“A real mad prophet.”
39 years ago, as my senior year of high school was just kicking off, I wandered into the converted classroom that served as the office of our school paper. Desks, chairs, a cabinet, a few typewriters and our mascot, a deer head which we called “the moose” mounted over the blackboard. Not exactly the city room of the Daily Planet, but good enough for us overachieving (some), jaded (most), wiseass (me) Brooklyn teens to call our own. That day, the editor handed me a couple of passes to a press screening of a soon to be released motion picture, and a Q&A session with some of the cast and crew afterwards. “500 words, and maybe you could ask a few non-stupid questions?” Thanks for the vote of confidence, Stu. I glanced at the slick card stock, noting only a single-word title bisected by a large stylized lightning bolt. I had absolutely no clue as to what this film was about, but by the end of that evening, my life would be profoundly influenced in ways that I could have hardly imagined.
“Network“ is a tour de force that absolutely skewers, nay, disembowels television, broadcast journalism, corporate America and the mind-numbed mass of people who we now recognize today as the low-information voter. The irony is that the man who wrote this scathingly funny rant about the tube made his bones in television’s golden age alongside major literary talents like Horton Foote, Rod Serling, Gore Vidal and Tad Mosel. But his masterpiece about two ordinary, lonely people who find love, “Marty,” (later to be made into an Academy Award-winning motion picture) is considered the quintessential drama of TV’s golden age, and elevates him unambiguously as the best of the best.
Sidney Aaron Chayefsky, born and raised in the Bronx to Ukrainian Jewish parents, was tough, pugnacious and incredibly sharp. He played semi-pro football yet graduated from City College in New York, which at the time, despite being a public institution rivaled Harvard and Columbia as the nation’s best. As to his nickname, early one morning, while on KP duty in the Army, being Jewish, he asked to be excused from Sunday mass. “Okay, Paddy” was the response from his superior and the name stuck. Recovering in England after being wounded by a land mine near Aachen, Chayefesky wrote the book and lyrics to a musical comedy “No T.O. for Love,” which toured army bases for two years and ultimately had a successful run in London’s West End. And the rest as they say is history, in the form of some of America’s most memorable and culturally significant words and images.
After a frustrating stint in Hollywood, Chayefsky returned to New York where he found solid footing on Broadway as well as in the nascent medium of television. Despite this and the wild success of “Marty,” he ultimately left TV because of what he saw as a lack interest by the networks for quality programs. And that’s where the seeds of “Network” were planted. Five years earlier, an equally groundbreaking though less well known film “The Hospital” is where Chayefsky perfected a style of screenwriting that utterly eviscerates the golden rule of the craft: “show, don’t tell.” Pivotal scenes consist of monologues that are sometimes two pages long. But director Arthur Hiller had no problem staging the action because Chayefsky’s words are imbued with pain, love, rage, desperation and most importantly truth. So much so that it garnered his second Oscar for best original screenplay. Despite its 1971 timeframe, the film remains as relevant and fresh today as when it was released.
“Resist we much!”
Ditto “Network,” which gave Chayefsky his third Oscar as well as Oscars in virtually every other major category except best picture (that went to “Rocky” which demonstrates just how political the Oscars are). But beyond the crackling dialogue, the superb acting and Sidney Lumet’s sharp direction (he too cut his teeth during the golden age directing live television), what is striking about the film is its frighteningly accurate prescience. 20 years before Jerry Springer, Judge Judy, the Kardashians and the unreality of reality television, “Network” foresaw it all, not to the degree where we have sunk but certainly the direction. But instead of the venerable old timer Howard Beale (Peter Finch won a best actor Oscar posthumously) threatening to kill himself on the 6:00 O’clock News and yelling “bullshit” we have Brian Williams as the modern day version of Commander McBragg, Dan Rather fabricating stories to derail an election, NBC editing the George Zimmerman 911 call and faking exploding gas tanks, and Candy Crowley openly taking sides in a presidential debate. Then there’s the raging “conga line of freaks” of MSNBC, as Mark Levin calls them. UBS had “The Mao Tse Tung Hour” so they have Al Sharpton, albeit “promoted” from a daily show to 8:00AM Sunday morning. And at the risk of a spoiler alert, just last week we have a disgruntled, racist news reporter gunning down his rival and her cameraman on live television while posting it on Twitter and Facebook.
Drama critic Martin Gottfried described Chayefesky as,
…compact and burly in the bulky way of a schoolyard athlete, with thick dark hair and a bent nose that could pass for a streetfighter’s. He was a grown-up with one foot in the boys’ clubs of his city youth, a street snob who would not allow the loss of his nostalgia. He was an intellectual competitor, always spoiling for a political argument or a philosophical argument, or any exchange over any issue, changing sides for the fun of the fray. A liberal, he was annoyed by liberals; a proud Jew, he wouldn’t let anyone call him a “Jewish writer.” In short, the life of the mind was a participant sport for Paddy Chayefsky.”
Despite his liberalism, which I would characterize as classical liberalism (as opposed to the militant leftism of today’s liberal), by all indications the scales were starting to fall away from Chayefsky’s eyes. Sure “Network’s” Arthur Jensen touts the dirty little secret of a world run not by governments but by giant corporations (partially correct; he omits radical Islam), but he absolutely destroys the left with a community leaders’ meeting in “The Hospital” and the contract negotiation between lawyers, agents and black militant leader the great Ahmed Kahn in “Network.” At the very least, Paddy was open-minded; he gored the ox of liberalism with as much fury as he did status quo America. Unless it’s to serve immediate political expediency, no one on the left today will ever criticize or expose the flaws or wrongdoing of their leaders or more importantly their political philosophy.
The first inkling of this was during his stint as a presenter at the 51st Academy Awards in 1978. Earlier in the evening, Vanessa Redgrave had won a best supporting actress Oscar for her performance in “Julia.” In her acceptance speech, referring to a group of demonstrators outside the hall protesting her pro-Palestinian stance, she thanked the academy for “refusing “to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums.” Later, when he took to the podium, Chayefsky said:
I would like to say, personal opinion, of course, that I’m sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda. I would like to suggest to Ms. Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed.
It stands as one of, if not the most memorable moment in the history of the awards. And that’s fitting considering the nature of the incident and the magnitude of the man who had the last word, to thunderous applause I might add. In today’s Hollywood, the situation would have been just the opposite.
Chayefsky’s last film was “Altered States,” based on his novel of the same name about a man’s search for his primal self. He suffered a heart attack in 1977 due to stress of the project, was subsequently sued by one of the science advisors and ultimately took his name off the credits (he is credited as Sidney Aaron) due to ongoing disputes with director Ken Russell. By 1981, suffering from cancer and declining to treat it, he passed away in August of that year at the age of 58.
When you look at Chayefsky’s body of work, it’s meager in terms of number but staggering in terms of brilliance, accomplishment and influence. He remains the only writer to win three best original screenplay Oscars as a sole author; the state of the industry being what it is, that record may stand for a very long time to come. From a personal standpoint, my encounter with “Network” set me on a lifelong journey that would lead me to Hollywood as a screenwriter and story editor, and engender a love affair with the marriage of dialogue and action in the moving image.
Considering the insane course the world and our culture have taken since Chayefsky’s passing (the Reagan years notwithstanding), I would like to think that he would have had a political awakening in the vein of David Mamet. At the very least, there is ample fodder in that time period that could have easily produced several more films like “Network” and “The Hospital.” Then again, with Hollywood’s totally leftist bent, the odds of them getting green-lit would be slim to none.
What might have been. What might have been.