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Sunday Classics Matinee: Network

by Robb Reel

Can a 37-year-old movie be as relevant today as it was then?

Before you say "No," you need to see Network.

The Union Broadcasting System is struggling with poor ratings.  The legendary William Holden plays Max Schumacher, the rare network executive with a conscience... at least most of the time.  Max learns that his old friend, Howard Beale, is about to be canned as the longtime anchor of the UBS Evening News.  The two go out and get ripped as Max shares the bad news that Howard has just two weeks left and they lament the downfall of the business they love.

The next night, Beale -- as played by Peter Finch -- tells the world he will commit suicide on next Tuesday broadcast.  Max talks the furious powers that be out of immediately dismissing Beale with the promise of an on-air apology.  Instead, FInch earns his Oscar with one of the most iconic cinematic speeches of all time.

"I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

After uttering one of the most quoted [and misquoted] lines in movie history, Beale is recast as "The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves" as UBS now sees him as a golden goose.  Faye Dunaway, taking her second starring turn opposite Holden [The Towering Inferno], is Diana Christensen, the network programming chief who convinces her bosses to put Beale and the news under her auspices as entertainment.  She also embarks on a tempestuous affair with Max.

As Beale spirals into apparent madness, ratings soar.  So do stock prices.  UBS big fish Frank Hackett [Robert Duvall] and even-bigger fish Arthur Jensen [Ned Beatty], the chairman of the network's parent company, get involved.

In my continued commitment to not spoil any of these great films, I will refrain for giving away where the story goes, how it ends and the incredible last line of the movie via the narrator.  I can tell you that Paddy Chayefsky was more than remarkably astute about the state of electronic media in the mid-70s, but incredibly prescient about where media would go in the coming decades with the rise of ridiculous so-called "reality" TV.  Network would garner the Oscar for Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen -- his third as a solo author [Marty, The Hospital], an unmatched feat.

The film is remarkable in a few more ways.  In another incredibly crowded Oscar year, Network , All the President's Men and Taxi Driver all lost Best Picture to the also-deserving Rocky.  Director Sidney Lumet also lost in a field that saw even the great Ingmar Berman [Face to Face] go home empty-handed.  Ned Beatty was part of a murderers' row of Best Supporting Actor nominees, maybe the best ever, when Jason Robards [All the President's Men] took the trophy.  Dunaway did score the Best Actress statuette.

Holden lost Best Actor to Finch, who died before the 1977 ceremony.  He became the first actor to be posthumously awarded an Oscar.  He also became the first Australian actor to win an Oscar.  Coincidentally, Heath Ledger, also an Aussie, is the only other person to be posthumously honored by the Academy for acting.  Finch's widow, Eletha, accepted on his behalf.

The last remarkable bit involves the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.  Beatrice Straight played Louise Schumacher, Max's devastated and estranged wife, for all of 5:40 in the film.  It is the shortest performance to ever win an acting Oscar, though still more than twice as long as the shortest perfomance to be nominated as Hermione Baddeley appeared a mere 2:32 in Room at the Top in 1959.

Not every movie holds up after four decades the way Network does.  I had seen it as a kid but didn't "get it" until I saw it again during college [longer ago than I care to divulge].  If anything, I think it rings even more true today.  Instead of watching another chapter in the Kardashian Reign of Terror, take a look at this film... and see why that family has so easily conquered pop culture.