Cinemalphabet: N is for Network (1976)
The 1976 films Network and Rocky are linked in my pop culture consciousness and I believe in somewhere in an alternate universe – the one where Governor Bruce Willis rather than the Governator ran California into the ground – Network won Best Picture and Director and Rocky won Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor and Actress (Burt Young and Talia Shire, respectively), which is how it should have been.
Of director Sidney Lumet’s incomprehensible defeat I once theatrically ranted:
In what universe does the director of mother fucking Network NOT win the best director Oscar? Seriously? And, you know I love me some Rocky (the winner), but like, it wasn’t the direction driving that bus. It was the fucking script….John G. Avildsen. Playa, we go way back and I’ll always love you for getting me through the chicken pox with your awesome film, but like, I’m sorry that’s Sid’s Oscar on your shelf.
I absolutely adore both films, though I love Rocky just a little more. Both films stand up both as examples of slamtastic cinema and interesting social critiques. Though again, I think Rocky does a better job of critiquing the social issues it seeks to explore (the intersection of race, class and gender) than Network does with its analysis. Obviously, there are many who find Network – the story of broadcast networks run amok – blisteringly prophetic in its depiction of television network shifting its focus away from quality programming in favor of audience baiting schlock in the same way Three Days of the Condor is said to have predicted some of the geopolitical hot messery we’re dealing with now.
Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film:
The movie caused a sensation in 1976. It was nominated for 10 Oscars, won four (Finch, Dunaway, supporting actress Beatrice Straight, Chayefsky), and stirred up much debate about the decaying values of television. Seen a quarter-century later, it is like prophecy. When Chayefsky created Howard Beale, could he have imagined Jerry Springer, Howard Stern and the World Wrestling Federation?
Parts of the movie have dated–most noticeably Howard Beale’s first news set, a knotty-pine booth that makes it look like he’s broadcasting from a sauna. Other parts, including the network strategy meetings, remain timeless. And the set that Beale graduates to, featuring soothsayers and gossip columnists on revolving pedestals, nicely captures the feeling of some of the news/entertainment shows, where it’s easier to get air time if you’re a “psychic” than if you have useful information to convey.
It’s not my particular framing of Network; schlocky, audience baiting programming has always been with us and always will be. (I see you, Battle of the Network Stars) And that seems a more astute analysis of the film, rather than the accurate television doomsday prognostication that is chiefly Network‘s legacy.
Network took three of the four acting Oscars – an impressive feat to be sure – but one raising the expectation for those who are currently being introduced to the film. Faye Dunaway’s deliciously sinister performance won’t seem as razor sharp if you’ve seen any of her post-Laura Mars work, particularly Mommy Dearest. A friend of my who recently screened the film for the first time said, “Damn, when does Faye not play a well dressed menacing power broker?” I’ll let you snap on that for a second. Okay, Dunaway’s Diana Christensen is just as ruthless as she can be and there’s barely any analysis of female power and the performance showcases Dunaway at her menacing sotto voce best! Nothing scarier than a Dunaway character directing stage whispered threats at you. And Peter Finch’s performance as the trenchcoat wearing Howard Beale is still one of the finest performances of all time. You just know Tom Wilkinson watched Network while crafting his Arthur Edens character from Michael Clayton.
Everything you’ve ever heard about Network is mostly true. Network does live up to its hype, which is why it’s so impressive that an edgy little love story set in the world of boxing – you realize Rocky is really a love story with some boxing elements, right – would walk away with the Best Picture Oscar. I go back and forth about whether this was the right decision, but in the end, I think it was, despite not necessarily agree with it. Network, while seeming to provide meaty analysis of power, manipulation and mass consumption never really rises beyond the insular world of broadcast network foolishness. Besides it smacks down the consumers as much as it does the creators and that’s just no way to win a Best Picture Oscar!