Dave Itzkoff talks ‘Mad As Hell’ and ‘Network’

When it was released in 1976, Paddy Chayefsky”s “Network” was celebrated as satire by some, dismissed as the bitter rantings of an old crank by others. What no one at the time realized was that one day, it would be neither. It would be prophetic.
Not every aspect of the film – the story of a fictional television network, UBS, whose struggling news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) has a nervous breakdown on-air, exhorting his viewers to scream, “I”m mad as hell and I”m not going to take this anymore!” and becomes a much bigger star as a result – has come true in the 38 years since the Sidney Lumet-directed film premiered. But more of its DNA can be found in today”s pop culture – the blurring of the lines between news and entertainment, the rise of reality television and the general coarsening of the medium – than even the cynical Chayefsky, one of the architects of TV”s first Golden Age of drama with teleplays like “Marty,” could have imagined.
The film would go on to win Oscars for Chayefksy, Finch (who died in the midst of campaigning for the award), Faye Dunaway (as ruthless UBS executive Diana Christensen) and Beatrice Straight (as the scorned wife of William Holden”s news executive Max Schumacher) and become a huge influence on a later generation of writers. (Aaron Sorkin, for instance, is as much inspired by Chayefsky as by Frank Capra.)
Now it”s the subject of a terrific book, “Mad As Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies,” by New York Times culture writer Dave Itzkoff, which is being released on Tuesday. Though Chayefsky and many of the other principal figures are deceased, Itzkoff spoke to everyone he could and had access to a collection of Chayefsky”s personal papers that included multiple drafts of the script, letters to actors he hoped would play Beale (Paul Newman was one of many who turned down the role), and more. “Mad As Hell” tells the story of how this amazing, deeply subversive film got made by a pair of major motion picture studios, the conflicts on the set (it will surprise no one to learn that Dunaway caused problems), and the larger story of the brilliant, profoundly difficult man who dreamed up the film.
I spoke with Itzkoff about the book, and the film that inspired it.
When did you first see “Network”? How old were you?
Dave Itzkoff: I’m sure it was when I was a kid. I was born in 1976, so I was just really obsessed with the popular culture of that particular year and learning at some point that “Rocky” had been the movie that won Best Picture that year, but the film that won all the other acting awards was this movie called “Network.” I’m sure the only portion that I remember from being very young was Peter Finch’s “mad as hell” speech. I didn’t really reconnect to the movie until I was much older, probably in college or even after that.
In college, it still would’ve been before a lot of Chayefsky’s predictions had really come true to the extent they have today. What do you remember making of it when you started watching it again when you were older?
Dave Itzkoff: Yeah, I think with successive viewings and as I’ve grown up, the tone of it in my mind seems to shift, that I always remember it being more outlandish than it really is or than it became. Even the form of it, where there are as many long monologues as there are actual interchanges of dialogue between characters, that in and of itself sets it apart from even other movies of its era. You know, there was a time when it probably seemed about as crazy as the original “RoboCop,” that it was just describing this world that just seemed on the one hand not too far away yet also patently ridiculous. And then in later and later viewings you start to realize, “Oh, actually it’s not in the least preposterous, and actually it’s very, very familiar.”
You talk about this in the narrative and especially when you get the last chapter, but do you feel Chayefsky believed this is what television was in the mid-’70s, or do you think he saw that this is what was going to be coming?
Dave Itzkoff: I think his own public face about this vacillated. I think there were times when at his lowest or his most cynical, when he was least positively disposed to the medium of television, he would tell you, “This is exactly what’s going to happen.” And then there were times when I think he just genuinely believed that it was a satire, but he wasn’t solely commenting on television. Television was a format that he was very familiar with and had to refamiliarize himself with in order to write it, but it was just a place to put all these ideas and feelings and misgivings that he had about the era that he lived in. There were other things, not only the downfall of the medium or this loss of innocence that he anticipated, but other things going on in society and in politics and in industry that he was just as fearful of and he genuinely believed were coming.
How many times over the course of writing the book did you watch the movie?
