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Chayefsy's NETWORK notes in N.Y. Times

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Chayefsy's NETWORK notes in N.Y. Times

Postby JackFavell » May 27th, 2011, 7:06 am

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/22/movie ... c_ev=click

Notes of a Screenwriter, Mad as Hell

By DAVE ITZKOFF
Published: May 19, 2011

LAMENTING the lack of “satirical clarity” in the screenplay he was laboring on in the early 1970s, Paddy Chayefsky was mad at himself and American television viewers at large. He was seeing the venomous spirit of the era of Watergate and the Vietnam War infiltrate every program the broadcast networks offered, from their news shows to their sitcoms, and he concluded in a typewritten note to himself that the American people “don’t want jolly, happy family type shows like Eye Witness News”; no, he wrote, “the American people are angry and want angry shows.” He had set out to write a comedy, but if his film script was funny at all, he said, "the only joke we have going for us is the idea of ANGER."

The screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, who died in 1981, left behind many notes on his script for "Network."

In the following months, Chayefsky channeled that fury and his intense frustration with television — the medium he described in another note as “an indestructible and terrifying giant that is stronger than the government” — into the screenplay for “Network,” his dark satire about an unstable news anchor and a broadcasting company and a viewing public all too happy to follow him over the brink of sanity.

“Network,” directed by Sidney Lumet and released in 1976, won four Academy Awards, including Oscars for Chayefsky’s script, Faye Dunaway’s performance as a cynical programming executive and Peter Finch’s frenetic portrayal of Howard Beale, the troubled “mad prophet of the airwaves.”

Thirty-five years later, “Network” remains an incendiary if influential film, and its screenplay is still admired as much for its predictive accuracy as for its vehemence: a relentless sense of purpose that is even more palpable in the files Chayefsky left behind upon his death in 1981.

These papers were acquired by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in 2001 but not examined much after their cataloging in the library’s Billy Rose Theater Division was completed in 2006. The rarely seen documents on “Network” speak loudly for their absent author, documenting the angst and animus that consumed him on this highly personal project.

Working in an era of paper, pencils and typewriters, Chayefsky seemingly committed to print every observation and self-criticism that he thought of. His “Network” archives provide a road map of the paths taken and not taken in its narrative, but they also reveal a visceral rawness that is scarce in today’s age of digital files and screenwriting by committee. They tell the story of an author’s struggles to determine what he wanted to say about a medium that would do anything for an audience’s attention.

Aaron Sorkin, who cited Chayefsky when he accepted his Oscar for the screenplay of “The Social Network,” wrote in an e-mail that “no predictor of the future — not even Orwell — has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote ‘Network.’ ”

Stephen Colbert, the anchor of Comedy Central’s news satire “The Colbert Report,” said: “Howard Beale is a precursor of people who are telling you how you feel. Not just the nighttime people that I’m sort of a parody of, not just the opinion-making people, but even what is left of straight news.”

As early as the 1950s, Chayefsky, a Bronx-born writer with a moralistic streak, had condemned television as “stupid” and “doomed,” even while he contributed to dramatic anthology series, writing scripts like “Marty,” the sad romance he adapted into the Oscar-winning film.

In 1968, he started writing a pilot script for a comedic series he called “The Imposters” or “There’s No Business,” about subversives who infiltrate a television network and undermine it from within. “We are not dealing with a human institution,” he wrote in a script note. “We are dealing with an enormous profit-making machine.” But the project went no further.

After his screenplay for “The Hospital,” his black-comedy takedown of professional medicine, won him another Oscar in 1972, Chayefsky took an interest in television news programs. He took research trips to newsrooms in San Francisco and Atlanta and compiled data on the lives of national anchors like Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor, as well as a local broadcaster, recently transplanted to New York, named Charles Scarborough. (You might know him now as Chuck.)

