Colbert and Itzkoff Talk Network

The screening of Network was followed by a lively discussion between Montclair resident and TV favorite Stephen Colbert—himself an expert satirist of the likes of CNN—and Dave Itzkoff, culture reporter for the New York Times and author of Mad As Hell: The making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in America. The talk opened with jokes: Colbert quipped that he had skipped the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, which took place that evening, in favor of the Montclair Film Festival event. (Good choice!) And, to the audience’s delight, Itzkoff began by obliquely teasing Colbert about his upcoming job on the Late Show: “[Network] is the story of a man who developed a certain voice that allowed him to reach an audience and then as soon as he got the opportunity to move on to a different show, he just dropped that persona at the behest of his corporate masters.” But kidding aside, both men seriously love the film, and had also met to discuss it once before, in an article Itzkoff wrote for the New York Times Arts Beat section.

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” When Network was first released in 1976, those words became a cultural catchphrase, signaling widespread social discontent in the wake of Watergate and economic uncertainty. Written by Paddy Chayefsky, the film satirized the business of television, especially network news, and its penchant for sensationalized entertainment. Now, in our age of CNN, the 24-hour news cycle, and reality TV, Network seems timelier than ever. With a wickedly sharp script, and superb performances directed by Stanley Lumet, the film won four Oscars: Chayefsky for Best Screenplay, Peter Finch (posthumously) as Best Actor; Faye Dunaway as Best Actress, and Beatrice Straight as Best Supporting Actress.

Network tells the tale of Howard Beale, an anchorman and seasoned journalist who’s fired due to falling ratings and a corporate takeover of his network, UBS. But Beale’s fortunes improve when he’s allowed one final rant on TV, and utters his infamous words about being “mad as hell.” Across the nation, riveted TV audiences rush to their windows to shout their madness out to the streets, and UBS’s new programmer, Diana Christensen (Dunaway), smells a hit. Eager to take the network from the bottom of the barrel to number one, she envisions Beale as a seer able to articulate the incoherent rage of the masses. With the belief that “TV is showbiz and even the news has to have showmanship,” she programs Beale alongside such “entertainment” as terrorist groups executing the robbery of the week. Watching nervously as things spin out of control is news director Max Schumacher (William Holden), Christensen’s lover and an old friend of the increasingly unstable Beale.

For Colbert, while the film was prophetic, he was more struck on this viewing by how familiar everything it showed seemed today—many of the subjects and characters referenced in the film (like Barbara Walters) are still on our radar. But what wasn’t anticipated in the film, he noted, was the coming of cable. Itzkoff agreed that cable was only nascent at the time Network was shot, but went on to compare the reaction to the “mad as hell” speech, and TV viewers’ willingness to submit to Beale’s orders, to Ellen’s recent request at the Oscars that everyone retweet selfies—which ended up breaking the internet record for retweets.

Colbert then wondered how such a subversive film ever managed to get made. Itzkoff responded that in the 70s “there still was a studio system willing to take a chance on controversial material.” (The 70s is considered a fertile time for American filmmaking, when such directors as Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola began their careers.) Colbert, whose popular character lampoons the faux-rage of right-wing TV pundits, mentioned that while Dunaway’s character was eager to air angry countercultural shows, “the angriest shows today are conservative,” pointing to the always-indignant Fox News hosts. Itzkoff pointed out that Chayefsky was actually rather fearful of social change given all he had lived through, including experiences in World War II and the more recent upheaval of Watergate, which took place two years before the film.

“One of the most amazing things,” Colbert said about the film, is that “everyone gets their monologue . . . their moment to shine.” (Almost every major actor was nominated for an Oscar.) He singled out Beatrice Straight, who, aside from a powerful five-minute speech, had very few scenes yet won the Academy Award. “Is there one you love the most?” he asked Itzkoff. Admitting that he “was attached to different moments,” Itzkoff ultimately settled on a scene featuring the terrorist Ahmed Khan, who turns out to have a keener mind for capitalism than his politics might suggest, as well as the game-changing speech delivered by the corporation’s Chairman of the Board (Ned Beatty), that skillfully plays on Beale’s frayed sense of reality.

Itzkoff also discussed many of the details of the film’s production: how Chayefsky really ran the show, as opposed to the director, who usually takes charge. Chayefsky came to the set every day in order to make sure his words were spoken exactly as written. When Colbert asked whether Chayefsky was happy with the choice of director Sidney Lumet, Itzkoff asserted that Chayefsky would never have entered into an agreement without approval of the director. In fact, later on, when Ken Russell adapted Chayefsky’s book Altered States, Russell kicked Chayefsky off the set for interference while Chayefsky took his name off the script.

“Was Chayefsky happy with Network?” Colbert wondered. “He was never happy with anything,” answered Itzkoff. Of course, the film’s unforgettable “mad as hell” scene came up, and Itzkoff remarked on Holden’s character, who stood back disapprovingly as the world shouted, fearful that people were coming together as a mob. When Colbert asked if Beale was a hero to Chayefsky, Itzkoff responded “yes—but not a successful hero.”

Colbert recalled his first viewing of Network as a child, alone. “I couldn’t believe the beautiful way people got to speak.” Admitting that he didn’t get all the adult jokes, Colbert still felt that he found “breadcrumbs to understanding.”

The two discussed the people today who might have been influenced by the film and Beale. Aaron Sorkin immediately came to mind for his writing, but so did Keith Olbermann, who himself had been dragged off air many a time, kicking and shouting; Bill O’Reilly (although Colbert felt he was someone who mostly “played mad”); and Glenn Beck, who has been up front about modeling himself on Beale. Itzkoff felt that the portrayal of subversive organizations in the film was “right on the money . . . literally. This was a moment when news went from public service to moneymaking . . . when news lost its innocence.”

Finally, Colbert asked a simple yet meaningful question: Is it a good movie? “It’s an interesting movie, a crazy movie,” Itzkoff said. “Its shagginess makes it endearing.”

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Written by Karen Backstein.