Ratings Stunted

Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky, directed by Sidney Lumet, starring Faye Dunaway (Diana Christensen), William Holden (Max Schumacher), Peter Finch (Howard Beale), Robert Duvall (Frank Hackett), Ned Beatty (Arthur Jensen) and Beatrice Straight (Louise Schumacher) (1976): Of local interest is the fact that the control room and news studio scenes in this movie were filmed at CFTO-TV in Scarborough. Weird! Of historical interest, Beatrice Straight somehow won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for a role with only 5 minutes and 40 seconds of screen time — the shortest in Oscar history for a winning performance of any kind.

Seen as a scathing satire of the changing face of network news when it came out in 1976, Network now seems prescient, almost creepily so. Our 24-hour-a-day news network world now delivers entertainment and scandal and blustery opinion far more than it delivers actual news. Reality TV has become the dominant mode of the dying networks. We watch people die ‘live’ on TV all the time.

Peter Finch, who would die of heart failure before he won the Best Actor Oscar for this movie, plays Howard Beale, a long-time newsman who’s about to be fired from his anchorman position at moribund, fictional fourth-network UBS. So he loses it on-air, vowing to kill himself on his last broadcast. Allowed to apologize on-air for that stunt, he instead launches into an impassioned rant against the modern American world…and becomes a ratings hit.

So the network exploits him, shaping its new, news-free news hour around his increasingly bombastic, populist, apocalyptic rants. Veteran news producer Max Schumacher (an exhausted-looking William Holden) is appalled. So he’s fired. Dunaway, as a new programming director, and Duvall, as the hatchet man for the multinational that’s just purchased UBS, are delighted by Beale’s ratings. A show that follows the real exploits of a homegrown terrorist group is greenlit by Dunaway, and also becomes a hit. Increasingly bleak hilarity ensues.

The world of Network is pretty much the world we now see on a lot of our TV channels — Beale is Glenn Beck with a better writer (that writer being long-time, award-winning writer for stage, screen and TV Paddy Chayefsky). The performances shine; Lumet may have been the most gifted ‘actor’s director’ of his generation. Ned Beatty even gets a lovely turn as a megalomaniacal, evangelical corporate boss whose speech about how there are no nations anymore, only corporations, sends Beale into his final rhetorical and mental downwards spiral. A terrific, bleak, funny film. Highly recommended.

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