When MGM‘s “NETWORK” premiered in New York on Nov. 14, 1976, its portrait of network television news was seen as a cartoonish satire, but 45 years later it looks entirely too real.
Director Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky exposed TV’s willingness to do anything to boost ratings & revenues. Chayefsky’s story centers on Howard Beale, news anchor for the fictional UBS-TV. Peter Finch played Beale, whose ratings are sagging until he announces on air he’s going to kill himself on the show next week. When his audience share soars, programming chief Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) creates an angry show about radical extremists with Beale as “The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves.” Cooler heads like news president Max Schumacher (William Holden) don’t prevail and Beale’s on-air madness continues — until he unexpectedly changes gears, losing his audience and value to UBS (no spoilers here).
Beale tells his millions of viewers to open their windows and scream into the night, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” It brings to mind contemporary TV news personalities for whom audience manipulation is now a nightly routine.
Beale’s line became one of the best-known movie lines ever. Ironically, it wasn’t delivered exactly as written because Finch added the word “as” between I’m and mad — but there was no footage available to edit it. Even more ironically, Chayefsky’s deal guaranteed none of his lines would be changed in any way unless he approved. He also had the right to be on set daily and to physically be very close to the actors. To make such proximity work, cinematographer Owen Roizman created what was called “Paddy’s Light,” illuminating a spot where he could stand without ruining a take.
The networks disliked how “NETWORK” portrayed them and wouldn’t make studio and control room facilities available for shooting in New York. It was too costly to build them, so those key scenes were filmed in Toronto at CFTO-TV. Beale’s intense “Mad as Hell” outburst was so physically demanding on Finch, who had a history of heart trouble, that he could only do three of the four 2-and-a-half minute takes Lumet wanted. Take 3 ended about halfway through when Finch couldn’t continue.
NETWORK brought Oscars to Chayefsky for original screenplay, Dunaway for lead actress & Beatrice Straight for supporting actress as the wife Schumacher cheats on with Christensen. Finch died in January 1977 — before winning the best actor Oscar posthumously.
“We know things are bad, worse than bad, they’re CRAZY! It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house and slowly the world we’re living in is getting smaller and all we say is please, at least leave us alone in our living room, let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I don’t say anything, just leave us alone. Well, I’m not gonna leave you alone! I want you to get MAD.” – Peter Finch as Howard Beale