It wasn’t until the New York Public Library approached Dave Itzkoff to see if he’d want to look at the papers of screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky that he became interested in the story of the man he calls “the angriest man in movies.” Itzkoff, a culture reporter at the New York Times who often writes about film, has always had a soft spot for movies from the ‘70s, the era of Chayefsky’s biggest hit, Network, that depict the New York of “the bad old days we’re now nostalgic for,” as he puts it, films like Mean Streets, Serpico, Death Wish, Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon.
Network isn’t of the same gritty set design as those films. It takes place in the lofty air: among skyscrapers and nice Manhattan apartments and in the executive board rooms of a national TV network. The movie’s heart, though, is right there on the dark asphalt. If you haven’t seen Network, which stars Faye Dunaway as a young, hellcat-ambitious TX exec and aging Hollywood legend William Holden as her sober-minded colleague, you might be familiar with the buzziest line in its script, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” That refrain is uttered by Peter Finch, who plays Howard Beale, a one-time revered news anchor who suddenly unravels one night on live national news by, in part, saying that he’s mad as hell with the way the world functions and how we treat one another. It’s one sign of Chayefsky’s talent that it is possible to watch Network and feel uneasy whether it’s a satire or stern indictment of the soul: By the movie’s end, Dunaway even-handedly leads her colleagues through a conversation about whether to murder Howard Beale on live TV for good ratings.
It is, of course, both. Network is often cited as a “prophetic” film for its shrewd assessment of the ways that corporate interests can tarnish journalism’s purer motives. Although Itzkoff applies the movie’s lessons to today’s media landscape in Mad As Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies, his new book is far less a media study than a passionate investigation of Paddy Chayefsky’s personality. Itzkoff reveals how a driven, polarizing screenwriter pulled off a major hit when everyone considered him down for the count. Network’s dark implications compelled prominent anchors like Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor to publicly scoff at the film, which prompted Chayefsky—usually so unflappable—to write them apologetically (just before the film was released, Chayefsky acknowledged that the film was going to ruffle some feathers: “I know I am in for a storm of humanity,” he wrote to a friend).
Mad As Hell is a treasure for film buffs, but it has deeper insights about the sacrifices artists make to accomplish their work, and about what happens to them after they do so. “There’s a kind of character I think I’m attracted to, whether I see it in myself or others around me, people who are driven and strong-willed and convinced of their own conscience,” Itzkoff says. “I’m just magnetically drawn to them.” I talked to him recently, just before Mad As Hell was released.
Why does the story of how Network was made interest you so much?
I grew up in New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s and always had a soft spot for the cinema of that era that depicted the city in the bad old days we’re now nostalgic for. I can’t say I had a specific fascination with Chayefsky until the New York Public Library invited me to see the papers on Network and the draft of the screenplay. There were also the letters of apology he wrote to Cronkite and Chancellor and just those documents alone were so lively and thoughtful that he seemed to be alive in them. They suggested a motion picture that was the emanation of one man who had these thoughts and ideas and that’s something you don’t see much anymore. Here was a writer as opposed to a director who clearly had the ultimate authority. People have a sense now, after the fact, of how prophetic Network was in its day. It had been controversial and set people on edge and that’s what I wanted to delve into.
Did you try to interview Faye Dunaway for the book?
We really made every possible effort to reach out to her through traditional channels, nontraditional channels, people who have as much direct contact with her, and every indication we got was that this wasn’t something she wanted to participate in. That’s part of her mystique and allure; if she spoke to every person wanting to meet with her, she wouldn’t be Faye Dunaway.
You write that American media is “unmistakably Chayefskyian” now. What do you mean by that and what do you think Chayefsky would say about modern TV news?
It’s hard to imagine he would be thrilled by the current landscape. I can’t imagine him taking a perverse thrill in telling everyone, “I told you so.” News was so sacrosanct in that era and he grasped how seriously people took it, at least when it was presented on television. And there was dangerous emotion in mixing news and emotion and he saw that was a really perilous cocktail. You can spin the dial and see that anywhere now, not just on cable news but on broadcast news.
What facts or revelations surprised you in the research for the book?
At almost every interval, there were surprising details. As with every movie, there’s so much compromise that goes into the creation of a feature film. All of the day-to-day butting of heads, the scenes that challenged them. Even people who played secondary roles in the film, the rich lives they had led and how much their own lives were such reflections of the swirling cultural times they lived in, I found that fascinating. Even in the concluding portion of the book, those final months of Peter Finch’s life battling over the Oscars and making sure his widow gets to receive the Oscar should he win. Even the degree to which Chayefsky was self-alienated by the reception to the film, there was this lingering sense of the many messages he was trying to communicate weren’t received in the way he intended them to be. That’s a large part of why he fought for the control that he had. If the words were not said in the exact way he wrote them, he was afraid people wouldn’t get the point. The movie became reduced to the “mad as hell” speech, but he was trying to tell this larger story about progress and media and this one angry character’s intention
One of the insights here is that although people say we should “get along to get along," that being a pleasant person to work with can help you get further in your career, Chayefsky didn’t go that route and did quite well for himself.
Who else would take that bargain knowing the tradeoffs? Some others would but I think there’s the lesson that to execute your own vision and to have believed so strongly in the ideas and to fight for them comes at certain costs. The kind of alienation he went through, his surprise at how angry people were: He wasn’t counting on that. Any of us who have participated in a creative endeavor, we all understand on some level that desire to want to preserve our own voice and to make sure the work reflects the input we’ve put in. That was obviously of such tremendous value to him, but his life also teaches the cost of…if you want it that badly, if the ideas mean that much to you, are you prepared to also take on some of the sacrifices he had to endure. If it was presented that clearly to us, I don’t know if all of us would take that trade.
Claiborne Smith is the editor in chief of Kirkus Reviews.