"NETWORK" -- STILL MAD AS HELL
On Oscar Night in 1977, reigning stars -- Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway -- and aging icons -- William Holden, Bette Davis -- gathered at L.A.'s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Five films were up for Best Picture but only "Network" spawned a modern mantra.
All together now: "I'M MAD AS HELL AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!
But "Network" is not about anger. It's about "television, dummy." And about how television feeds off anger.
Paddy Chayefsky, the short, squat son of Ukrainian immigrants, was an unlikely candidate to satirize TV. During the 1950s, Chayefsky scripted some golden moments of TV's Golden Age. His play "Marty," about a middle-aged butcher in love, made him one of TV's promising young writers. But Chayefsky came to loathe what TV was doing to America.
"It totally desensitizes us to viciousness, brutality, murder, death," Chayefsky said, "We've lost our sense of shock, our sense of humanity." TV had become “an indestructible and terrifying giant.”
For years, Chayefsky toyed with a movie about TV. Then during the summer of 1974, the summer of Watergate and Patty Hearst on the run, he was watching the news. "Jesus, how can these guys live with themselves?" he wondered about anchormen. "How can they deliver this garbage without becoming physically ill?" The next day he called a friend, NBC anchor John Chancellor, and asked if an anchorman might go crazy on camera. Chancellor said the possibility existed "every day." Within a week, Chayefsky had a draft of "Network" and by fall, he was lurking around network offices to see how television was made. He was appalled.
Sitting in on meetings at CBS and NBC, he noted "the politics, the power struggles, the obsession with ratings." And he was surprised to learn that TV execs did not watch much TV. "The programs they put on 'had to' be bad," he said, "had to be something they wouldn't watch. Imagine having to work like that all your life."
Back at his typewriter, Chayefsky imagined a fourth network -- the Union Broadcasting System -- UBS. He had fun writing an evening lineup: "Celebrity Mahjong," "The Young Shysters," and opposite "Laverne and Shirley" "Shirley, Pedro and Putz." But Chayefsky himself was mad -- mad at TV's "whorehouse" ethics and the "maniacs" who watch night after night. Small wonder that "mad as hell" became his movie's signature phrase. But why has it become an American mantra?
Since 2010, "Mad as Hell" has titled a half-dozen books. In 2016, "Mad as Hell" headlined more than 100 articles on everything from Britain's Brexit voters to the presidential campaign. Voters were "mad as hell." The Los Angeles Times, Vanity Fair, CNN, FOX, the National Review, Salon, Breitbart, the Daily Kos, all used the phrase. Rage had become all the rage.
But Americans have not grown angry on their own. Instead, as "mad prophet of the airwaves" Howard Beale tells them, TV news numbs viewers. A wide-eyed Beale grips the podium:
We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit and watch our TVs while some local newscaster tells us today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be... So we don't go out anymore. We sit in the house and slowly the world we're living in gets smaller, and all we ask is, 'Please leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my hair dryer and my steel-belted radials, and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone.' Well, I'm not going to leave you alone...
Then comes the call to anger. But "mad as hell" masked Chayefsky's more ominous message -- that tabloid TV can make people mad. “Howard Beale is a precursor of people who are telling you how you feel," Stephen Colbert noted.
"Network" did not predict populist anger -- it predicted a network seeing that anger sells. And like UBS, today's BS networks stoke the embers of discontent. Psychological studies show that TV images of anger last longer in memory than images of fear -- 2nd place -- or disgust, a distant third. But you don't have to be a psychologist to know that, just a news director. Americans may be annoyed -- or numb -- but 24/7 cable news won't let them alone. Populist outrage is packaged and sold by corporations. This, too, Chayefsky predicted.
America, Beale laments, is "in a lot of trouble." UBS has just been bought by a huge corporation. And "when the twelfth largest company in the world controls the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world..." -- and here's what should be the movie's mantra -- "WHO KNOWS WHAT SHIT WILL BE PEDDLED FOR TRUTH ON THIS NETWORK!"
The Best Picture Oscar in 1977 went to "Rocky." Four years later, Paddy Chayefsky, who won the Oscar for Best Screenplay, died of cancer. He was fifty-eight. His last message to his wife was "I tried. I really tried." His message to an angry America remains the words of Howard Beale:
So turn off your television sets! Turn them off now! Turn them off and leave them off! Turn them off right in the middle of this sentence I'm speaking to you now! Turn them OFF --
Beale collapses. Music blares. The audience bursts into applause. Cut to the corporate board room...