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'I'm mad as hell' and you know the rest

Three decades later, 'Network' remains prescient as ever

By Todd Leopold

Peter Finch as Howard Beale in "Network."


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Eye on Entertainment
Faye Dunaway

(CNN) -- Voices in the air.

Diana Christensen: I've been telling you people since I took this job six months ago that I want angry shows. I don't want conventional programming on this network. I want counterculture, I want anti-establishment. I don't want to play butch boss with you people, but when I took over this department, it had the worst programming record in television history. This network hasn't one show in the Top 20. This network is an industry joke.

The secret of the best satire is familiarity, roots in recognizable reality. George Orwell didn't need to stretch much to write "Nineteen Eighty-Four": He simply looked at the post-World War II world of 1948 -- with its Stalinist purges, demoralized peoples, propaganda and brewing Cold War -- added a dose of totalitarianism, flipped the last two digits of the year and there it was.

Howard Beale: And I said, "Why me?" And the voice said: "Because you're on television, dummy!"

In his 1985 book "Amusing Ourselves to Death," Neil Postman was less concerned with an Orwellian future -- a future of oppressed, joyless automatons -- than he was of a Huxleyian future, one predicted by Aldous Huxley in his book "Brave New World." In that book, people are so sated by pleasure, from hedonistic pursuits to the ingestion of the drug Soma, that they fail to question the flaws and brutalities of a centrally run society.

Postman was worried that our society, with its constant search for distraction, was losing its ability to question, to wonder, to think, that it was being overwhelmed by images and dazzled by facade. And his main culprit was television.

Max Schumacher: We could make a series of it. "Suicide of the Week." Aw, hell, why limit ourselves? "Execution of the Week."

Howard Beale: "Terrorist of the Week."

Max Schumacher: I love it. Suicides, assassinations, mad bombers, Mafia hit men, automobile smashups: "The Death Hour." A great Sunday night show for the whole family. It'd wipe that [bleepin'] Disney right off the air.

When "Network" came out in 1976, people thought it was outlandish, inconceivable, impossible. "The Mao Tse-Tung Hour"? A network news variety show hosted by a "Mad Prophet of the Airwaves"? Never happen. Who would watch such things?

Howard Beale: It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we're living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, "Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials, and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone." Well, I'm not going to leave you alone. I want you to get mad! ... I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it and stick your head out and yell, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

But writer Paddy Chayefsky, a keen observer of television and society, knew better. In his time, host Joe Pyne already was screaming on his "talk" show, a forerunner of Wally George, Morton Downey Jr. and every indignant commentator that exists in today's 500-channel universe.

In his time, the local news was already dominated by the "if it bleeds, it leads" philosophy. And Chayefsky knew that humans had once gathered for public executions and lynch mobs -- and still gathered for circuses and car crashes. Oh, they'd watch.

Arthur Jensen: You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won't have it. Is that clear? You think you've merely stopped a business deal? That is not the case. The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back. It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity. It is ecological balance. You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations; there are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems; one vast, interwoven, interacting, multivaried, multinational dominion of dollars.

In 30 years, the world has become a different place than it was when Chayefsky wrote "Network," but much of it is still the same, still full of war and violence and corruption and missing puppies. But the packaging has gotten better, and sometimes it's hard to tell real life from "reality," the version that's presented on television and on the Internet. News is showbiz; showbiz is news.

And, every so often, it's time for a word from our sponsor.

Eye on Entertainment takes a station break.


"Network" took its knocks in its day -- Gene Shalit complained that Chayefsky's theatrical, speechifying script sounded like he was hitting six typewriters at once -- but the years have been kind.

The film's performers -- Faye Dunaway as the blank, coldblooded network programmer; William Holden as the head of the news division; Robert Duvall as ruthless corporate climber Frank Hackett; Ned Beatty as evangelical executive Arthur Jensen; Beatrice Straight as Holden's pained but forgiving wife; and, especially, Peter Finch as crazy news anchor Howard Beale -- give tremendous performances. Sidney Lumet's direction is, as usual, pitch-perfect. (Both Chayefsky and Lumet were veterans of TV's early days.)

