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Premieres & Events

"Awfully Good": Lumet Recounts Network in NYC

By S.T. VanAirsdale

Sidney Lumet discussing Network at the Academy Theater (Photo: STV)

Admittedly overwhelmed, Sidney Lumet touched his cheek, slowly pulling his hand toward his chin. He shook his head like the rest of us, then sighed. "You don't usually feel that way about your own work," he said. "In fact, most of the time, you hate it. Or you say, 'Wow -- how could I have been so wrong?' But this is awfully good."

The director was referring to Network, his 1976 satire that so scorched the television industry that the wreckage still smoldered three decades later in a screening this week at the Academy Theater. Written by Paddy Chayefsky -- Lumet's friend from their days at CBS in the early 1950s -- and performed with dynamic brio by a legendary ensemble including Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty and Beatrice Straight (in the briefest supporting role to ever win an acting Oscar), Network foretold a TV wasteland of news as entertainment, hyperreality as human drama and terrorism as commodity. Calling it "prescient" is to state (or restate) the obvious, but still: Returning to Network in 2007 -- particularly in a packed New York theater and a sparkling print -- felt like sitting down on opening night.

Lumet said that Chayefsky's script came to him virtually perfect, requiring only brief revision in one scene. "He came up to me in 1973, and we'd had quite a bit of television experience together," Lumet told moderator Robert Osborne in a discussion after the screening. "And he said, 'Sidney -- you wanna make a movie about television?' I said I'd love to. He said, 'OK, I'll get in touch.' Two years later the script arrives. I hadn't seen him for two years; I hadn't talked to him. But that's typical Paddy: He knew exactly where he was going and he did it."

Follow the jump for more stories from the grand old days, including the "second-choice" casting of Peter Finch, manipulating Faye Dunaway and Bill Holden, and learning to direct comedy.

ON CASTING PETER FINCH AS HOWARD BEALE: "Except for Peter Finch, everybody else was first choice. Peter wasn’t because I wanted desperately to have an American. I felt that was very important. And so did Paddy. And Peter was so intent on the part. He called one day -- and of course you take the call; he's one of the best actors around -- and he said, 'I can do the American accent. It won't be Midwest, but you won't know I'm British.' He's actually Australian. He said, 'Send me today's New York Times, and in 48 hours' -- he's down in the Bahamas -- ' you'll have a tape.' Forty-eight hours later a tape arrives of him reading the entire front page of The New York Times, and it was perfectly fine. ... We talked about Gregory Peck. We talked about... who else? Oh, well, of course there was no way you could get him because he'd never leave California, but Spencer Tracy."

ON CASTING FAYE DUNAWAY: "I went to see her at 300 Central Park West, which is where she was living at the time -- the residence of the stars. The elevator opened directly into the apartment and I walked directly across. She was seated on a very luxurious couch with pillows, looking absolutely ravishing. And as I walked toward her, I said, 'Faye, I know what your first question is going to be.' And she said, 'What?' And I said, 'You're going to ask me, "Where's her vulnerability?" ' And I said, 'She has none, and if you try to sneak any in, I'll cut it out.' "

ON DIRECTING WILLIAM HOLDEN: "I'm not saying this as any sort of pat on the back for myself, but I think this is his best performance. Because there is an emotional depth to it that I've never seen anywhere else in his work. And that was a bit of a struggle, because he was a very private man, and he doesn't want the show those things."

"And there's an honest goodness to him that makes him a perfect one for that part," Osborne added.

"Oh. Pure, pure soul," Lumet said.

ON NETWORK'S DARK SATIRE: "(Paddy and I) weren't worried. But I think United Artists was nervous. ... It really came out when the first ad arrived; we were getting ready to open the movie. It was the best ad I ever saw, by a great guy named Steve Frankfurt, and what it was was an outline of Manhattan buildings -- the highest one in the center -- all of them with television antennas sticking up out of them. And the highest television antenna was the Howard Beale character. And a lightning bolt was hitting him in the head. The copy was what was so great: 'The Greatest Story Ever Sold.' They got scared of that, and all that was left when we were finished with the ad was just a lightning bolt."

ON LEARNING TO DIRECT COMEDY: "There are certain things you can learn from a technical point of view when doing comedy -- what can make something funny. This film was a giant step forward for me. The laughter was critical. Paddy is like George Bernard Shaw that way: He was this bitter pill in a lovely chocolate soufflé, you know? And you'd better be laughing, or the picture isn't going to work. And I tried analyzing what Paddy had done in the writing, and figuring out with him beside me, I learned a tremendous amount about comedy that's irreplaceable to me."

Posted at March 23, 2007 11:11 AM

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