Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Mad as Hell: Paddy Chayefsky Confronts Today’s Headlines

It’s fun imagining how Paddy Chayefsky would have reacted to the dire North Korean threats against The Interview, a silly Hollywood comedy. And I wonder how he would have felt about Muslim radicals beheading their hostages on camera, then posting the gory footage to YouTube. Yes, Chayefsky gained fame writing such gentle romances as Marty and Middle of the Night. But In the view of Dave Itzkoff, author of this year’s Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies, Chayefsky was best motivated by sheer fury: “His outraged simmered in his spleen and surged through his veins, collecting in his fingertips until it pushed his pen across paper and punched the keys of his typewriter.”

Network, from 1976, zeroes in on a fictitious TV network whose veteran newscaster, Howard Beale, undergoes an on-air crackup. His rant that the viewers of America should open their windows and scream, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore” unexpectedly elevates him into “the mad prophet of the airwaves,” an idol of millions. But as he continues to veer out of control, a shrewd head of programming decrees he must be taken down, as dramatically as possible.

Itzkoff makes a good case for Chayefsky’s prescience. His Howard Beale character -- the role won the first-ever posthumous Oscar for Peter Finch -- is in some ways a direct forerunner of TV pundits like Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck, both of whom proudly acknowledge that they too are “mad as hell” at the state of the world. Head programmer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), who will stop at nothing to ensure high ratings, has set the pattern for generations of real-life network folk. (In this year’s Nightcrawler, Rene Russo’s rabid news-director character seems to have learned her trade directly from Diana.)   

Central to the movie’s plot is the breaching of the sacred wall that once separated a network’s news division from its entertainment offerings. The commodification of the news broadcast -- the expectation that the evening news will prove its worth as a money-maker -- is today of course all too real. Chayefsky even foresaw the rise of reality television. Early on, when an inebriated Beale threatens to kill himself during his nightly news spot, his equally soused journalist buddy Max Schumacher (William Holden) enthusiastically endorses the plan: “Hell, why limit ourselves? . . .  I love it. Suicides. Assassinations. Mad bombers. Mafia hit men. Automobile smash-ups. The Death Hour. Great Sunday night show for the whole family. We’ll wipe that fucking Disney right off the air.” 

Schumacher is speaking ironically, but Diana is all too happy to turn a motley band of radicals who call themselves the Ecumenical Liberation Army into TV stars. Since they’re fond of filming themselves committing bank robberies and the like, she proposes to feature them in a real-life Mao Tse Tung Hour, in which they will commit actual crimes on a weekly basis for the titillation of the viewing public. (Network’s funniest scene in is the one in which they and an Angela Davis-type who serves as their liaison hotly debate with Diane the details of their subsidiary rights and distribution deals.)

Just think what Diana Christensen could do with the enterprising thugs of ISIS. Or, for that matter, Kim Jong-un. North Korea’s head honcho was understandably miffed that The Interview climaxes with his assassination, but he might love being the star of an American reality show. How about calling it Keeping Up with the Kims, or The Real Supreme Leader of Pyongyang?


  1. I only saw Network for the first time a few years ago - but I was amazed at how truly prescient it now appears. It's a very entertaining and thought provoking movie. I hope we never get to the point of televising real death for entertainment - but I fear we might one day.

  2. Well, some of the current reality shows have come very close to that, with former participants dying off-camera. Ugh. Anyway, happy new year, Mr. C!