2016 TCM Classic Film Festival
Between 1967 and 1976, maybe the most seminal period in the development of American cinema, certainly as we know it today, there was no bigger star than Faye Dunaway. And this movie, Network, in this climate that we live in now seems to be the most prescient that I can think of . . . After Network aired, the reaction from the mainstream media was powerful anger. The great NBC newsman Edwin Newman, quoting now, “I don’t think TV producers would do anything to boost ratings.” That’s adorable. . . I want to introduce the woman who won the Academy Award for playing Diane Christensen who at one point utters one of the great lines in movie history, “All I want out of life is a 30 share and a 20 rating.”
– TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz
Possibly the most anticipated guests at this year’s festival was Faye Dunaway. On the closing Sunday, Ben Mankiewicz interviewed her at length at the Montalban Theatre. Later that day, she introduced Network (1976) in front of another capacity house at Hollywood’s Egyptian.
At the Montalban, Dunaway spoke about the arc of career and her most famous films including Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) Chinatown (1973) and Three Days of the Condor (1974). At the Egyptian, she touched on those other films but the emphasis was on Network, her co-stars and director Sidney Lumet. She mentioned how Lumet would push the pace of the dialogue, saying “‘more, faster,’ you had to have the lines down cold. . . Sometimes what you found in rehearsal would change. . . Sidney was the only person I worked with who did rehearsal first. . . He always brought the films in under budget and under schedule and he knew everything about the actor’s process.” At lunchtime though, “he slept, he took a nap. He had that kind of discipline. He had to be at top energy for the rest of the day.”
Network is a movie I’ve known by reputation, mainly for the “I’m mad as hell” line delivered by Peter Finch. I had never seen it all the way through, so what better time than at this momentous occasion?
Howard Beale (Finch) is a network news anchor in the traditional Walter Cronkite mold. His style hasn’t kept pace with times and his alcohol problem is starting to show. He gets his notice from his ratings obsessed bosses. Worst of all, a man he considered an ally, Max Schumacher (William Holden), is the one who delivers the bad news. At dinner, they joke about committing suicide live on television. At the time, it’s only a joke. On what’s scheduled as his last broadcast, he mentions his “suicide on camera” plan. Management ushers him from the building and they vow to never let him back on the air.
Howard’s banishment is short-lived. The ratings spiked during the broadcast so they allow him a farewell address. Rather than go quietly out to pasture, Howard starts ranting on the air about government corruption, the banks, corporate power, subjects familiar from the Bernie Sanders campaign. Somewhat like Bernie, Howard has nothing to lose. Management, in the person of Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), worries, but the ratings don’t lie. Producer Diane Christiansen (Dunaway) is brought in to handle the unhinged Howard. Diane has a killer instinct that’s a match for any man. One again, Max in caught between concern for his old friend’s sanity and Diane’s ambitious plans to further juice the ratings bonanza. He’s also attracted to her. She’s a shark, “soulless” perhaps but, of course, looks like Faye Dunaway. As she told Mankiewicz, “He was so interesting and sexy and elegant, a gentleman. Like a newspaperman.” In her 1996 autobiography Looking for Gatsby, she described Holden as “crusty elegance.”
Mankiewicz called Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay “prescient” and Dunaway readily agreed. “I doubt that network executives discuss the murder of their anchor,” he joked, “but I’m not positive.”
As part of his Great Films series, Robert Ebert wrote in 2000:
The movie has been described as “outrageous satire” (Leonard Maltin) and “messianic farce” (Pauline Kael), and it is both, and more. What is fascinating about Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning screenplay is how smoothly it shifts its gears. The scenes involving Beale and the revolutionary “liberation army” are cheerfully over the top. The scenes involving Diana and Max are quiet, tense, convincing drama. The action at the network executive level aims for behind-the-scenes realism; we may doubt that a Howard Beale could get on the air, but we have no doubt the idea would be discussed as the movie suggests. And then Chayefsky and the director, Sidney Lumet, edge the backstage network material over into satire, too–but subtly, so that in the final late-night meeting where the executives decide what to do about Howard Beale, we have entered the madhouse without noticing.
The movie caused a sensation in 1976. It was nominated for 10 Oscars, won four (Finch, Dunaway, supporting actress Beatrice Straight, Chayefsky), and stirred up much debate about the decaying values of television. Seen a quarter-century later, it is like prophecy. When Chayefsky created Howard Beale, could he have imagined Jerry Springer, Howard Stern and the World Wrestling Federation?
Dunaway closed the interview by plugging her Amazon series Hand of God, saying “I just want to be working. That’s where I’m happiest.”
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