Graeme Robertson on why Network should have won Best Picture at the 49th Academy Awards…
The Oscars celebrating the best of 1976 were a rarity, in that, almost all of the nominees for Best Picture are truly excellent and have gone on to become celebrated classics.
While Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky ultimately triumphed against its formidable competition, I feel, despite loving Rocky and the franchise it spawned, that it perhaps didn’t deserve to be named as Best Picture of 1976.
To me, the award should have gone to the brilliant razor sharp media satire that is Network.
Network follows the exploits of TV network UBS and the complete and utter breakdown of its long-standing news anchor Howard Beale, who at has just been told he is to be fired in two weeks due to increasingly dwindling viewing figures.
Left on by his ratings-hungry bosses for his final broadcasts, Beale manages to tap into and articulate the anger and frustration that his viewers feel about the increasing unpleasantness and misery of modern society. So successful in doing this, his bosses, far from firing him, instead give him his own primetime TV show christening him as “The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves”.
The acting in this film is phenomenal with nary a weak link among the cast. Faye Dunaway, who won Best Actress for her performance, is a perfect villain as the unscrupulous TV boss Diana Christensen, disregarding the clear mental instability of Beale and just eager to exploit the man for ratings. The legendary William Holden is also great as the ageing news editor Schumacher, hopeful that he can stick to his principals of keeping the news safe from the greedy interests of his station’s corporate overlords, yet he is weak-willed and easily seduced by the Machiavellian charms of Christensen.
The film though belongs to Peter Finch in his Oscar-winning performance as Howard Beale, although sadly Finch would pass away before he could receive his much-deserved award. Finch’s performance is possibly one of the finest examples of acting I’ve ever seen committed to film, with the actor delivering powerful rants that really grab hold of you and don’t let go, with his every moment being electrifying to behold.
While Finch and company are the main stars of the film, one must not forget that this film possesses two of quite possibly the finest cameo performances.
Beatrice Straight gives the shortest performance to ever win an Oscar, with her appearance as Holden’s wife taking up a mere 5 minutes of screen time, but I can tell you this much, it’s a bloody well acted 5 minutes as she tears into the pathetic nature of his midlife crisis that he is clearly embarking upon.
The appearance of Ned Beatty, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his brief appearance, temporarily steals the film from Finch; with Beatty delivering a truly thunderous speech about how “The World is a Business” delivered with such power and authority that like Beale, we start to wonder if we might be listening to the voice of God.
The Oscar-winning script by Paddy Chayefsky is simply exquisite in its use of language, with dialogue and monologues Aaron Sorkin has spent his career trying to emulate.Yes, the film is full of long, often preachy speeches that often begin or result in the actors screaming their lungs out. Although, when you have “long winded” speeches that are as well written and well acted as they are here, I say preach away all you like, I’ll listen.
The film is often praised for its prophetic depiction of how television media would eventually go, with the ranting angry persona of Howard Beale being somewhat replicated by the angry on-screen personas of Fox New’s angry blowhard Bill O’Reily or MSNBC’s angry suburban dad Keith Olbermann. You could even that argue that the film can be predictive of the of the mindset that led to the rise of Donald Trump, with Beale managing to tap into a similar level anger and frustration much like the new President was able to in his surprisingly successful bid for the White House
You could even shift some of Beale’s ranting about TV, especially his one about how “We’re in a lot of trouble”, or his comments about how “it’s the individual that’s finished” over to the internet and how people have essentially shifted their devotion from TV to the internet. The internet says something is popular like a meme or a trend, everyone joins in with it. The internet says something or someone is bad or should be condemned and shamed, then the herd follows with their torches and pitchforks. Simply replace the word television with internet in Beale’s speeches and it seems to work.
Now while I’ve essentially spent this entire piece gushing about how great this film is, many of you are likely wondering; why do I feel that this film should have won Best Picture over Rocky?
Rocky is a film that I love dearly and it deserves its place in pop culture and cinematic history, and I can fully understand why it why it won. The world was pretty miserable in 1976 with America suffering economic instability, rising crime and a deep distrust of those in political power, a national mood that is arguably summed up by the other nominees of that Oscar night which also included Taxi Driver and All the Presidents Men.
Knowing all this misery that was engulfing America at the time, it only stands to reason that a feel-good story about an underdog rising to the top is named as the best film of the year; it’s just a happy uplifting story about the triumph of the everyman.
Network, on the other hand, is a rather grim satire about how one man’s mental breakdown is exploited by his bosses, greedy to take the top spot in the TV ratings list. It’s about how a man manages to expose the world in all its miserable glory, implores people to get mad which taps into societal frustration and fury. Yet, ultimately finds that the very same angry public cast him out when they eventually get bored of his preaching when they find his message to depressing to keep listening to.
All in all, it’s not a particularly cheery story but it’s a story that despite being over 40 years old is still incredibly relevant today, perhaps even more so. It’s this modern relevance, coupled with some of the finest writing and acting ever committed to the screen that makes me think that Network should have been named as the Best Picture of 1976.
What do you think dear readers? Do you agree with my sentiment about Network, or do you think Rocky is the better film? Let me know in the comments below…