Oscar Vault Monday – Network, 1976 (dir. Sidney Lumet)

The first time I saw this film I was completely blown away. It’s eerie how a satirical film about television made 35 years ago can be so accurate within today’s world of television. I rewatched it recently and am just as in awe of it as ever. Network was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning four: Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Screenplay (won), Best Supporting Actor Ned Beatty, Best Supporting Actress Beatrice Straight (won), Best Actress Faye Dunaway (won), Best Actor William Holden, Best Actor Peter Finch (won), Best Director and Best Picture. The other films nominated for Best Picture that year were All The President’s Men, Bound For Glory, Taxi Driver and winner Rocky.

Sidney Lumet was one of the greatest directors of the second half of Hollywood’s history. He had fourteen films that were nominated for Oscars in one capacity or other, including four that were nominated for Best Picture and Best Director: 12 Angry Men (his debut film), Dog Day Afternoon, Network and The Verdict. None of these films won Best Picture or Best Director. Although Lumet never won a competitive Academy Award, he did receive an Honorary Academy Award in 2005. Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote the film, is the only screenwriter to have won three solo Academy Awards for Best Screenplay. He won for his work on Marty, The Hospital and Network. Another notable piece of trivia about the film: it is tied with A Streetcar Named Desire for most acting Oscar wins; both won three out of four categories.

William Holden is one of my top five favorite actors (don’t make name the others, pretty please). He is always good. ALWAYS GOOD. For his performance as news division president Max Schumacher, Holden received his third Oscar nomination for Best Actor (the first was for 1950’s Sunset Blvd. and the second was for 1954’s Stalag 17. He won the award for the latter). . In my opinion, it is his subtle performance in this film that is its foundation and it is his performance that should have garnered an Oscar win. But subtly rarely does. He is suburb throughout the film, but his last monologue, spoken to Faye Dunaway’s Diana Christensen (in a rare fragile moment for the character), is beyond brilliant.

Speaking of Dunaway, she won the Best Actress award for her role as the network’s head of the programming department Diana Christensen. This was her third (and so far her last) nomination for Best Actress, having previously been nominated for Bonnie and Clyde and Chinatown. Dunaway’s character is a complete mess, but the most structured, driven mess you might ever see. I also find her interesting because at times she is incredibly strong, well strong-willed at least, but she’s also incredibly fragile. She’s the kind of character you could only really find in the 70s – a woman who has grown up with women’s liberation and seeks to find her place in what was once “a man’s world”, but who also deep down wants romance in her life as well – though this is something she later realizes she’s ill-prepared for. Whether Diana Christensen reflects women of the era realistically or is simply just a creation by a man of what he thinks that kind of woman would be like is a question I can’t answer. Regardless, her conflicting nature makes her one of the most interesting character’s I’ve come across and Dunaway embodies her perfectly.

Which brings us to Peter Finch’s Oscar-winning turn as suicidal news anchor Howard Beale. While I hold to my opinion that Holden should have won, I won’t argue too much because Finch’s performance is also quite brilliant. His descent into madness is one of the most harrowing ever captured on film. Having made his film debut in 1938, Finch was previously nominated for Best Actor for 1971’s Sunday Bloody Sunday. Until Heath Ledger’s Best Supporting Actor win for 2008’s The Dark Knight, Finch was the only actor to receive a posthumous competitive Academy Award.

Robert Duvall is such a bastard in this movie. I mean, he plays such a bastard. But he’s so damn good playing a bastard. Duvall made his feature film debut playing Boo Radley in To Kill A Mocking Bird, and has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor three times (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, A Civil Action) and Best Actor three times (The Great Santini, Tender Mercies, The Apostle) – winning for Tender Mercies.

Beatrice Straight holds the record for the least amount of screen time for an Oscar-winning performance. Her role as William Holden’s wife Louise Schumacher is only on the screen for approximately 5 minutes and 40 seconds. In those brief minutes she manages to burn through her lines with such amazing ferocity and passion. Her monologue to Holden’s Max just after he’s told her he’s leaving her for Diana is searing and devastating.

I do, however, wish there’d been room in the Best Supporting Actress category for Marlene Warfield, who is a real hoot as self-described “badass commie nigger” Laureen Hobbs. She’s the perfect companion piece to Dunaway’s driven Christensen. Spokesperson for the fictional “Ecumenical  Liberation Army” (a parody of the Symbionese Liberation Army), Warfield’s Hobbs delivers Chayefsky’s witty dialogue in rapid-fire speed, like they’re bullets.

Like Beatrice Straight, Ned Beatty’s appearance in the film is brief, but memorable. I believe Beatty’s entire Oscar-nominated performance is seen in one scene; an ominous one wherein Beatty pretends to be the voice of God talking to Finch’s unhinged Beale. It’s eerie alright, and absolute perfection.

The film wraps up its commentary on news media as entertainment with one of the most perfect closing lines ever, said by the narrator whose witty, yet emotionless commentary has been heard throughout the film: “This was the story of Howard Beale, the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.”


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on August 29, 2011, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Wonderful article about this movie. At the time it seemed timely maybe even dated. But now I see it as prophetic. Last week’s suicide of a cast member of a “reality show” places Network right there with other movies that showed/show us the future. Ratings are everything. You could show it as a triple feature with Good Night and Good Luck and The Insider.

    And the performances are indeed brilliant – gosh what a cast.

  2. A near perfect film. You’re spot on with the closing line: emotionless less, yet distinct and honest.

  3. I first saw this film about six months ago and the impact it had was immense. It’s one of those rare films that always stays with you on the periphery of your thinking. The script was all the things I love – political, wordy and ever so slightly evangelical in its tirade. I agree with the Ned Beatty scene..absolutely masterful..and Lumet’s lighting and camera angles during it…so wonderful I have goosebumps just thinking of it! :0)

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