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  1. Books

Review: 'Mad as Hell' tells story of 'Network' and the rant heard 'round the world

If you are a budding movie buff, there are certain essentials required for your education. Here are just a very, very few: Casablanca, Singin' in the Rain, Lawrence of Arabia, Citizen Kane, Annie Hall, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Wizard of Oz, Chinatown, Duck Soup, the works of Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, Martin Scorsese and, yes, probably Gone With the Wind (but only once will do just fine).

And no list would be complete unless it included the brutal 1976 satire of television news that is the subject of New York Times culture writer Dave Itzkoff's Mad as Hell: The Making of 'Network' and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies.

For movie junkies who feast upon the trivia sections on the Internet Movie Data Base website, Mad as Hell is one big, fat, juicy banquet of minutiae and detailed insights into the creative process of the prickly, difficult, easily aggrieved but brilliant screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky.

Network is the story of the deranged UBS Network anchorman Howard Beale, played pitch perfectly by Peter Finch, who, upon learning he is about to be removed from his job because of declining ratings, announces he plans to kill himself on the air.

But instead of his bosses immediately pulling him off the set, Beale's steadily deteriorating mental state becomes a ratings bonanza for the network, as the anchorman's succeeding rants against society turn him into the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves. See: O'Reilly, Bill for context.

Chayefsky was the ideal voice to pen Network, having begun his career writing early television dramas, including Marty, which was eventually made into a feature film and earned his first Academy Award. Chayefsky would later pick up his second Oscar for The Hospital and a third for Network.

As well, Network could not have been in better hands with director Sidney Lumet (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict) who also had cut his teeth behind the camera directing live television dramas.

For those who haven't seen Network (shame on you), this book's title comes from Beale's signature sermon, in which he urges his audience to rise up and proclaim: "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!" which may have marked the only time in the movie when Chayefsky permitted an actor to deviate from the writer's ironclad insistence his script be performed precisely as it was written. The original line, as created by Chayefsky, reads: "I'm mad as hell ..."

Mad as Hell explores the difficulties in casting the film and the difficulties with those cast. Faye Dunaway as a driven programming executive suddenly discovers her inner prude over a nude scene with co-star William Holden. Ned Beatty, who is only on screen for five minutes, as the corporate mogul who takes Beale to the woodshed, was a literal last-minute choice. But Beatty, too, would claim an Oscar for his performance.

And there was Beale himself, an incredible role nobody seemed to want. Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Robert Mitchum — all either turned the character down or were unavailable.

Finally, only after he demonstrated he could carry an American accent, the taciturn British-born, Australian-raised Peter Finch, an actor never associated with comedy, was given the role of his lifetime, a life that would be cut all too short by a heart attack weeks before the Academy Awards ceremony — where he would become the first posthumous best actor winner.

Itzkoff's meticulously researched and reported book neatly captures Chayefsky's hostilities and insecurities. But a nagging question remains that the author only superficially addresses.

Why should a movie made nearly 40 years ago lampooning television still be regarded as an important social commentary? Itzkoff, it would seem, doesn't appear to grasp his own narrative.

And that may have something to do with the fact Itzkoff himself was only born the same year Network premiered, in 1976.

To appreciate Chayefsky's vision one must understand that in 1976, cable television was for the most part merely a retransmission system for over-the-air broadcasting to remote areas. Cable systems were only 12- to 24-channel operations. Most major cities had no cable.

HBO was a small network with few subscribers. CNN had yet to be created by Ted Turner. Professional paranoid Glenn Beck was 12 years old (and in some ways he still is).

Paddy Chayefsky's UBS, with its raging anchorman, Sybil the Soothsayer and a weekly entertainment reality show following around actual terrorists (with their own agent) remains notable for its prescience.

Television today celebrates talentless people who are famous simply because they are on television. We have reality shows glamorizing vapid, wealthy housewives, reality shows featuring people willing to debase themselves just to be on television. We have Duck Dynasty. And we have more than our fair share of unhinged poseurs masquerading as "journalists" — O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Beck — delivering their own brand of faux anger for the dining and dancing pleasure of their fellow travelers.

Network wasn't so much a movie with a dark view inside the heartless soul of the camera as much as it was an omen, which is just as good a reason to be even more mad as hell over what the medium has become in 2014 as Howard Beale was in 1976.