Sunday, November 27, 2016

This Day in Film History (‘Network,’ Pitch-Black Prophecy of TV News, Debuts)

Nov. 27, 1976—Network, a Swiftian satire on the degradation of broadcast news, debuted to a critical reception that hailed its ensemble cast and savage screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky. Many in the news business, however, including on-air personalities like Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor and Edwin Newman, complained that the movie was exaggerated and far-fetched. 

In the end, while much of the creative talent associated with Network came away with Oscars, Hollywood bestowed Best Picture honors several months later on the Capraesque fairy tale of a Philadelphia palooka who ends up with a thousand-to-one shot in a heavyweight title bout, Rocky.

Even as I typed this last sentence, however, I realized how reductive, oversimplified and even condescending it was—not unlike Network itself at its worst. For most people, the term “Capraesque”—or, worse, “Capracorn”—evokes films by director Frank Capra filled with ultimate optimism about human beings and faith in American democracy, such as “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.” But there is another entry in Capra’s filmography that could be a cousin of Network: Meet John Doe (1941).

In both movies, a threat to commit suicide (in one case, actual; the other, a hoax) becomes an unexpected media sensation, courtesy of an ambitious, ethics-challenged woman. Before long, a corporate magnate grasps this unfolding story as an opportunity for profits and power—then, when he sees the protagonist’s usefulness eroding, makes him expendable. 

Above all, the two films put under their uncomfortable glare an all-too-credulous American public that can quickly morph into a mob—and, according to a post by Lara G. Fowler on the classic-film blog “Backlots,” offer pointed “reminders of the power of journalism to influence and brainwash.”

Three years ago, on what would have been Chayefsky’s 90th birthday, I wrote a post on Network’s similarities to his earlier Oscar-winning satire of an institution, The Hospital. I thought of simply re-posting this to Facebook. But I watched portions of Network again a few weeks ago—enough to make me realize that I hadn’t even come close to capturing how much it has gained in prophetic witness through the years, even if at points he seems to be using his characters as none-too-subtle mouthpieces for his own views

Ryan Bort of Newsweek, for instance, has described nine Network motifs that figured into the astonishing campaign of Donald Trump (#s 1 and 2:“The latent rage of the American people” and “The allure of anti-establishment rhetoric”). All true enough. 

But at a more basic level, Chayefsky sensed how the ground was shifting under journalism, in ways that grandees such as Cronkite and Chancellor—not to mention once-prominent network execs such as Richard Salant and Richard Wald—were in no real position to appreciate, and that has only gathered momentum with the years:

*Corporate parents’ obsession with news division ratings and favorable demographics: The trigger for the plot of Network is news exec’s Max Schumacher’s reluctance disclosure to his old friend, anchor Howard Beale, that he is being sacked because of plunging viewership, particularly with the young. Now, the days when news divisions were not expected to be profit centers have long since passed, but one thing remains the same: advertisers still look to a desirable demographic segment among  a newscast’s viewership (except that now it is not the baby boomers but the millennials).

*The creation of a fourth news network, given over to sensationalism: Chayefsky may have invented a fourth network as a fictive device to get around questions of whether his nightmare scenario could really occur at CBS, NBC or ABC. But within four years, CNN had come to compete with them for viewers, and 20 years after Network’s premiere, Fox began to specialize in reality programming and, in its news programs, Beale-like shouting news personalities intent on inciting rage among listeners.

*Network vulnerability to a hostile takeover: The behind-the-scenes drama of Network is heightened by the prospect of a corporate acquisition. A decade later, Laurence Tisch’s takeover of CBS marked the point when nightmare became reality, inaugurating an era of mass layoffs, asset sales, and declining moral in the news division. And CBS was soon joined in the griddle with the rest of the "Big Three," with GE's Jack Welch and Bob Wright overseeing NBC and Capital Cities' Tim Murphy and Dan Burke exerting similar tight-fisted control at ABC.

*Exploitation of prime time by terrorists: Chayefsky was horrified by the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. On September 11, 2001, Islamic terrorists pulled off an even more astonishing example of mass murder, also played out before the TV cameras. 

I couldn’t end this post without highlighting the importance of William Holden in holding the film together. None of the three actors who won Oscars for the movie—Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, and Beatrice Straight—shared scenes with each other. But Holden interacted with all of them in his role as Schumacher, the troubled, complicated heart who dealt with, in order, their power plays, insanity, and marital rage.

David Lean, who directed him in Bridge on the River Kwai, praised his fearlessness, and there are few more sterling examples than his work here as Schumacher. 

Robert Mitchum, Walter Matthau, Glenn Ford and Gene Hackman were all considered at one point for the part, but it is difficult to imagine any of them improving on Holden’s embodiment of the character. Blogger Sheila O'Malley, in a characteristically perceptive post on the actor’s career, takes note of the “deep crags, blazing blue eyes, and the seriousness behind the straight-up all-American handsomeness” that was all too obvious at this point in his career. But even that only conveys a portion of how much he inhabited the character. 

One of the most bankable leading men of the Fifties, Holden had not taken care of himself—and, two decades later, it showed. But in this last significant role, the bags under the eyes and a whiskey baritone somewhat coarsened by cigarettes only underscored a character who had seen all too much. It was easy to imagine the actor, once the “Golden Boy” of the screen, playing someone who could have been among the golden youths once recruited by Edward R. Murrow, now grimly trying to navigate the shoals of a profession no longer guided by any sense of public spirit. 
Chayefsky was famously insistent on having his script filmed exactly to his specifications. But I wish that director Sidney Lumet could have urged him to tone down Schumacher’s haunted confession to Faye Dunaway’s pitiless younger lover, Diane Christiansen:

“I feel lousy about the pain that I've caused my wife and kids. I feel guilty and conscience-stricken, and all of those things you think sentimental, but which my generation calls simple human decency. And I miss my home, because I'm beginning to get scared shitless, 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.”

Lumet could have argued convincingly that everything in that passage after “scared shitless” could have been left out, as the sight of Holden’s careworn face said far more about Schumacher’s fear of aging and mortality than Chayefsky’s script ever could.

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