By an early “Network” treatment dated Dec. 5, 1973, Chayefsky had decided the story would be set into motion by a scene in which a news anchor character — one he variously referred to as Munro, Holbein or simply Kronkite (among other spellings) — would “crack up on the air at 7:00 p.m.” Maybe he would decry “some item of corruption in the Nixon administration,” put his employers “in a position where they have to make true some totally demented news story” or get “into a fistfight with Eric Sevareid,” the CBS commentator. The end result would be the same: “In Act II, crazy Walter becomes the hottest television sensation in the country."

Chayefsky also envisioned a heroic character he called “Hotshot” — perhaps a sales-and-research executive, or a local producer hired to sensationalize network news — who would be tempted to compromise what remains of his integrity. For balance, Chayefsky said, “it would be nice to make a basic love story to this movie which would humanize the character.”

That romantic impulse did not prevail. Instead, Chayefsky seemed attracted to a story about “the destruction of a buccaneering independent TV HOTSHOT by surrendering his identity, patriotism and self to the dehumanized multinational conglomerate” — nothing less than “FAUST + MEPHISTOPHELES today.”

Even his imaginary network, called UBS, became a character, for which Chayefsky drafted a 23-person corporate hierarchy and an intricately detailed programming grid filled with shows bearing tantalizingly grotesque titles like “Death Squad,” “Killer Theater” and “Celebrity Checkers.”

Chayefsky had his ingredients, but didn’t know what would happen when he threw them in a pot and stirred them up. In his thought experiments he saw his network coming into conflict with President Nixon and denying him valuable airtime, or striking a deal with a fictional, unpopular president and then forcing him to go to war with a foreign country that opposed its corporate interests.

Perhaps the hotshot would realize “the world has gone insane — that black is white now because the NETWORK says it is” and he’d create “a network run by madmen.” Or more ominously, as Chayefsky wrote in an all-capitalized note, when the film ends, “ALL THE NETWORKS WILL HAVE BEEN BOUGHT BY OTHER MULTINATIONALS.”

Chayefsky seemed to sense an absurdist tone creeping in. “All this is Strangelove-y as hell,” he wrote. “Can we make it work?”

He was closing in on his central characters: Beale, the crumbling, suicidal anchor; Max Schumacher, the dispirited news division president; and Diana Christensen, the executive who is both Schumacher’s adversary and love interest. Yet Chayefsky appeared concerned that a thesis, any thesis, was eluding him, and his story was becoming increasingly nihilistic.

In a long handwritten note, across the top of which Chayefsky wrote, “THE SHOW LACKS A POINT OF VIEW,” he confessed to himself, “I guess what bothers me is that the picture seems to have no ultimate statement beyond the idea that a network would kill for ratings, and even that doesn’t mesh with the love story.”

With disappointment, he added: “I’m not taking a stand — I’m not for anything or anyone. If we give Howard a speech at the end of the show, what would he say? I think I would like to say something against the destructiveness of absolute beliefs. That the only total commitment any of us can have is to other human beings.”

Chayefsky never had much difficulty empathizing with Beale’s plight or expressing his most inflammatory thoughts through that character, and the movie’s most famous speech appears to have sprung from him readily, without the uncertainty that dogged him elsewhere.

The speech may have begun on a page where Chayefsky scribbled a few phrases to himself: “I want you people to get mad — You don’t have to organize or vote for reformers — you just have to get mad.” Then a typewritten treatment described a sequence in which Beale urges his viewers — “The whole family. Fathers, mothers, lovers, kids” — to stick their heads out of their windows and give voice to their exasperation.

By Page 107 of an early typed “Network” draft, Chayefsky had found the language for Beale’s ferocious decree: “You’ve got to say: ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.’ ”

In stage directions that follow Beale’s speech, Chayefsky was already conjuring the same apocalyptic power that Finch later summoned in his indelible performance. Roused to his own mad poetry, Chayefsky describes Beale’s viewers as they follow his orders, their voices joining in “an indistinguishable tidal roar of human rage as formidable as the natural THUNDER again ROARING, THUNDERING, RUMBLING above.”

