Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful
Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies by Dave Itzkoff
Times Books, 2014; 288 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
Hollywood has never shown screenwriters much respect. In Billy Wilder’s acidic 1950 noir Sunset Blvd., the film’s screenwriter protagonist quips, “Audiences don't know somebody sits down and writes a picture; they think the actors make it up as they go along.” Unlike theatre where the author is king, film has deemphasized the importance of the writer from its inception. Few singular voices have stood out among the directors and stars who hold greater sway over the screen. Among those few, none wielded the creative control and fiery passion of Paddy Chayefsky. In his book Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies, author Dave Itzkoff explores the life of Chayefsky intense individuality as it reached a pinnacle during the creation of his magnum opus, Network.
Chayefsky wielded considerable power in his day. A three-time Oscar winner for screenwriting, he commanded above-the-title billing on his films and complete creative control over how his scripts were filmed (during the making of his film The Americanization of Emily, Chayefsky had legendary director William Wyler removed from the film for trying to alter his script.) Even with a career that included work in the theatre and television (of which Chayefsky was one of the first breakout successes of the medium,) Itzkoff focuses on the making of Network as the culmination of all its authors concerns about media bastardization, declining social values, political uprising, and multinational corporate influence. For a man considered kind and sensitive by his peers, Chayefsky boiled over with eerily accurate prognostications about just how far America’s morality would sink in the coming decades.
Itzkoff, a culture reporter for The New York Times, offers some fascinating insights into the production history of Network. Perhaps the strongest backstory into the making of the movie comes from Peter Finch, a semi-retired actor who made his biggest career splash as the mad prophet newsman Howard Beale, only to die shortly after the film’s release (he later won the first posthumous acting Oscar for his role.) The book shines, however, anytime Chayefsky takes center stage. Itzkoff shows urgency for film to have writers like Chayefsky, people who felt outraged and wanted to provoke people from the docile space they’d carved out in front of their TVs.