Friday, April 15, 2011

I’m as Gab as Hell...

Werth: Hey there, Wise.

Wise: Hi there, Werth. 

Werth: Ever since Sidney Lumet died last Saturday, I can’t stop thinking about his movies.

Wise: He was a masterful, prolific filmmaker.

Werth: And one film in particular has stuck in my craw.

Wise: Should I call your internist? 

Werth: That won’t be necessary.  One of my all-time favorite movies is Network (1976), and I know everybody talks about it, but I don’t think its praises can be sung enough.

Wise: Cue the chorus.

Werth: Network’s log line could read: A news agency deals with ratings, revolutionary groups and a messianic newscaster—but the movie deals with so much more than that. Max Schumacher (William Holden) is an aging newsman who finds himself inside bars downing shots of whiskey and reminiscing about his days with Walter Cronkite. His pal Howard Beale is fired for poor ratings by corporate news muckety-muck Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) and ambitious succubus Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway).
Something in Beale snaps (or is illuminated by the truth) and soon he is ending his final broadcast by pulling back the curtain and exposing the bullshit wizards of the corporate news world with a mad soliloquy. His rallying cry, “I’m as mad as Hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” is shouted from the rooftops and makes the ratings skyrocket. 

Wise: Faye Dunaway makes a lot of people scream from the rooftops.  

Werth: Christensen knows good ratings when she sees them, and soon she re-organizes the nightly news with Beale’s ranting editorials, psychic hoo-haw, and a group of Symbionese Liberation Army wannabes—turning Beale’s cry for legitimate change into a program catchphrase.

Wise: Sounds like a day at the Fox News Network.
Werth: Exactly. Network is more than a smart, funny, pinpoint accurate satire of corporate news. It’s eerily prophetic. The emergence of nothing-is-sacred “reality news”, rabid, almost religious editorializing (whether it’s honest or not), and sacrificing hard news for ratings is so common now that it’s difficult to imagine the days when those elements were new inventions. Today in our 24 hour news cycle, the Cronkites, the Murrows and the Max Schumachers have all been eaten alive by the likes of Christensen’s new “whorehouse network.” 

Wise: What channel is that on Time Warner?

Werth: Paddy Chayefsky’s script is flawless. You could literally sit down and read it like a book. The performances by all the principles are pitch perfect (Holden and Ned Beatty were nominated for Oscars and Finch and Dunaway won). And the man who brought it all together, Lumet, was given his third Oscar nomination for Best Director. Like an experienced conductor, Lumet weaves together the different sounds of biting comedy (Dunaway’s orgasm scene and the contract negotiations with the Ecumenical Liberation Army),  manic passion (Finch’s inspired on-air orations), and nuanced pathos (Schumacher’s wife’s private and touching admonishment of her philandering spouse) without missing a beat, making a film that is still relevant, fresh and entertaining today. Network is a cautionary tale about a society where heroes are built-up and then chewed-up to appease us. It is an ugly reflection of our culture, one we should watch until we’re “as mad as Hell.” 

Wise: You know it’s funny because the Lumet film I’ve been thinking about this week examines many of those same themes—unlikely heroes, delirious arias about personal integrity, mistrust of talking heads—although in an entirely different way.  

Werth: Let me guess, The Wiz.  

Wise: No, The Wiz—wait, what?  How did you guess that?  Is it that obvious?

Werth: Let’s just say that like Lumet, you often return to the ideas that interest you most. 

Wise: I guess that is a trait all us geniuses share.  Anyway, after the success of the all-black Broadway musical version of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, plans were made to translate it to film, and when Diana Ross expressed interest in playing Dorothy, the producers decided they needed to find a director of large enough stature to manage both the outsize production and Diana Ross’ fledgling acting career.  Lumet may not have been the obvious choice, but he certainly was an interesting choice because of the ways he transformed the project.  When it first appeared onstage, The Wiz remained much more faithful to Baum’s novel than did the beloved Judy Garland musical, albeit peppered with a jive-talking urban patois meant to reflect African-American experience.  Lumet brought on Joel Shumacher to write the screenplay—

Werth: You mean Joel “Nipples on the Bat-suit” Schumacher?

Wise: That’s the one.  Gone was pre-teen Dorothy and her life on the Kansas farm, replaced by the decidedly mature Ross playing an excruciatingly shy 24-year old elementary school teacher who is swept from her apartment in Harlem to a fantasy version of seedy 1970’s New York City.  This change makes an odd kind of sense in the story, although it necessitated further adjustments to the script to make it even more appropriate to Ross’ talents.  The film becomes even more focused on her emotional arc, often to the detriment of the other characters.  Most significantly, it is now Dorothy who convinces her friends of their unrealized gifts, leaving Richard Pryor’s Wiz to cower in the background instead of performing something like the good-natured flimflam mastered by Frank Morgan in The Wizard of Oz.  

Werth: Pryor looks like he had plenty to occupy him off-camera. 

Wise: Dorothy’s three companions in Oz—Michael Jackson’s Scarecrow, Nipsy Russell’s Tinman, and Ted Ross’ Cowardly Lion—each have marvelous moments even though their talents feel mostly underutilized.  Jackson, in particular, brings real warmth to his portrayal, true grace to the awkward Scarecrow, but he never has the opportunity to make the character fully real.  In his final good-bye to Dorothy, he is almost immediately brushed aside by Diana Ross instead of being allowed to connect with the audience before being shuffled away.  

Werth: Not even the Moonwalk can compete with Ross’ hinge-like, stick-leg, high kicks.

Wise: In some ways, it’s a shame that Lumet and Ross didn’t leave The Wiz to be made by someone else entirely while the two of them developed a film about a reluctant New Yorker who eventually allows both the magic and the mayhem of the city to release her inhibitions.  That would have been a picture ideally suited to Lumet’s affectionate dissections of the city and Ross’ twitchy drive.  

Werth: Maybe they could have called it Twitch and the City.  Or The Blair Twitch Project.  I know!  How about The Twitches of Eastwick?

Wise: Or maybe not... Check back next week for more Film Gab... and less twitching.

Werth: The Seven Year Twitch?

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