Book Review: Mad as Hell


There are movie lines that live forever, and their creation is usually some kind of alchemy. For instance, the line “I’m as made as hell,and I’m not going to take this anymore!” came to writer Paddy Chayefsky, but he never thought it would stick in pop culture. Fortunately, for those who have seen it and loved it, as I have, there is more to his film Network than just that line.

Dave Itzkoff tells the story of Network, soup to nuts, in his book, titled of course, Mad As Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies. It is a straightforward account of how Chayefsky came up with the idea, how the film was cast and shot, and how it was received and remembered.

Network was a bundle of contradictions, the last gasp of an era of populist Hollywood filmmaking as expressed by a man who never subscribed to the movement; it used the resources of one mass medium to indict another and, beyond it, the degradation and emptiness of contemporary American life,” Itzkoff writes. He starts with a biography of Chayefsky, who began in the Golden Age of television, and then transitioned to movies when his teleplay, Marty, was made into a film and he and it won Oscars. He had various successes and failures, including another Oscar for The Hospital in 1971, when he came upon the idea of writing about television.

Itzkoff covers this area well, getting his hands on Chayefsky’s notes and early drafts so we can see the evolution of the story. Chayefsky teamed with producer Howard Gottfried and the movie was shopped. Chayefsky suffered no fools and was not about to make changes, but the film landed at MGM, Sidney Lumet was hired, and the casting process began. There were three main characters: Howard Beale, the “mad prophet of the airwaves,” Max Schumacher, the old-school TV producer who bemoans the changing world, and Diane Christensen, representing the new wave, where anything on TV can be sold like beer.

“For Beale, his mad prophet of the airwaves, he envisioned Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Gene Hackman, Sterling Hayden, or Robert Montgomery; Max Schumacher could be played by Fonda or Hackman, or by William Holden; and Diana Christensen seemed ideal for Candice Bergen, Faye Dunaway, Ellen Burstyn, or Natalie Wood.” Holden and Dunaway would get the parts, but Beale went to the unlikely Peter Finch, an Australian by way of England and Jamaica who had to convince all involved he could do an American accent.

Itzkoff covers the filming on almost a daily basis, and notes such struggles as Dunaway’s recalcitrance, particularly about a sex scene with Holden. How much nudity there was had to be negotiated, and when Dunaway went back on it, she was almost fired. Another actor, Roberts Blossom (who would later play the old man in Home Alone) was axed as Arthur Jensen, the head of the corporation that owns the Network. He was replaced by Ned Beatty, who would utter perhaps the film’s second-best known line: “Because you’re on television, dummy.”

Then we see the surreal events surrounding the death of Finch, who died in January of 1977, just two months after the film’s release. He left behind a Jamaican wife, and there was much discussion of who would be allowed to accept a potential Oscar. Peter Bogdonavich, who was producing the telecast, did not want a repeat of dark moments like Marlon Brando sending up a woman in Indian garb to refuse an Oscar.

The book then covers the reception of the film. It was hailed by some critics, such as Vincent Canby, and panned by others, such as Pauline Kael. The reception by the TV news industry was alarming to Chayefsky–he never intended it be an insult. He had received full cooperation of the networks before the film–he shadowed a network producer while writing–but almost the whole industry came down on him, even Walter Cronkite, whose daughter had a role in the film.

Network would be nominated for ten Oscars, including five of the film’s actors, tying a record. It also tied a record by winning three acting statuettes (the other was A Streetcar Named Desire), with Dunaway winning Best Actress; Beatrice Straight a surprise winner for Best Supporting Actress (her speech was almost as long as the length of her part), and Finch winning his posthumous award. Chayefsky accepted, but waved up Finch’s widow, to hell with everyone. Chayefksky also won for Screenplay, his third Oscar. The film lost Best Picture to Rocky, a much more feel-good enterprise.

Itzkoff devotes his last chapter to the prescience of Network. Almost everything that Chayefsky envisioned came true: television news is now completely entertainment. “Where nationally televised news had been a once-nightly ritual, it has since grown into a twenty-four-hour-a-day habit, available on channels devoted entirely and ceaselessly to its dissemination. The people who dispense these versions of the news seem to take their direction straight from the playbook of Howard Beale: they emote, they inveigh, and they instruct their audiences how to act and how to feel; some of them even cry on camera.”

What Itzkoff doesn’t touch on is that Chayefsky foresaw reality television, with the Ecumenical Liberation Army getting a weekly show in which they commit a new crime every week, cameras rolling. We haven’t gotten quite that far yet, but we’ve come close.

The film has made me want to see Network again, for the fourth or fifth time; it’s number one on my Netflix queue. It’s part of what we old-timers call the greatness of the 1970s, the best decade for American film, when good films actually were at the top of the box office: Network was one of the most profitable films of the year, while it probably couldn’t get made today.

And one fun fact to close: Finch did his “Mad as Hell” monologue in one take. They started a second, but he stopped midway and told Lumet that he didn’t have any gas left in the tank.


About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

4 responses »

  1. Awesome post. I’ve wanted to read this since I saw it’s pre-release notices. Can’t wait to get to it.

    I’ve seen this over 20 times and have seen separate, specific scenes at least hundreds. It is easily in my top 5, and I love everything about it.

    Thanks again for writing about the book. Well done.

  2. I’ve been thinking a little about this and wonder if 1976 was the best group of five Oscar nominees for Best Picture ever: the winner was Rocky, the runners-up were Network, All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver, and Bound for Glory (that was little seen, but a terrific movie). 1939 had ten nominees, all of which are classic, but ’76’s five are right there.

  3. I can’t definitively saw whether it’s the best group of BP nominees, but it’s pop cultural long-term impact has been as strong as any group.

    Howard Beale, Rocky Balboa & Travis Bickle are amongst the most iconic characters in cinema and all emerged from this list.

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