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Editor’s choice: Why Paddy Chayefsky was ‘mad as hell’ when he wrote ‘Network’

Mad as Hell: The Making of “Network” and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies by Dave Itzkoff; Times Books, 287 pages ($27) In the Oscar for Best Picture, there have been few worthier candidates in Academy Award history than “Network” in 1976. It was the truly absurd also-ran that year. Three of the four acting awards went to the film – to Faye Dunaway, Beatrice Straight and, in the first posthumous Best Actor Oscar in history, to Peter Finch who played Howard Beale, the “mad prophet of the airwaves” who advised his audience to rise up out of their chairs and shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” The Oscar for Best Screenplay went to the man who not only wrote the script for “Network” but had a special spot on the film’s set where he stood to make sure his dialogue was preserved.

That last is only one of an irresistible tide of details here about the classic film. At the very least, its original audience has watched with knowing horror as its author, Paddy Chayefsky, became, in reality, a “mad prophet of the movies.” So much of the televised apocalypse that he envisioned traveled the long distance from satiric absurdity to an integral part of the everyday diet of American media whose toxicity we can’t even gauge anymore.

Among the many notable absurdities occasioned by Chayefsky’s sulfurous and prophetic screenplay and director Sidney Lumet’s masterful final version of it, was great critic Pauline Kael’s tone deafness to so much about the visionary satire that, as time has proved, fulfilled so much of what audiences want the greatest movies to do. Tragically, she just didn’t get it. Nor, more predictably, did John Simon. To his landmark credit for perspicacity, New York Times critic Vincent Canby did.

How often now do we routinely compare radio and TV’s political blunderbusses and bloviators to out-of-control Howard Beales? In Beale’s great rain-soaked monologue – the immortal scene no one ever forgets – the actor was able to perform it only once in its entirety. He stopped in the middle of the second take and told his director “I can’t do one more.” He won the Oscar for it – posthumously.

A terrific book by a New York Times writer about a film classic.

– Jeff Simon