Dave Itzkoff: Actually probably not as many as you might think. There were specific scenes that I looked that very, very closely. Not only the “mad as hell” speech but the break-up scene between Bill Holden and Faye Dunaway where I really wanted to look at specific camera angles and edits and that sort of thing. But watching it in its entirety, this is back of the envelope estimation but maybe five or ten times in the course of just writing the manuscript. Because you want to get specific lines right, you want to remember the sequence of events that things take place in, but there’s so much other material that was in front of me as I’m writing. I’m looking at so many different incarnations of the screenplay and there’s so many other elements and aspects of Chayefsky’s life and the timeline of that period of movie making that I’m also looking at. So the movie itself is in a way just one piece of the puzzle.

And over how long of period were you working on the book?
Dave Itzkoff: It was about three years. It started in 2011, actually right before Sidney Lumet passed away, the New York Public Library, which owns the Chayefsky papers, they had invited me to come take a look at some of them, just portions that specifically pertained to “Network” and some of the drafts of the screenplay, the letters of entreaty that he wrote to Paul Newman and some of the actors they were trying to recruit, letters of apology that he later wrote to Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor. So that became the impetus for an article that I wrote in the Times in the spring of that year. Once we had made the commitment to writing the book, there were several months of just being immersed in the papers and in the Library”s own resources. And then probably about another year of just reaching out into the world, conducting other interviews, doing other reporting trying to come by other documentation, and then finally the writing of the book.
The reason I asked about the timeframe is the medium has been changing radically even in the timeframe in which you were writing it. With each successive viewing, did you find yourself noticing some bit and saying, “Oh my God, this is the thing that is actually happening now”?
Dave Itzkoff: I don’t know if this will answer your question, but I had that moment more when I was looking at the actual reviews of “Network” that were published in its time of release. And you really see a tone of disbelief. Not only in the negative reviews, but even in the positive reviews, even in the people who liked the film and championed it, who were presenting it as something that was something completely outlandish and everyone seemed certain this was never ever going to happen. There’s a document that I make reference to, that Chayefsky in his preparations for writing this film actually drew up for himself an entire programming grid for UBS. So he’s thinking about what TV show is on their air basically at every hour and half hour of the day over a seven-day period. And he gives the shows all these ridiculous and satirical titles like “Celebrity Canasta.” And that’s a show that would be on right now. That’s basically “Hollywood Game Night.”
Aaron Sorkin often talks about how prophetic Chayefsky was. TV has certainly lived down to a lot of the things that were written there, but in other ways it’s gotten a lot better than it was back then.
Dave Itzkoff: I can never know for sure what Chayefsky would think, and I’m sure he’d find plenty of things to dislike about the modern area, but with the tradition of the Sunday night serialized narratives, you have to believe that those come right out of things like the “Philco-Goodyear Playhouse” and things like “Marty” and “Middle of the Night.” Those were one-offs, but if he were around right now, I’m sure he would be a show runner for AMC or HBO. I think he would’ve fit right into that milieu.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Conchata Ferrell is running through the casting list and every character description begins with “crusty but benign,” “crusty but benign,” “crusty but benign.” And that is one cliché that his been largely blown up since then.
Dave Itzkoff: Both the “Network” screenplay and all the news releases that MGM and United Artist put out about Faye Dunaway’s character very plainly and straightforwardly said that Diana is “tall and willowy with the best bottom ever seen on a vice president of programming.” And it’s such a testament to a different era.
Before reading the book, I had been under the impression that before Finch died, Holden was bitter at the thought that he was going to lose the Oscar to him, but that”s not in the book. Am I just misremembering?
Dave Itzkoff: It’s not impossible. It’s not anything that I came across, but I’m sure it was very delicate, certainly prior to Finch’s death in terms of who would be considered for what award. And I think if it happened now, I’m sure you would have an award season publicist trying to frame one as best actor and one as best supporting actor so that they wouldn’t step on each others toes in such a way.
And you’ve got Beatrice Straight; does she still hold the record for least screen time in an Oscar-winning role?
Dave Itzkoff: I’m trying to be delicate about that because it’s one of those unofficial records. I don’t know if the Academy formally ever said that and I can’t say that I’ve gone back through other movies with a stopwatch. But yes, she really won it on the strength of that one scene where she’s confronting Holden about his affair with Faye Dunaway. And it’s under five minutes, but they are five of the most memorable and searing minutes you’ll see in a movie.
You had access to all of these Chayefsky papers. You talked to as many of the sources as were alive and willing to talk to you, but how was it putting together this book without having Paddy as someone you could go to?
