December 15, 2017
video essay

Watch: Sidney Lumet's 'Network' Shows the Oscar-Nabbing Power of Rehearsals

Here's what makes the Oscar-sweeping performances of Lumet's classic '70s TV nightmare so indelible.

Even if you think you haven't seen Network, the 1976 Sidney Lumet film (with a classic script by Paddy Chayefsky), you've definitely seen Network, if only via its iconic moment when deranged newscaster Howard Beale gets an entire nation to scream, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

The film very nearly swept the acting categories at the 1977 Oscars, including Best Actor to Peter Finch, Best Actress to Faye Dunaway, and Supporting Actress to Beatrice Straight, along with Best Original Screenplay for writer Paddy Cheyefsky's dark satire of a media landscape that has only, in the intervening 41 years, become more lifelike.

The backstory

Network is the story of Howard Beale, a newscaster at the end of his rope: at the beginning of the film, learning that he is to be replaced because of low ratings, Beale announces on live TV that he will kill himself, on the air, the following week. While his old friend Max, an executive played by William Holden, is horrified, young director of programming Diana Christensen (Dunaway) sees only ratings in Beale's breakdown, and as the network begins to build their programming around "the mad prophet" that Beale becomes, Max puts aside his trepidations and he and Diana begin a relationship. 

Later, when Beale rails against a corporate buyout of the UBS network, he becomes a liability, and Christensen plots to replace him with, among others, a group of violent revolutionaries. 

Lumet's film, which shares a visual sensibility with Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (another film set in the world of TV) is all flat lighting and long lenses, a soulless aesthetic to reflect a soulless industry that capitalizes on pain in the name of profit. Lumet, always a strong director of actors, was working not only with a great cast, but a script from one of Hollywood's maverick talents, Paddy Chayefsky. At the time, the film played as dark satire, but over the years, its predictions have seemed less and less fantastical, with the rise of cable news shouting, sensationalism, and ubiquitous (and cheap to produce) reality shows.

This video from Cinema Tyler looks at the performances in this one-of-a-kind movie to see just what makes it such a powerhouse of acting. Check it out and read our takeaways, below.

Defining performances

The film is defined by its performances, from Finch's convincing newsman on the edge, to Holden's morally weary exec and Dunaway's ruthless, youthful careerist. Beatrice Straight, as Holden's estranged wife, won her Best Supporting award on the strength of a performance that lasted just five minutes and two seconds on the screen (seriously).

Tyler reminds us that, the previous year, Lumet had made Dog Day Afternoon, and is also the director of Twelve Angry Men (set entirely in one room, where a jury deliberates a man's fate) and Murder on the Orient Express. Thus, he was no stranger to ensemble casts or strong performances; with Network, according to the director, "We never got a turndown. Whoever we sent the script to, said yes."

"Putting the film on its feet"

Chayefsky, who had already won two Academy Awards (for writing The Hospital and Marty) had been one of TV's most respected writers in the '60s, but he wrote Network out of a disillusion with the state of the industry. Incredibly, the writer had final cut over the film, an unprecedented privilege in a town where the vocation of screenwriting is generally given short shrift.

Actors loved working from Chayefsky's scripts, and actors loved Lumet. In the video, Tyler references this essay, "The Lumet Method," written by longtime script supervisor Martha Pinson (it starts about halfway down the page), in which she describes the director's working methods, which included weeks of sit-down rehearsals at a New York hotel. Incidentally, the director himself wrote a classic book, Making Movies, which should be on every filmmaker's shelf.

After these long-table reads, the director and his stars would go through location photographs in an effort to "put the film on its feet", working through the way the characters would move through the actual locations. While on previous Lumet films, the cast had used rehearsals to work up improvisations that made their way into the script, on Network, Chayefsky himself was in attendance to make sure his lines were spoken exactly as written (which is more in line with the theater, a writer's medium). Chayefsky reportedly told the cast to, in Tyler's partial paraphrase, "keep their performances simple and display, "pure behavior" onscreen."

"When I have worked with actors who only worked in movies, they come in terrified of rehearsal."
—Sidney Lumet

"Comfortable in the character"

The aforementioned supervisor Pinson (a long-time Lumet collaborator) would go so far as to put tape down in the hotel ballroom, to give the actors an idea of the sets they would be walking on, and the film was rehearsed "like a play," with preparations including briefings on the hierarchies of the fictional UBS TV network where their characters worked.

According to Lumet, "when I have worked with actors who only worked in movies, they come in terrified of rehearsal. They say Sidney's going to ruin the spontaneity, but the truth is the exact opposite because [when] they know what they're doing...they feel comfortable in the character" and Pinson added that the long rehearsals would allow the actors to clear up their character's "arcs" and have a better sense of who they were.

This was a much more "method" approach, coming out of the Actor's Studio tradition, than, for instance, the way directors like David Mamet have worked with actors, both in movies and in the theater.

On the first day of shooticonic "Mad as hell" speech was completed in four takes.

Prep down to the Lenses

Lumet's working method even included bringing in sketches that detailed where the cameras would be, down to the lenses he planned on using. For the director (and he details this in his book), the making of a film, with all of its chaos and contingencies, was the most precarious part of filmmaking: you only had so much time, and if you didn't get it right, you didn't get it (a notion queasily familiar to every filmmaker.)

Lumet's workaround was to spend a disproportionate amount of time in rehearsal and to be so prepared for the shoot that it was a comparative breeze. If all went well, it would simply be a matter of showing up and doing what they'd done so many times before. Towards the end of rehearsals, director of photography Owen Roizman came in with the crew, to figure out how the lights would be rigged, so this could be done well in advance. And it paid off: On the first day of shooting, the iconic "Mad as hell" speech was completed (shot with the actual TV cameras that appear in the film) in four takes.

Lumet was an old-school master, and so much of this was tied into his philosophy of filmmaking and acting, which came out of the theater as well as the live TV broadcasts of the '50s. Everyone knows Dog Day Afternoon, but Network is just as much of a classic, even if it has been reduced to a soundbite over the years. 

How much do you rehearse before you start shooting? Are you more of a Lumet or a Mamet? Let us know in the comments.     

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