The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards. Finch, Dunaway and Straight won for their performances -- Finch posthumously, Straight essentially for one great scene ("I'm your wife, damn it!"). Chayefsky also won for his scathingly funny screenplay, the writer's third and last Oscar in a storied career.

Because "Network" now looks as much like a documentary as it does a satire, it's fascinating to view the extras on a new 30th-anniversary DVD edition of the film.

One is an appearance by Chayefsky on, of all things, "The Dinah Shore Show." When Shore and her guests question the reality of "Network," Chayefsky says he didn't have to stretch much; he simply drew from current events.

He also got at least 15 minutes of the hourlong show. Imagine a writer getting that kind of time on a talk show nowadays. Imagine anybody getting that kind of time to talk about serious things.

It's the kind of situation that can't help but make you mad as hell.

"Network" comes out on DVD Tuesday. It's being released by Warner Home Video, like CNN a division of Time Warner.

On screen

  • I can't help but look at the name of Tyler Perry's character "Madea" and think of the mythological Greek sorceress Medea, who murdered her brother, children and a few others. Perry's Madea can be violent but not that violent. She reappears in "Madea's Family Reunion," which opens Friday.
  • In "Doogal," a dog and his friends try to stop an evil wizard from freezing the Earth. It does not star Mr. Freeze -- or, for that matter, Medea. The film's voices include those of William H. Macy, Jimmy Fallon, Whoopi Goldberg and Jon Stewart. It opens Friday.
  • "Running Scared," the new film from "The Cooler" director Wayne Kramer, has no relation to the 1986 Billy Crystal-Gregory Hines film. This one, about a mobster, stars Paul Walker. It opens Friday.
  • On the tube

  • "Mrs. Harris" stars Annette Bening as Jean Harris, the woman who killed her lover, famed diet doctor Herman Tarnower (Ben Kingsley). It airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on HBO.
  • The Olympics closing ceremonies are Sunday. Given that the nations marched in with '80s pop music blaring in the background, there's a possibility that they'll reconvene with '70s pop music playing. "Run, Joey, Run"? "The Night Chicago Died"? "Midnight at the Oasis"? It could happen. 7 p.m. ET Sunday, NBC.
  • "Chaos and Creation at Abbey Road" is a documentary featuring Paul McCartney in what is perhaps the world's most famous recording studio -- Abbey Road, where the Beatles made most of their records. 10 p.m. ET Monday, PBS.
  • Sound waves

  • Jessi Colter's new album, "Out of the Ashes" (Shout! Factory) -- produced by Don Was -- comes out Tuesday.
  • "Live Trucker" (Atlantic), Kid Rock's latest, comes out Tuesday.
  • Hank Williams III's new one, "Straight to Hell" (Curb), comes out Tuesday.
  • After the Mamas and Papas broke up, band leader John Phillips searched around for his own project. He finally recorded a well-regarded, but hard-to-find, solo album: 1970's "John Phillips," also known as "John, the Wolf King of L.A." The Varese Vintage label puts out a newly remastered version with bonus tracks Tuesday.
  • Paging readers

  • If you've ever wanted to know the secrets behind the obituary -- and there are some juicy, fascinating ones to be had -- Marilyn Johnson's wonderful "The Dead Beat" (HarperCollins) is the book for you. It comes out Tuesday.
  • "Mavericks of the Sky" (William Morrow), Barry Rosenberg and Catherine Macaulay's story of the early U.S. air mail pilots, comes out Tuesday.
  • To get you primed for the Academy Awards, it's worth checking out "Conversations With the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood's Golden Age at the American Film Institute" (Knopf), by George Stevens Jr. It comes out Sunday.
  • Video center

  • "Walk the Line" comes out on DVD Tuesday. The movie was named one of film critic Paul Clinton's top 10 of 2005.
  • "Lady and the Tramp: 50th Anniversary Edition" is due Tuesday.
  • The 1975 classic "Dog Day Afternoon," with its marvelous Al Pacino performance and brilliant Frank Pierson script (and, like "Network," directed by Sidney Lumet), comes out in a special two-disc DVD edition on Tuesday.
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