Today Network (1976) remains not only one of the best remembered films of the Seventies, but it is also widely considered a classic. The film permeates pop culture to the point that the phrase, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this any more," is recognisable even to those who have never seen the film. Network was nominated for no less than ten Oscars, four of which it won. It remains only one of two films to win three out of the four Academy Awards for acting (the other film is A Streetcar Named Desire). The one acting award it did not win was Best Actor for William Holden, perhaps only because Peter Finch won for his role in Network.
For those who have never seen Network, the film was written by the legendary Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet. It centred on the perennially low rated television network UBS. The decision of the network to fire their long-time evening news anchor Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) after his mental condition deteriorates. After he has an angry outburst on his final night on the air, UBS does not fire Beale and instead capitalises on his mental condition as a means of increasing ratings. William Holden played news director Max Schumacher, who finds himself consistently disapproving of what the network was doing. Faye Dunaway played the head of UBS's programming department, who keeps pushing the network's programming further towards exploitation. Network is essentially a black comedy that also acted as a satire on network television.
While the role of Max Schumacher would become one of the better known roles of William Holden's later career, he was not the only actor considered for the role. Paddy Chayefsky thought Henry Fonda or Gene Hackman could also play the role. Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando, and Robert Mitchum were also considered. Ultimately William Holden was signed for the role of Max Schumacher. Sidney Lumet had noticed a look of sadness in many of Mr. Holden's more recent roles that would endow Max Schumacher with the sense of dignity that the character should have.
It would be difficult to argue that William Holden was not the best choice for the role of Max Schumacher. Mr. Holden certainly did give Schumacher that sense of dignity that Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky wanted the character to have. Indeed, while Schumacher doesn't always do the right thing, in some respects he is the moral centre of the film. Howard Beale is utterly insane, something that is not lost on the network even as they exploit him. Faye Duanway's character, Diana Christensen, long ago lost touch with humanity, although it is possible she never was in touch with it. As Max Schumacher says of her, "I'm not sure she's capable of any real feelings."
Of the major characters it is Max Schumacher is the only one who has any sort of human feelings at all. He feels remorse when UBS wants to fire Howard Beale and he wants Beale to have a dignified departure. He begins experiencing a very real sense of his own mortality. He feels guilt about everything he has put his family through. While Max Schumacher might not always do what is right in the film, he seems to be the only major character who knows what is right and what is wrong. Quite simply, he is a holdover from the days of Edward R. Murrow, when truthfulness and honesty mattered in the news, lost in an era when ratings are the only thing that matters in television.
Max Schumacher would be a difficult role for many actors to play, but William Holden succeeded in the role quite well. He endowed Schumacher, in many ways a flawed man among people who are much more flawed than he is, with a sense of self-respect while at the same time making him very vulnerable. It would be difficult thinking that anyone would identify with Howard Beale or Diana Christensen, but one has to suspect that many people could easily identify with Max Schumacher.
William Holden was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for the role of Max Schumacher. Unfortunately Peter Finch would also be nominated for the role of Howard Beale. This essentially put Network in competition with itself for the Oscar for Best Actor. As great a job as William Holden did in playing Max Schumacher, it was perhaps inevitable that he would lose to Mr. Finch playing the more flamboyant role of Howard Beale.
While Network might have seemed far-fetched to some in the Seventies, the film has proven prescient. Today it is often difficult to tell where entertainment begins and the news ends. One has to suspect the Diana Christensens at the networks and cable channels outnumber the Max Schumachers and have for some years. One can only hope that many starting work at the networks and cable channels might watch Network and chose to pattern themselves after Max Schumacher and not the others in power at UBS in the film.