WASHINGTON: You’ll be forgiven if you think the subtitle of the book “Mad as Hell” refers to the anchorman played by Peter Finch in the Oscar-winning satire “Network.” Finch screamed that phrase into popular culture, though writer Paddy Chayefsky conceived it and embodied it – and was even madder.As author Dave Itzkoff explains in his dissection of the 1976 film, Chayefsky was angry about a lot of things back then: suicidal militants, anti-Semitism and hostility toward Israel, the influence of Arabs on the American economy, and the impact of corporate interests on TV news. Weaving all that and more into a screenplay gave voice to Chayefsky’s anxieties and paranoia.
Providing details and asides that can test even a fan’s patience, Itzkoff explores the many roots and branches of the film. He points out that Chayefsky’s idea for a subversive TV series about television executives became, about five years later, the heart of a cutting sendup of the industry. Unlike nearly every other writer, Chayefsky had control of all aspects of the production.
His list of potential actors to play Howard Beale, the mad prophet of the airwaves, included interesting choices – Robert Montgomery and Gene Hackman – and ridiculous ones, such as the born-to-be-mild James Stewart and Henry Fonda. Nobody did anger better than George C. Scott, but he declined the part when his wife, actress Trish Van Devere, wasn’t offered the female lead. For that role, Chayefsky thought of Natalie Wood and Candice Bergen, but his top pick was Faye Dunaway.
Born in London and raised in part in his father’s native Australia, Finch was a choice of almost last resort.
“No matter how much polite praise the ‘Network’ screenplay received,” Itzkoff writes, “it was not easy to convince any of Hollywood’s leading men to play a part so iconoclastic, so morbid, and so vulgar.”
That description might account for Paul Newman’s lack of interest.
“Network” earned 10 Academy Award nominations. It was one of three best picture nominees that year – the others being “All the President’s Men” and “Taxi Driver” – that suggested a cultural rot was taking hold in America after Vietnam and Watergate. They split the sourpuss vote and the top honor went to the decidedly upbeat “Rocky.” Chayefsky won an Oscar, for his screenplay, as did Finch, Dunaway and Beatrice Straight for their performances.
For all of Itzkoff’s good work, it’s difficult to draw up much interest in a film that has lost its power to shock or prompt discussion. So much of what Chayefsky presented then as a warning wrapped in satire is now a reality – and such observations have been around for quite some time.
Indeed, the movie’s more fanciful elements – a self-righteous newsman ranting on the air night after night and a TV series revolving around the shameful behavior of real people – have become staples of the multichannel world we live in. Hardly anyone blinks when media conglomerates gobble up each other, or when a news network cheerfully churns out political and social propaganda. Television isn’t even our favorite soul-sucking mass medium anymore. (Hello, Internet!)
Being right has its drawbacks. Screening “Network” today would be like watching “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” a generation or two after the pod people had taken over.
Entertaining? Very much so. Historical? Of course. Prescient? Certainly, but no longer relevant.
You can bet that would make Paddy Chayefsky really, really mad.
Dave Itzkoff’s “Mad as Hell: The Making of ‘Network’ and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies,” 2014, is published by Times Books.