It’s a declaration that has invaded the American psyche. First bellowed by the fictional newscaster Howard Beale in the 1976 movie “Network,” “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore” has been used countless times to capture the churning frustrations in American society. We have been “not taking it anymore” for a long while.
The man responsible for “Network” and that ringing howl of outrage was Paddy Chayefsky, and he was not pleased with the way the line was embraced. Other screenwriters might welcome the attention, but he thought his corporate satire’s larger message was being reduced to caricature. Dave Itzkoff’s “Mad as Hell” chronicles not only Chayefsky’s arduous efforts to get “Network” made but also the influence its several messages have had. It is Stephen Colbert’s favorite movie, for one thing.
A “short, stocky Bronx-born Jew,” in Itzkoff’s words, Sidney Chayefsky was at basic training during World War II when, one morning, he claimed he couldn’t perform KP duty because he had to attend Catholic Mass. “Sure you do, Paddy,” was his superior officer’s response, and the sarcastic nickname stuck. A remarkable career followed — through the early years of television, a few years of stage plays and many movies. Chayefsky won screenwriting Oscars for “Marty” (1955), “The Hospital” (1971) and “Network” before his death at age 58 in 1981.
Itzkoff draws on extensive research to explain the provenance of “Network.” As shown in a fascinating series of background notes, drafts and memos, Chayefsky forged through multiple scenarios before he hit upon a version that was dramatic, comic and bleak enough to satisfy him. Perhaps more for his own enjoyment than for practical purposes, he also created a seven-day programming grid for UBS, his fictional network, which put ratings ahead of morality, art or useful information. That schedule included such shows as “Celebrity Mah-jongg,” “Lady Cop” and “Pedro and the Putz.”
In his contract for “Network,” Chayefsky insisted on getting extensively involved in the production process, including being given the highly unusual power (for a screenwriter) of approving the final cut. Sidney Lumet possessed the confidence to direct the film under this unorthodox arrangement. Alan Heim, who edited “Network,” explained: “Most of the directors who worked in New York basically did what they wanted. A good director — you make a good movie, nobody’s going to meddle too much.” As luck would have it, Lumet and Chayefsky worked together compatibly, even when Chayefsky literally got in the way of filming.
Itzkoff has gathered plenty of background material about the people involved in “Network,” including former matinee idol William Holden. By the time he was cast as veteran newsman Max Schumacher, his golden-boy career had suffered, but Itzkoff goes overboard in writing that Holden was regarded in 1976 as “an old zoo animal to throw peanuts at, a charmingly obsolete vaudevillian.”
Playing the film’s central woman, Faye Dunaway is presented as a difficult curiosity. Itzkoff quotes Roman Polanski, who directed Dunaway in “Chinatown,” as saying, “You have, I guarantee, never seen such certifiable proof of craziness.” Itzkoff also claims that Dunaway was the source of most of the filming’s “occasional blowups and breakdowns,” but he offers little by way of specifics. Dunaway certainly gave a whirlwind of a performance as a programming exec with script ideas and ratings numbers pouring ceaselessly out of her mouth, even in the midst of a sexual tryst. She offers a welcome reprieve from male harangues and Beale’s fainting spells.
Dunaway played her absurdist heroine with complete conviction and, like Finch (who died while promoting the film) and supporting actress Beatrice Straight, was rewarded with an Oscar. The glory didn’t last long, however. The media lambasted her for a photo of her lounging at the Beverly Hills Hotel, allegedly showing too little reverence for her nearby statuette.
Part of what makes “Network” worth watching today is its restless mood of strain and struggle. As Ben Affleck told Itzkoff: “The difference between commerce and art is that in art there is a kind of insurgency. And there’s a profound insurgency in ‘Network.’ ” Chayefsky wanted to jolt people back to their humanity, and he wasn’t just talking about programming executives. He worried about audiences, too, and the way they were numbed to the outside world.
Among Chayefsky’s messages, it is the film’s prophecy of entertaining, profit-driven news programming that has made it a cultural touchstone. Itzkoff interviews a range of national figures — from Oliver Stone to Bill O’Reilly to Colbert — who, long after the three networks of 1976 were joined by millions of other news-gatherers and sharers, have not forgotten Howard Beale.
O’Reilly notes the importance of entertaining people as well as informing them, saying: “I think Syria’s an important story, but I can’t cover it. Nobody’s going to watch, and I know that. That’s the limitations of my job.” With the exception of the assassination of an on-air personality, Keith Olbermann claims, “I have seen everything in that movie come true, or it’s happened to me.” Colbert, in turn, laments the attitude adopted by so many present-day broadcasters: “I will tell you what to think and how to feel.”
Almost 40 years after “Network,” we’re less mad than distracted, looking to be amused. We could use another Paddy Chayevsky.
MAD AS HELL
The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies
By Dave Itzkoff
Times. 287 pp. $27