He added, “It sounds like a Nuremberg rally, the air thick and trembling with it.”

Though it may be impossible to imagine “Network” starring anyone other than William Holden (who played Schumacher), Ms. Dunaway and Finch, who died while promoting the film, Chayefsky had other ideas about casting. His candidates for Schumacher, whether actual contenders or his personal wish list, included Walter Matthau and Gene Hackman; for Christensen, he named Candice Bergen, Ellen Burstyn and Natalie Wood; and for Beale he thought of Cary Grant, Henry Fonda and James Stewart, as well as Paul Newman, to whom Chayefsky wrote personally, saying, “You and a very small handful of other actors are the only ones I can think of with the range for this part.”

Other correspondence, from after the release of “Network,” suggests that Chayefsky was not prepared for the strong reactions the film elicited from members of the news media. In an apologetic letter addressed to “Walter,” and a similar letter to “John” — the recipients are presumably the network news anchors Cronkite and Chancellor — Chayefsky wrote, “I never meant this film to be an attack on television as an institution in itself, but only as a metaphor for the rest of the times.”

(In an interview for a 2006 DVD release of “Network,” Cronkite said he and his peers worried the public would take the film seriously, but added: “To us in the news business it was all comedy. It was so over-drawn, as to what took place in the newsrooms and how we put a story together.”)

Dan Chayefsky, the author’s son, wrote in an e-mail that “Network” “was always intended as a metaphor for society at large,” and its subtext “was always about human/corporate accountability, rather than newscasters or any specific industry.”

Even if a Cronkite-like character had been the seed that “Network” grew from, Dan Chayefsky said, “the ideas my father uncovered at the concept stage rarely maintained their shape or form at the conclusion of each work.”

Mr. Colbert said that while “Network” did not directly inspire “The Colbert Report,” the film influenced the outspoken media personalities that he lampoons. (Noting interviews in which the conservative commentator Glenn Beck compared himself to Gandhi, Jesus and Howard Beale, Mr. Colbert said, “I thought, wow, none of those stories end well.”)

What “Network” correctly anticipated, he said, “is news as entertainment, a man wandering a set as opposed to sitting behind a desk,” though Mr. Colbert tended to read “Network” as a drama about relationships and the tragedy of Beale.

Mr. Sorkin, however, spoke for “Network” fans who respond to it as a devastating media-industry critique — one whose author never saw television devolve into a vast wasteland of reality programming and political partisanship, but who after 35 years is still shouting just as loudly about the dangers of crass, pandering content.

“If you put it in your DVD player today you’ll feel like it was written last week,” Mr. Sorkin said. “The commoditization of the news and the devaluing of truth are just a part of our way of life now. You wish Chayefsky could come back to life long enough to write ‘The Internet.’ ”

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Re: Chayefsy's NETWORK notes in N.Y. Times

Postby kingrat » May 27th, 2011, 11:35 am

Thanks so much for posting this excellent article. It's interesting to see how Network developed. Could Natalie Wood have pulled off the role of Diana? Because Natalie seems so fragile and vulnerable, that might have made the part richer--if she could have made the scheming believable.

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Re: Chayefsy's NETWORK notes in N.Y. Times

Postby JackFavell » May 27th, 2011, 1:54 pm

I totally was amazed at the choices he made for the leads - because I can totally see any of them in it.

I do think Natalie could have played Diana well, especially the excited go-getter part of Diana's nature, and been very convincing. I think she would have shown a scary shallowness, not even seeing Max in the end - she would have been playing on a totally different page. This is not to say I don't like the cast the way it is, I think they are all great, though I am not a particular Peter Finch fan. I just like seeing where Chayefsky was going with his characters, and to do that, it helps to know who he would have cast. Personally, I would have loved to see Paul Newman in the role, or Henry Fonda.

