“The Almost Book – A Review of Dave Itzkoff’s Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies”*
Dave Itzkoff. Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies.
Times Books. NY, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 2014. ISBN: 9780805095692
Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times, writes for their Arts Beat Blog and contributes as a culture reporter, pulls together the topics he usually writes about and delivers an extremely pleasurable item in his new, Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies. He is not at all unfamiliar with popular formats such as film and television. The star, rather the protagonist of Itzkoff’s book, is the screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote the screenplay for Network (1976) and previously wrote for popular television programs in his day. Itzkoff uses this background to base his book as he starts in the past, sections the book from about 2 years before Network and ends it not too long afterwards…sort of…
If I could imagine a container or a shape I felt while reading for the text in this book, it would be a flat road. For example, it took a long while to gather actors to play some of the major roles. There were tensions and expectations around each one. Faye Dunaway, the talent that she is, was not without her troubled baggage before and after the film. Specifically, the character of Howard Beale, the “prophet” of the film who does all the screaming in the role and then eventually gets co-opted into the very system he wanted to undermine was played by Peter Finch who died the year after the film’s release at the young age of sixty. This character is polarizing in his anger and in his profanity.
But if this character is as important to the critical position in the film, and stands-in for the frustration felt by the screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky, why should there not be a better direction of the narrative in the book surrounding him? I think there should be. Instead, the book moves along in sections not obviously arranged for dramatic purposes. The stress Chayefsky and the producer closest to him, Howard Gottfried, felt as they sent the script around the globe and did not find anyone for a while should somehow be represented better in the book itself as a form. Yes it’s history. But history is writing and that should show. Instead, Itzkoff’s choice, or maybe the publisher, is to include a slew of sections with bolded text that transition from one to another with no regard to dramatic structure created via chapter breaks. If editing in film is used to create and manipulate drama, breaking a book into better chapter sections can be thought of as an analog.
Instead, while Chayefsky and Gottfried close in on their best picks to play important characters such as Howard Beale, Itzkoff engages in constant sublimation, for example, by opening that last section when Finch is picked to play Beale by simply opening with the words, “Since the Spring…” a full double-space away from the previous section which opened with the words, “On September 24, 1975…” on the picking of William Holden for another major part. The style of these “chapters” reads like a personal diary by someone with little stake in the outcome. The meaningful actor/director choices put together for a film that would go on to win several academy awards are all locked up in a vague title section called, “A Great Deal of Bullshit.” I assume these were words Chayefsky expressed about and through the process of finding each player for the film. But the words themselves do not have much meaning. It is a hard choice though – book titling. It might be interesting to do research into the trends and changes in book and chapter titles for which this little review could be a footnote. I only suggest that a book on such a dramatic persona as Chayefsky make his life’s central work of art find a style and structure that better represents that persona.
According to the book’s narrative, after Network won its awards, Peter Finch died and every other player in the film went onward to other dreams. Chayefsky set to work on a screenplay for another film I like called Altered States (1980). He wanted Sidney Lumet to direct this film, but Lumet had already made other commitments. As a result, Ken Russell, the artist (slightly avant-garde) director of such works as The Devils (1971) and the cult music-crossover film, Tommy (1975) starring Pete Townsend from the English band, The Who, took over the reins and experienced what everyone has who worked with Chayefsky on a film, the locking of bullhorns over control of what happens with a film after a screenwriter has agreed to sign his or her writing over to a crew making a film from it. Chayefsky disagreed with Russell on a number of points. He did not appreciate the set structure and the approach Russell used at all. But it was not in Russell’s contract to be directed by the screenwriter. Russell did not back down. Eventually Chayefsky left the set and never set foot on it again.
In fact, Altered States was the last film he wrote before he died in August 1981. But it is with this section that alters the state for Chayefsky in film that the direction and purpose for Itzkoff’s book truly comes together. During the work for Altered States, which Chayefsky was “selling” as a Jekyll and Hyde novel first, one man, Chayesfsky, gets a lucrative film deal for what would become Altered States, the other man, Chayefsky (note the very subtle difference in the two), gets kicked of the set of that same film and returns to his office in NYC and does not produce another thing for the rest of his life – a life that was to end before the next year was over. It is not clear which was the angry monster and which was the man who created the monster. Even though Itzkoff’s anecdotes are fun to read and historically accurate, they do not themselves direct one toward an emotional catharsis one should expect from a book that revolves around heavy expression, an “angry” driven writer and the film that would make him the most famous.
The section just after the ending of Paddy Chayefsky’s death, however, marks the real catharsis for the book. It is here where Itzkoff collects a series of stinging anecdotes about the state of media today and what it’s like to work in the movie business. He quotes director/actor Ben Affleck who says anyone can still get his or her movie made as long as one if committed enough to it all the way through. He references contemporary stars such as Kieth Olbermann and their statements that Network can be read as a vision for the future (now) in that drama and increasingly niche programming has trumped “hard news.” We won’t bring up the other aspect of this debate, that one between televised news programming and newspapers. The issue has become central to programming on cable, satellite and what is left of the networks – news was considered a public service surrounded by lighter advertisement-filled content such as shows and other dramatic works. These times have changed according to the book. Everything must conform to the bottom line. It is with this examination of the sell-out method of contemporary media that Paddy Chayefsky’s rage can still be directed. As a result, it is precisely here that Dave Itzkoff’’s book comes together as a whole object, a whole history.
Dave Itzkoff’s Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies, finds itself mostly unified at the end. It brings together the person Paddy Chayefsky and his most famous character into a more defined purpose.
Thank you for reading.
*A variant of this review has also been published at LibraryThing as part of Early Reviewers.