Dave Itzkoff: At a certain point, it weighs on you very heavily that you are the one making the decision about how to present this person. And you’re the filter for what information are you going to emphasize and what kind of a character are you going to present. But I felt reasonably confident, after having spoken to so many people who did know him as intimately as they did, it just seemed to be consistent presentations of him the way that people remember him. Certainly a tremendously talented and dedicated writer, but also as someone who had a very particular personality, somebody who fought fiercely for the control of their own work, and certainly for somebody who could be very irritable who could really turn on you if he felt that you weren’t protecting his interest. And some people remember him very, very affectionately and weird ways. Executives who had cups of matzo ball soup thrown at them by Chayefsky, they’re proud of this detail that all these years later that they got to have that kind of an encounter with him. There’s certainly, let’s say, documentary evidence. If you go back and watch the 1978 Oscars when he faced off with Vanessa Redgrave, the tone in which he delivers his rebuttal remarks, he’s not particularly strident or forceful, but you can tell in the word choices that he is mad as hell.

Speaking of both word choice and the phrase “I”m mad as hell,” you note that Finch slips in an extra word that wasn’t supposed to be there (he says “I”m as mad as hell”), but he only had the energy to do those two takes so the movie was stuck with it, and yet everyone remembers it the way that Chayefsky wrote it. That’s interesting.
Dave Itzkoff: Well, I think it varies. When Finch is performing the speech, he says, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore,” but then if you watch the sequence that follows where all the people are rushing to the windows to shout it out the world, they say “I’m mad as hell.” In the reality of the movie, they would’ve just been hearing Howard Beale say it the other way. So I guess at a certain point either nobody else noticed or they were just hoping that audiences wouldn’t piece that together. That there wouldn’t come a day 38 years later when you and I would be sitting and scrutinizing it this closely.
What were some of the surprising things you found out about both Chayefsky and the genesis of the movie over the course of researching the book?
Dave Itzkoff: One of the weird enduring reputations of the movie is that it was something that he somehow wrote as an act of revenge either on TV itself or on specific people who were in the industry who had stabbed him in the back at some point and this was his pastiche of them. And that’s just totally false. If you look at not only the gestation of the film itself, but the arc of his career, this is something that he spent quite a long time thinking about, writing and revising and he’s so bound up in a lot of different ideas that he was developing through his TV plays, his stage plays, his other motion pictures. I think that that idea is pretty much disproved at this point. And just to see his writing process and to see not only the meticulousness and the rigorousness that he revised and rewrote and just tossed things out wholesale, and even the extent to which he was very hard on himself as a self editor. He was not really the kind of person who when he had a complete draft was sharing it around to other people to see what they thought, but in terms of just his own ability to look at something that he had written himself and figure out what was wrong with it, what wasn’t working, what needed to be revisited or just completely thrown out – he had a singular skill for that and he also tormented himself with it a little bit.
Certain things in the movie have not yet happened. We have not yet seen an anchor assassinated for low ratings. We haven’t seen a network get in bed with terrorists for the sake of ratings. Are there things in the movie that you think could never happen or do you think that 20 years from now it’s all fact?
Dave Itzkoff: Yeah. People are always half joking and not joking about when they”re going to start televising executions. People seem to think that that’s something that’s just going to happen at some point or another. And certainly there’s no broadcasting of death, but think about how many times there are acts of violence that accidently get caught on camera that then just get replayed ad infinitum. Think about all the nefarious and despicable people that studios and networks are all too happy to get in bed with to produce reality shows around. It’s pretty dismal and yet not that unthinkable.
When I was watching the “Anchorman” sequel, I thought, “Gee, this is Will Ferrell and Adam McKay”s ‘Network.””
Dave Itzkoff: Yeah, I think they were able to present it in a much brighter way, much more belly laughs in that movie. You certainly come out feeling a little bit better about yourself. But I think in a way they were making very really similar points, although they have the hindsight of history there.
This is a great movie, and an incredibly prescient one, but it”s also nearly 40 years old. For someone who is not familiar with it, what do you see “Network” having to say to a young media fan right now?
Dave Itzkoff: Of course, we’ve talked about the film as a commentary on television, but I think there’s something really rebellious about it. This is somebody who is working in the medium of film, using the resources of two major motion picture studios at the time, and using access to basically all the major broadcast networks to criticize the very things that he’s using as his tools to tell the story. And that I think is really remarkable. I don’t think anybody could get away with that today. I think it’s something really to be proud of and celebrate that at least somebody got away with it once.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com