While George Clooney’s Oscar-nominated “Good Night, and Good Luck” looks back at a halcyon era of broadcast journalism, 1976’s “Network” saw a future that three decades later makes the film seem eerily prophetic.
The story about newscaster Howard Beale — “the first known instance of a man who was killed because of lousy ratings” — remains the pre-eminent satire about the encroachment of entertainment values into TV news.
Sidney Lumet, who directed Paddy Chayefsky’s legendary script, believes that every absurdity, every sacrifice of ethics for the sake of a “50 share” depicted in “Network” has come to pass — save for the airing of Beale’s murder.
“That’s the only part of ‘Network’ that hasn’t happened yet, and that’s on its way,” the 81-year-old Lumet says, fidgeting behind the desk of his Manhattan office, perched seven stories above the din of Broadway theaters.
The occasion of the director’s reminiscence is the 30th anniversary of “Network,” celebrated with a two-disc special edition DVD coming out Tuesday along with Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon.”
Too much informationLumet’s feelings about TV today might be explained simply by the large, dusty, antiquated television set sitting beside him.
“I think everybody’s got much more information, and is much less intelligent,” he says.
Nowadays, he says, there are few people who aren’t “television babies” who “learned life from Bugs Bunny,” as William Holden’s pre-TV era newsman judged Faye Dunaway’s bloodless network exec in “Network.”
Lumet’s career began in television, notably directing CBS’ “You Are There,” anchored by Walter Cronkite. (The show, offered re-enactments of historical events, thus blending show-biz with news.) On the “Network” DVD, Cronkite, a good friend of Lumet’s, remembers first watching the film with his CBS cohorts.
“We howled with laughter, rolled over on the floor with the depiction of [TV news],” he says.
But Cronkite says he considered “Network” an exaggeration and recalls being concerned people would think it represented the truth about TV news.
Today, some would say it does.
In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, former “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel wrote, “The goal of the traditional broadcast networks now is to identify those segments of the audience considered most desirable by the advertising community and then to cater to them.”
Lumet says his main regret is that Chayefsky, who died of cancer in 1981, isn’t around to see how right he was.
“He was prescient. What can I tell you? He was a Jewish soothsayer,” Lumet says. “One of the things I admire stylistically is how he was able to give you the bitter pill with such good laughs.”
Of course, in the iconic scene of “Network,” Beale (Peter Finch, the first posthumous best-actor Oscar winner) infuses one phrase permanently into the vernacular: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
His vein-popping shout, as he urged viewers to do likewise, is movie magic. Lumet didn’t know it would have the effect it did, but witnessed it catching on immediately. At the movie’s very first showing, he says, the audience answered Beale’s call, yelling back at the screen.
Moviegoers might remember Clooney doing an impression of the line in Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight.” Obviously the film has influenced Clooney — in October, he said he was planning on a live TV update of “Network.” (The actor also executive-produced a live TV version of Lumet’s 1964 Cold War drama “Fail Safe” in 2000.)
“When you’ve got a piece of good dramatic literature, it should have as many lives as possible,” says Lumet, who directed big screen versions of the plays “Long Day’s Journey into Night” and “The Sea Gull.” “I think [Clooney] is conducting a very honorable career.”
“Good Night, and Good Luck,” which chronicles Edward R. Murrow’s stand against Sen. Joseph McCarthy, is nominated for six Oscars including best picture. Though “Network” was nominated for 10 Oscars and took home four, it lost best picture.
‘I never think I'm going to win’Lumet helped actors win 17 Oscars for performances in his films (including Finch, Dunaway and Beatrice Straight in “Network”). But The director always was shut out.
“I’m not a fantasist and I never think I’m going to win,” he says. “And I’m also not a competitive man, but on two occasions I got so pissed off about what beat us. With ‘Network,’ we were beaten out by ‘Rocky,’ for Christ’s sake.” (Lumet also admits to being “a little contemptuous” about “The Verdict” losing in 1983 to “Gandhi.”)
Last year, though, Lumet finally got his Oscar — a lifetime achievement award. His acceptance speech was hailed for its eloquence: “I guess I’d like to thank the movies.”
“There’s a continuum here,” he explains. “None of us are working alone and that continuum is now 100 years old; people don’t realize that.”
Lumet has no qualms with the amount of recognition he’s received: “God knows I’ve got no complaints about my career. I’ve had a very good time and gotten some good work done.”
As he often does, he stresses the word “work” — not “art” or even “films” — but simple, unpretentious “work.”
He’s never been an overt, ostentatious stylist. One of the pleasures of his commentary on the “Network” DVD is hearing him trace the subtle, slow “corrupting” of the camera as it moves from naturalistic to “like a Ford commercial.”
In Lumet’s 1995 book, “Making Movies,” he offers a no-nonsense guide to the topic — as well as this description of “Network”:
“To borrow from the NRA, TV doesn’t corrupt people; people corrupt people.”
Lumet is still firmly wedged behind the camera. Next month, his latest film, “Find Me Guilty,” hits theaters. It stars Vin Diesel as a mobster who successfully defended himself in a two-year trial.
Meanwhile, Lumet is working on another picture — retirement is not for him.
“I’m just not geared for that. I get so much from work,” he says. “[Making movies] is physically hard, and I’m getting old now, so it’s going to be harder. But I don’t think I want to stop. I can’t imagine stopping.”