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Re: Chayefsy's NETWORK notes in N.Y. Times

Postby CineMaven » June 1st, 2011, 10:35 am

This article was a great read JackaaaAaaay.

I think I'd have to call Paddy Chayefsky, Paddy Nostradamus. He was dead on about the state of television. Just look at it thirty-five years later. (Did I say thirty-five years?) The satirical edge works b'cuz the film was perfectly cast and everyone plays his role straight. No mugging or punching up the lines. I love Beatrice Straight as William Holden's wife (playing a role that I think Miranda Richardson could do though not for that particular movie).

The most hilarious scene to me was when the Angela Davis-like revolutionary Laureen Hobbs (played brilliantly by Marlene Warfield) goes to see the Great Ahmed Khan (played by Arthur Burghardt) in his cabin in the woods to tell him that the network has decided to televise their insurrections. (I thought The Revolution would not be televised?) Marlene starts arguing with lawyers who are blase blase about distribution rights. Then their kinapped hostaged Heiress (a la Patty Hearst) bursts into the room spouting her ideological ravings and Laureen reams her but good in rat-a-tat-tat style. It's all played so deadly serious. Warfield is a house on fire in that scene. When Ahmed Khan shoots his loaded pistol in the house, one of the lawyers falls off his chair with papers flying. The actress sitting next to him tries to stifle a smile...and the other two lawyers on the left (one played by Lance Henriksen) don't bat an eye...they remain nonplussed throughout all the chaos. I've played that scene at least ten times straight to watch each actor do their thing. I have literally been on the floor laughing.

There are so many moments in "NETWORK" that stand out b'cuz of the acting and the writing, writing, writing! This is a Sidney Lumet masterpiece and it was so interesting to read Paddy's thought processes on how to construct this plot all down on paper.

Thanx again for the article. Hmmmmmm...it's time for me to watch this classic again. It's Lumet's masterpiece. He can thank Paddy Chayefsky.
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Re: Chayefsy's NETWORK notes in N.Y. Times

Postby JackFavell » June 1st, 2011, 12:25 pm

You've reminded me of so many things about the movie that I've forgotten! It's showing on July 4th I think, so I will definitely be in front o the TV.... Bill Holden caught my interest this last time, he was magnificent in it, he totally took my attention away from some of the periphery goings on. His combination of wry sarcasm, irony and self deprecation really hits me, especially in that last scene with Faye Dunaway. Before when I saw it, I always felt bad because he was getting older - now when I look at it, it's a case of pure admiration, and a blinking roadsign to Hollywood that older really is better.

Your post really got me laughing about that Angela Davis scene! I can't believe how you worked in Gil Scott-Heron here....AND Miranda Richardson. You are way too quick- I think you and Paddy have a lot in common.

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Re: Chayefsy's NETWORK notes in N.Y. Times

Postby CineMaven » June 1st, 2011, 11:41 pm

Huh? My word! Thank you. I wish...

(P.S. On a sad note...Gil Scott-Heron just passed away the other day).
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Re: Chayefsy's NETWORK notes in N.Y. Times

Postby Professional Tourist » June 3rd, 2011, 11:59 am

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Last edited by Professional Tourist on January 20th, 2012, 11:18 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Chayefsy's NETWORK notes in N.Y. Times

Postby Gary J. » June 3rd, 2011, 6:57 pm

When I originally read this article in the paper I had to laugh when Chayefsy
had Cary Grant on his wish list for Beale. But then I began mulling it over and
I thought of Grant's disheveled manic look in FATHER GOOSE (before he
was smitten with love) and I too could see him in that role. Not that he ever
would of done it. He was too protective of the Cary Grant image by then.

If the movie had been made a decade later then Newman would of fit the bill
for Beale. As he moved to more character driven parts in the 80's and 90's
his characters became more eccentric - check out BLAZE -(1989) sometimes.
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