'Network' was made, has asserted that he's not in the film.
17. Upon its release in November 1976, 'Network' was an instant hit with audiences as well as critics. Made for a reported $3.8 million, it grossed $23.7 million in North America.
18. TV journalists were appalled by the way 'Network' portrayed their field and worried that it would harm their image. One national news anchor insisted that there would never be "that kind of showbiz approach to the news because we will never let it happen." The person who said that? Barbara Walters.
19. A heart ailment was taking its toll on Finch during filming; it was the reason he could barely complete two takes of the "I'm mad as hell" speech. He lived long enough to see the completed film and to make the rounds promoting it. He appeared on 'The Tonight Show' the night before he died of a heart attack, in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel, on January 14, 1977. He was 60 years old.
20. 'Network' was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Lead and Supporting performances for five of its actors (Holden, Dunaway, Finch, Beatty, and Straight). It lost Best Picture to 'Rocky,' but it did win four prizes, for Chayefsky, Dunaway, Finch, and Straight. It was the first film since 1951's 'A Streetcar Named Desire' to win three of the four available acting trophies, and the last movie to do so to this day.
21. Finch wasn't the first actor to be nominated for an Academy Award after his death, but he was the first to win. He was also the first Australian to win Best Actor. At the time, many Oscar pundits saw his victory as a sympathy prize, not just for having died, but for having lost the award in 1971 to Gene Hackman. Hackman had done a terrific job playing macho cop Popeye Doyle in 'The French Connection,' but Finch had done groundbreaking work as a gay doctor who participated in mainstream cinema's first man-on-man kiss in 'Sunday, Bloody Sunday.' Many felt at the time that the snub was due to Hollywood homophobia -- a charge that would echo 34 years later when fellow Aussie Heath Ledger failed to win the prize for 'Brokeback Mountain.' Ledger, too, would win a consolation prize Oscar for 'The Dark Knight' three years later -- and he would be the first performer since Finch to win it after his own death.
22. Straight was on screen for only five minutes and 40 seconds, making hers the shortest performance ever to win an Oscar. (Judi Dench came close with her victory for 'Shakespeare in Love' 22 years later, for a role that lasts about eight minutes.)
23. With his 'Network' win, Chayefsky became only screenwriter to have won three Oscars for scripts he wrote by himself; other threepeaters Francis Ford Coppola, Charles Brackett, and Billy Wilder all won theirs in collaboration with other writers.
24. After winning her Oscar at age 62, Straight continued to be active in movies and TV for another 15 years; she died in 2001. Aside from 'Network,' she's best remembered today for her role as the ghost-hunting scientist in 1982's 'Poltergeist.' Dunaway's career, of course, has never gotten over the debacle that was 'Mommie Dearest,' though some fans think the 1981 film is her best work. Beatty has enjoyed a long career as a character actor. So has Robert Duvall, the only principal cast member who didn't get an Oscar nod for 'Network,' who finally did win one for 1983's 'Tender Mercies' and has remained in demand for 40 years. Chayefsky completed one more movie, 1980 sci-fi drama 'Altered States,' before he died of cancer in 1981. Holden continued to play the leading man in such movies as 'Damien: Omen II' and 'S.O.B.' before dying of injuries sustained in a fall at his home in 1981. Lumet remained a busy director of acclaimed films ('Prince of the City,' 'The Verdict,' 'Running on Empty,' 'Q&A,' 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead') into his 80s but never won a competitive Oscar, though he did get an honorary Academy Award in 2005. He died in April 2011.
25. In 2005, 'Network' almost came back to the very medium it so mercilessly satirized, as a made-for-TV movie that would have starred George Clooney (presumably in Holden's role). In a nod to Chayefsky and Lumet's roots, it would have been done as a live drama. The idea was the brainchild of CBS network chief Les Moonves, who was apparently not insulted by the story's scathing indictment of his own industry. After all, what had once seemed prophetic or absurd was now just business as usual.
[Photos: MGM/United Artists]
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