The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Six minutes from a 1976 film, still relevant today

Ned Beatty in a scene from the 1976 film "Network." (Everett Collection)

Ned Beatty, who died Sunday at age 83, appeared in more than 160 movies and television shows, mostly in minor but memorable roles — none more enduring than his bravura performance in “Network,” the 1976 film that earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

Beatty was hired a week before filming, his scene was shot in a day and he appears on screen for just six minutes near the end of a two-hour movie. But his boardroom rant as Arthur Jensen, the chairman of an over-leveraged conglomerate that owns a television network, captured the zeitgeist not only of that time, but of ours as well, laying bare the undercurrents that pit nationalism and populism against globalism and corporatism.

Beatty as Jensen rages at his network’s anchorman, Howard Beale, for thwarting an acquisition by the Saudis. More than four decades later, it remains one of the greatest and most resonant monologues in the history of American cinema.

“You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and you will atone,” Jensen roars at Beale, the mentally ill, mad-as-hell TV host played by Peter Finch. “You get up on your little 21-inch screen and howl about America and democracy. . . . We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. . . . The world is a business.”

The movie was intended as a cultural critique amid the fallout from Watergate, Vietnam and stagflation. With its dark satire of TV culture, “Network” is mostly remembered as an indictment of the corrupting temptations of chasing ratings. The film presciently anticipates the rise of reality TV, as well as cable news programming that focuses more on entertaining — and agitating — than informing. Watching it 45 years later, the movie feels like a harbinger of two men who once hosted their own shows — Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump — becoming president.

The scene starring Beatty was supposed to be filmed in the boardroom of the New York Stock Exchange’s headquarters on Wall Street, but officials withdrew permission after seeing the script. As a fallback, producers convinced the New York Public Library to allow them to film in its Beaux-Arts meeting room.

Roberts Blossom was originally cast for the role of Jensen, but he was dropped because screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet disagreed over his performance, according to “Mad as Hell,” a 2014 book about the film by Dave Itzkoff. Robert Altman recommended Beatty, who had just played the husband-manager of the gospel singer portrayed by Lily Tomlin in “Nashville,” which Altman had directed.

Beatty was an improbable replacement. His Hollywood debut in the 1972 movie “Deliverance” featured his character being forced to strip down and “squeal like a pig” by a hillbilly in rural Georgia before being raped. More recently, as Beatty later recalled, he’d played a series of Southern “schnooks.”

“If I’d been casting that role, I’d have been the last person I’d have thought of,” he told People magazine when “Network” came out.

But the Kentucky native turned out to be perfect as Jensen because he conjured just the right mix of traveling salesman and evangelical minister. Melding those roles in “Network,” Jensen ushers Beale into the boardroom, which he describes as “Valhalla” — the majestic hall of the gods in Norse mythology.

The scene begins with the men separated by a long table, covered in green-shaded banker’s lamps, and Jensen begins his monologue under what feels like a spotlight in the dimly lit room. He moves closer and closer until he’s looming over Beale. “I have seen the face of God,” Beale says as Jensen finishes. “You just might be right,” Jensen replies.

The corporate chieftain prevails upon Beale to “preach” a new “evangel” to his audience in which he decries individualism and embraces what the movie’s narrator calls “the corporate cosmology of Arthur Jensen.” Audiences don’t cotton to this new message. When ratings tank, network executives arrange to have Beale killed — live on air — after Jensen refuses to let them fire him.

The corporate consolidation that seemed so lamentable in 1976 when Beatty’s character personified it on the screen feels quaint compared with the conglomerate realities of 2021. There are glimmers of Beale in the personas of Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, as well as flickers of Jensen in Rupert Murdoch at News Corp.

“Network” won four Academy Awards, including best screenplay for Chayefsky, best actor for Finch, best actress for Faye Dunaway and best supporting actress for Beatrice Straight. Beatty lost out on the Oscar for best supporting actor to Jason Robards, who played Post executive editor Ben Bradlee in “All the President’s Men,” in which Beatty also had a role.

Few Americans ever learned Beatty’s name — he was not related to the much more famous Warren Beatty — but many moviegoers came to recognize his face. He played Lex Luthor’s sidekick Otis in “Superman,” Congressman Doc Long in “Charlie Wilson’s War” and Dean David Martin in “Back to School.”

But Beatty’s six-minute turn in “Network” remains his masterpiece, and its message is just as sharp now, if not sharper. “The nations of the world today,” he rails, are IBM, ITT, AT&T, DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon. If that corporate roster sounds a bit dated, it is difficult to consider its 21st-century version, studded with social media and Internet giants such as Facebook, Google and Amazon, and conclude that Beatty’s message is any less relevant.

Read more:

Megan McArdle: Raising taxes on the wealthy won’t magically fix our inequality problem

David Ignatius: How Nancy Pelosi plans to address growing inequality

David Von Drehle: Auschwitz comes to the middle of America, with a powerful warning

John P. Moore: The U.S. government has made international science harder right when it needs it the most

Deb Haaland: My grandparents were stolen from their families as children. We must learn about this history.