NETWORK: Beale Street Can’t Talk, but Beale Can


Frankly, if I were Lee Hall, I’d be ashamed to take the money.

“Adapted by” is his official credit for NETWORK. However, the script he’s fashioned from Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning screenplay is not markedly different from that original script.

Academy Award junkies have often complained that Ernest Lehman received a nomination for WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? when all he did was trim Edward Albee’s script and take it out of George and Martha’s house for a few minutes.

Similarly speaking, Hall hasn’t done much to change the 1976 film that you can see on YouTube for $2.99.

So instead of royalties, Hall should get a finder’s fee – and a fat one at that. He’s apparently the one who wisely decided that NETWORK needed to be seen and heard again. Hall serves to remind us that Chayefsky was more apt and prescient than we ever could have believed 44 years ago.

Chayefsky’s fictional Union Broadcasting System is experiencing more difficulties than just technical ones. Now that it’s still last in the ratings, news division president Max Schumacher will fire longtime anchorman Howard Beale and get someone younger. Beale’s response to his viewers? “I’m going to blow my brains out right on this program a week from today.”

Well, you know America. Aside from saints and poets, who could ignore such a broadcast?

Before the suicide can happen, Diana Christensen, head of programming, sees a chance for a more consistent ratings-grabber: “The American people want someone to articulate their rage for them.”

(Doesn’t that line alone make you see why NETWORK is so relevant to today?)

Hall’s slavish adherence to the screenplay has not, happily enough, spread to Bryan Cranston. He’s not at all interested in aping Peter Finch’s Oscar-winning performance.

Cranston, along with director Ivo van Hove, knows that Howard Beale is a rich enough character to be played in many ways from ranting and raving to quietly mad. Cranston gives a good deal of the former but more often centers on the latter. At one point he doesn’t say a damn thing for quite a few seconds, which arguably shows us more of Howard Beale than we’ve yet seen.

What Cranston certainly has is the lines, be they from Chayefsky or Hall: “The destructive power of absolute belief” … “As soon as we start believing in absolutes we stop believing in human beings” … “Terrorists are roaming the streets” … “We tell you just what you want to hear” … “Democracy is a finished product” … “Woe is us if TV ever falls into the hands of the wrong people” … “We know things are bad, worse than bad,” Howard says just before he adds “They’re crazy.”

NOW do you see why NETWORK is so relevant to today? The audience responded with hollow laughter of recognition on the last word of Beale’s “I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians.”

Looking like a combination of Jack Lemmon, Gig Young and Bob Dole, Cranston has a mouth that moves in Claymation fashion. He manages to hide most of his upper teeth while exhibiting many lower ones. We see the entire dental façade, though, when he comes out with what has become Number 19 on The American Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 Movie Quotations: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Indeed Beale is mad – but not angry, which is what he means. He’s mad in the actual definition of the word: insane. One could argue, though, that he’s crazy as a fox; NETWORK keeps us guessing.

As Diana, Tatiana Maslany is far too calm, pallid and measured. She’s utterly devoid of the white-hot passion that Faye Dunaway brilliantly showed in her Oscar-winning performance. Early on, Maslany’s namby-pamby delivery shows it’ll be a real problem when she tells the brass “I can turn THE HOWARD BEALE SHOW into high ratings.” Her almost-matter-of-fact voice wouldn’t make the execs have any confidence that she could.

Near play’s end, Maslany does eventually explode. Considering how ho-hum she’d been up to that point, you’re entitled to think “Where the hell did THAT come from?”

Diana becomes romantically involved – no, make that sexually involved – with Schumacher. Tony Goldwyn isn’t ideal casting for the “craggy middle-aged man” that Max is said to be. Goldwyn should take as his consolation that he still looks terrific (at least from a seat in the middle of the Belasco’s orchestra section). He doesn’t appear to be commensurately older than he was when he burst onto the stage scene in THE SUM OF US in 1990.

Jan Versweyveld has provided blinding-level lighting that’s right for a TV studio, which provides most of his unit set. On extreme stage left, though, are seats and tables on raked levels where theatergoers can have a meal while watching the show.

Dinner theater in Manhattan? Considering that there are a couple of scenes in which characters are seen dining together, perhaps that section of the stage represents a restaurant. But van Hove has placed his table-dwellers near the lip of the stage at such a distance from the others that the two locales seem disconnected.

The set otherwise functions well, but we do miss the sumptuous house in which Max and his wife live – although one of them will soon be moving out.

Dominating the unit set is a large video screen which runs the risk of taking our attention from the play itself. Because Hall has kept the action in its original late ‘70s time frame, such long-forgotten products as Hai Karate as well as evidence of Mr. Whipple’s toilet paper fetish are in evidence. They run the risk of pulling focus from the stage show at hand. No; van Hove isn’t worried about that and makes our eyes go to live action for the bulk of the two intermissionless hours.

The video does serve and support Cranston with one nice metaphor. It displays a blurry image of Howard when he’s flailing but gets in focus when Howard gets focused, too.

NETWORK doesn’t quite end when the audience expects. After the curtain call was finished and the cast had waved, thrown kisses at the audience and exited, Hall offered us something that Chayefsky hadn’t: seven snippets of videos.

Once the second one was shown, most theatergoers who’d grabbed their belongings and were on their way our suddenly stopped mid-step and stayed put. It wasn’t because of what was shown on the screen that very second, but what they were seeing tipped off and alerted them to what was coming in the final clip.

They wanted to express their feelings about that. And when clip seven finally came on, around a thousand theatergoers showed that they were at least as angry as Howard Beale and wished that they wouldn’t have to take what was shown anymore.

That in itself may be enough reason for you to see NETWORK at the Belasco and not on the boob tube.