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He was at his best when he was angry. It wasn't simply that so many things bothered him, or that when they did, they irritated him to the fullest possible degree. But where others avoided conflict, he cultivated it and embraced it. His fury nourished him, making him intense and unpredictable, but also keeping him focused and productive. He was not generally the sort of person who felt the need to clench his fists in violence or submerge his sorrows in drink. But he knew what it was like to have desires and see them denied; he knew how it felt to cry out and not be heard. His outrage simmered in his spleen and surged through his veins, collecting in his fingertips until it pushed his pen across paper and punched the keys of his typewriter. He wrestled his rancor into words and sentences and speeches. When Paddy Chayefsky's characters spoke, they spoke with his aggravated, articulate voice, and yet they seemed to speak for everyone.
While his career was in ascendance, he was hailed as the dramatist of the common man, whose ear for the language of the underclass was so uncanny that it was said he must have transcribed it from a tape recorder. His best-known characters were thwarted people who feared nothing so much as unfulfillment, whose most emphatic and memorable dialogue poured out of them in aggressive bursts, arriving in explosive climaxes after scene upon scene of unvoiced frustration and unresolved conflict. Whether he was imagining the inner life of a lowly, lovelorn butcher or the impotent chief of medicine at a major metropolitan hospital, Chayefsky could relate to these men. Their struggle for even a minimal amount of autonomy mirrored their creator's refusal to cede any amount of control in his life and especially in his work.
He had all the accumulated resentments of a man of his time and place, who had lived through the Great Depression and fought in World War II, and who strived to fulfill the dreams of his immigrant parents and outpace anyone he regarded as a rival or a colleague. He was a short, stocky Bronx-born Jew, a son of the Grand Concourse with narrow eyes framed by large, owlish glasses, and a head of unkempt brown and white hair, with an impish goatee to match. He had no regard for fashion or convention and possessed a mischievous, cantankerous personality. A sincere compliment directed his way could trigger his venomous invective as easily as a well-deployed insult or dirty joke could earn his respect.
Chayefsky was the rare writer whose reputation earned him absolute authority on his projects—supremacy above even the directors and producers he worked with—and he sought only projects where he was allowed this authority. But what defined his writing now, in 1974, was that none of it was working. Back in the 1950s it had taken only a few years of toiling in that newly created format of television for him to cast it aside in favor of a more respectable and lucrative career in motion pictures; and only a few more years of disappointment there to leave film for the theater, where he was certain he would retain total control over the material he created; and only a few more years of total discouragement in that field to abandon the stage and return to the movies.
At the age of fifty-one, he could get his film scripts commissioned but not produced; he could get his television pilots shot but couldn't get them on the air; and it would require the collective disappearance of every other form of dramatic art before he ever wrote another play for Broadway. The Academy Award he had won for his screenwriting two years earlier seemed less like an affirmation of his talents than a solemn, faceless bookend to the Oscar he had received back in 1956: one statue to signify where the journey of a once-promising screenwriter started and the other to mark its termination.
It was not only the repeatedly obstructed ambition to have his work seen by audiences again that was bothering Chayefsky, although that was a concern. The mission that consumed him with unusual urgency was to say something universal and definitive, to make the lasting statement that the compass of his career had always pointed to and that would make him worthy of the attention he had commanded at his peak. Every rung he climbed on his way up had given Chayefsky a higher perch to see the world more clearly, and all he saw were problems he could not solve. At his Central Park West apartment awaited a wife who almost never ventured outside, as she suffered from a mysterious malady neither he nor any doctor could help with, and a self-destructive teenage son he could not understand. He feared constantly for his livelihood and was struggling with tax problems, while he watched with resigned astonishment as the city he called home and the country he loved appeared to be unraveling. Revolutions were springing up everywhere—politically, socially, artistically, cinematically—and he wanted no part of them.
Then there was television, a blossoming medium he had helped to define and popularize, with the potential for connecting every person on the planet in an instant. But in two quick decades it had become hopelessly, irrevocably corrupt, devaluing truth and alienating viewers from one another.
With so many threats stirring, it seemed irresponsible to Chayefsky for him to ignore them in his writing. Was he the only one who felt a growing risk of terrorist attacks by suicidal militants? Who saw a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hostility against Israel? Who felt the creeping influence of foreign powers—Arab powers—in the American economy? Yet the more frantically he sought to clarify the message he believed was being transmitted to him from a hundred different sources, the more certain he felt it was eluding him.
Take, for example, the screenplay that he had started researching a few months earlier. Having cast his gaze on the television business that had provided the springboard for his career, he had drawn up a roster of characters to populate the world of a fictional broadcasting company: producers, executives, underlings, corporate tycoons, political radicals, and a mentally unstable news anchor named Howard Beale. But Chayefsky could not determine how they fit together. Were they allegorical figures in a larger narrative about power and decadence, or were they just a bunch of grotesque caricatures? What did any of them have to do with the love story he was trying to thread through his script, and was that too conventional even to belong there?
Across the top of a piece of paper he had torn from a notebook, Chayefsky wrote in jagged capital letters nearly impaled by an aggressive underline: the show lacks a point of view. Then, in a gentler, pleading cursive handwriting, he filled both sides of that page with his unflinching self-analysis of the project, which he believed was drifting into chaos.
"I guess what bothers me is that the picture seems to have no ultimate statement beyond the idea that a network would kill for ratings," he wrote.
Most crucially, he wondered, what was he even trying to say in this screenplay? Were there identifiable sides to this argument, and whose side was he on? Because if he couldn't answer that, what was he creating, if not more fuel for his pyre of curtailed efforts and unsatisfied aspirations?
"We are making some kind of statement about American society," he wrote, "and its lack of clarity is what's bothering me—Even more, I'm not taking a stand—I'm not for anything or anyone—If we give Howard a speech at the end of the show, what would he say?"
Sometime later, on a piece of the blank yellow paper he more commonly used for his writing, Chayefsky started to answer this question by sketching out a few handwritten phrases: "I want you people to get mad—You don't have to organize or vote for reformers—You just have to get mad."
Within months, Chayefsky would harness his boundless capacity for anger and channel it into his script for a motion picture called Network, investing it with all the angst, anxiety, and paranoia he had ever felt. The resulting film, released in 1976, would become a potent document, instantly incendiary and wildly popular.
Network was a bundle of contradictions, the last gasp of an era of populist Hollywood filmmaking as expressed by a man who never subscribed to the movement; it used the resources of one mass medium to indict another and, beyond it, the degradation and emptiness of contemporary American life. Network scandalized the television news business, inflaming the influential denizens who took more offense at the cartoonish portrayal of their world than its author intended or expected. But by arriving at a moment of maximal national frustration, the movie made itself the center of an argument about society and personal identity and inserted itself into the cultural lexicon, earning money, winning awards, and lifting its creator to new heights of acclaim.
The eerie and uncanny prescience of Network—dismissed in its day even by some of its admirers as an impossibly absurd satire—was not limited to the moment in which it made its portentous debut. Not only did it seem to foretell the tragic death of one of its lead performers; it provided a road map for the unraveling of the monolithic broadcasting companies, the diminishment of their once-mighty news operations, and the path to a fragmented and unrecognizable media environment that the industry would follow, almost to the letter, over the next forty years.
The film also carried a personal warning to Chayefsky, who spent most of his professional life fearing that the messages in his writing were not being received by their audiences. Network was indeed his magnum opus, and the last movie that he would willingly put his name on. It would cost him nearly everything to make it exactly as he wanted it to be, and when it was done it would leave him with a stark lesson about the ultimate price of self-expression.
Copyright © 2014 by Dave Itzkoff