In the closing chapter of Mad as Hell — informatively subtitled The Making of ‘Network’ and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies — Dave Itzkoff lays out how the American media has become even more Chayefskyian in the decades since Paddy Chayefsky, the angry man in question, wrote his crazed, perceptive, unwieldy, galvanizing satiric fantasia set in the world of network television news.
Yet Itzkoff, a culture reporter for the New York Times, doesn’t go far enough. How could he? Between the time the covers were glued on his lively and terrifically detailed account and this very minute, the media world has become more Chayefskyian still.
Rachel Maddow, a real-life, crusading left-wing journalist, now appears as Rachel Maddow in an episode of the snake-pit Netflix drama House of Cards, about a scheming, fictional politician. Giant cable company Comcast plans to acquire giant Time Warner Cable to create an earth-stomping commercial behemoth. Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide, announces that he wants more reality programming, more of “an attitude and a take,” “more shows and less newscasts” on the Cable News Network.
These times confirm the pinwheeling visions of Howard Beale, the anchorman and “mad prophet of the airwaves” in Network. If, when the movie was first released, the words Chayefsky put into Beale’s mouth were considered outrageous, today they sound eminently sane.
“Right now,” proclaims Peter Finch as Beale, “there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube. This tube is the gospel, the ultimate revelation; this tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers; this tube is the most awesome goddamn force in the whole godless world, and woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people!”
Mad as Hell: The Making of ‘Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies
By Dave Itzkoff
Times Books/Henry Holt & Co
“Right now” was when Chayefsky won the 1976 screenwriting Oscar for his howl against cutthroat network executives and sheeplike viewers, cynical programmers and dumbed-down pop culture, the dual American malaise of infectious personal apathy and metastasizing corporate greed. Not that his howl was universally well received at the time. Itzkoff’s narrative is thorough yet brisk as he catalogs the good and the bad that befell Chayefsky and his passion project. It is fortified with vivid anecdotes pulled from generous access to the Paddy Chayefsky papers at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and to the Network script supervisor Kay Chapin’s observant production diary. Among the many interviews conducted, those with the screenwriter’s son, Dan Chayefsky; his longtime producer, Howard Gottfried; and the Network cinematographer, Owen Roizman, are particularly illuminating.
The movie stung industry insiders. “Awful,” “just such a caricature,” “simply couldn’t happen,” said Richard S. Salant, then president of CBS News. It also divided critics. “Brilliantly, cruelly funny,” Vincent Canby said in the New York Times; “a mess of a movie,” said Frank Rich, then a movie critic at the New York Post.
Still, it was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and won four, including Chayefsky’s for screenwriting. Faye Dunaway won best actress for her performance, both chilling and sizzling, as a ruthless programming executive; Beatrice Straight won best supporting actress for her small but piercing role as an executive’s wronged wife; and the best actor award went, posthumously, to Finch, who died of a heart attack in January 1977. (The director, Sidney Lumet, lost to John G. Avildsen, who directed Rocky.)