The Set of 400: #20 – My Favorite George Washington Bridge Joke

Today! Because the dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust –

Network (1976)

Directed by Sidney Lumet (x4)

Starring William Holden (x2), Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall (x4), Ned Beatty (x5), Beatrice Straight (x2), Darryl Hickman, Wesley Addy, Arthur Burghardt, Marlene Warfield, Jordan Charney (x2), Conchata Ferrell, Ken Kercheval, William Prince

The most prescient movie of all time, Network manages to reflect modern television far better than the handful of channels existing in its day. Sure, the writing may have been on the wall that news could someday be weaponized and rolled into general entertainment, but the likes of CNN and FOX News was still years away when Paddy Chayefsky penned his masterpiece and Lumet so brilliantly brought it to life. You may come into Network for the acting – because those are some powerful, towering performances – but it stays with you for the depiction of the rabbit hole nightmare decades before its full impact was evident.

Now, despite winning three of the four acting Oscars in ’76 (the second and most recent movie to accomplish this feat, after A Streetcar Named Desire), this is not a group of particularly well-rounded characters. They more represent ideals than actual human beings, and so no one is very relatable, and the script goes bonkers with the monologuing. Beatrice Straight won Best Supporting Actress for basically one long scene where she yells at her philandering husband. Ned Beatty was similarly nominated for his apocalyptic speech breaking down corporate America in near biblical terms. The most famous sequence of the movie is an almost uninterrupted missive to the viewing audience as Finch’s cracked newsman Howard Beale gets mad as hell.

But yes, despite garnering five acting nominations from the Academy (still the record, tied with Mrs. Miniver, Bonnie and Clyde, and From Here to Eternity), the star of this movie is Chayefsky – one of the great screenwriters in history. Starting out in television and theater, and only living to 58 due to cancer, Chayefsky nonetheless managed to win three screenplay Oscars for his dozen films – 1955 Best Picture winner Marty, for another list favorite, #187 The Hospital in 1971, and Network. The monologues may tip off his theater past, and indeed the film was much later transferred to the stage in London and New York, to great acclaim (even if it moves Beale front and center and removes the crucial-but-dated PLO-inspired subplot), but the movie still manages to not feel overly stagey in spite of this.

Finch’s Oscar winning work as Beale is so legendary and iconic that it tends to overwhelm the film, and the narrative around it. Holden and Dunaway are the legitimate leads of the picture – which also features no less an acting giant than Robert Duvall in a major role – and yet they all tend to get the shaft in most discussions of the movie. Really, is there any greater actor more relegated to supporting color than Duvall? In the ’70s alone he appeared as no better than the fifth lead in MASH, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The Godfather Part II, and The Conversation in addition to Network. Sure, eventually he’d get more leads and that Tender Mercies Oscar, but he might be the definition of a team player for the entire first two decades of his career.

We salute you, Frank Hackett!

And even though it won four Oscars from its ten nominations, 1976 was just too tough a year for a big sweep – Lumet and producer Howard Gottfried lost out on Director and Picture to Rocky, while you also had All the President’s Men and Taxi Driver squarely in the mix. Network did land in the 60s on both versions of the AFI Top 100 lists, and as the years go by and reality more and more lines up with thesis of the film, new generations continue to discover it and keep it in the consciousness. So thanks, cable news! You’re doing great cinema work!

This is Lumet’s fourth and final list film, following #374 Murder on the Orient Express, #85 12 Angry Men, and #160 Dog Day Afternoon, making him the 21st directing Four-Timer, while Beatty leads the acting side, joining the Five-Timers with #305 Superman, #199 Superman II, #152 Toy Story 3, and #294 1941. 

Coming tomorrow! Generally you don’t see that kind of behavior in a major appliance –

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