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by Ben Travers
February 26, 2014 12:09 PM
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10 Things You Didn't Know About 'Network' and Aaron Sorkin

The Paley Center for Media played host to two super fans of the 1976 Academy Award-winning film "Network" Tuesday night in Beverly Hills, CA. Aaron Sorkin, the creator and executive producer of HBO's "The Newsroom," and The New York Times Culture Reporter Dave Itzkoff sat down to analyze scenes from the film as well as talk Itzkoff's new book, "Mad As Hell: the Making of 'Network' and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies." 

Throughout the 75-minute Q&A, both men swapped knowledge, with Sorkin giving final word to the man he deemed "the only living person who knows 'Network' better than I do." Here are 10 noteworthy tidbits from the meeting of the megafans:

Paul Newman was offered any part in the film.

Dave Itzkoff at the Paley Center for Media Ben Travers

One of the main motivations for Itzkoff's book was the collection of screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky's letters held at the New York Public Library. Itzkoff cited many incredibly stories in the late screenwriter's cherished communications, but he and Sorkin spoke briefly of a letter Chayefsky wrote to Paul Newman asking him to play the part of Howard Beale, a role that obviously ended up in the more than capable hands of Peter Finch. 

Sorkin said Chayefsky offered Newman the chance "to play anything you want," and Itzkoff agreed while noting the screenwriter wanted Newman to look specifically at Beale. "If Paul Newman had said he wanted to play Faye Dunaway's part, I'm sure they would have [let him]," Itzkoff said.

Everything in "Network" came true.

Okay, maybe a few things have yet to happen -- like the film's extreme finale -- but a good portion of the evening's discussion was spent on how out there the ideas presented in Chayefsky's film seemed upon its release and how scarily accurate they are today. Itzkoff has said his book doesn't dwell on the topic, but Sorkin acknowledged the film's accurate predictions regarding "reality television, the commoditization of the news and news as entertainment." One younger audience member even said during the post-moderation Q&A that when he watched the film for the first time this year, it felt like a drama rather than a comedy.

Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky did not believe his film would offend newscasters, including Walter Cronkite.

...at least according to Sorkin and Itzkoff. Another letter by Chayefsky among his collection at the New York Public LIbrary was written to Walter Cronkite after "Network" had been released. In it, he apologized to the newscaster who had taken offense at the film's depiction of his profession -- especially after Chayefsky was given access to many broadcasters before writing the script. "They [broadcasters] could not stand this movie," Sorkin said. "They felt burnt," added Itzkoff. "They felt like he had stabbed them in the back." 

'Network'

The deeply satirical nature of the film lead some to contend Chayefsky's letter was insincere, but both Sorkin and Itzkoff believe otherwise. They believe the screenwriter's claims he had no idea the film would bother its real life subjects.

Aaron Sorkin knows the key to great satire.

"The rule of satire is you take the real world and add a 'what if'," said the Oscar-winning screenwriter. He went on to explain that the "what if" in "Network" posed the question, "What if the news was designed to make money?" Back in 1976, this was a ridiculous notion. Today, not so much.

Itzkoff believes Twitter could be the modern day version of "Network's" "window shouting" scene, but Sorkin -- surprise, surprise -- disagrees.

Anyone who's watched more than 10 minutes of Sorkin's HBO drama "The Newsroom" knows the man has a serious issue with technology. From Emily Mortimer's character failing to understand email to Will McAvoy's disdain for blogging, the characters of "The Newsroom" are an old school bunch. It wouldn't be hard to picture Jeff Daniels screaming at the top of his lungs, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore," after one of his many Twitter mishaps last season.

So when a member of a self-described "younger generation" asked Sorkin about the future of "our news consumption," it came as no surprise Sorkin admitted to yearning for a real life yelling-out-the-window moment instead of a digital one. "I dream of that happening," Sorkin said regarding the famous scene from "Network." "Not necessarily in anger, but what I hope is that it hasn't permanently been replaced by tweeting it. I would say, 'I want you to tweet right now...which obviously doesn't have the same effect." 

Itzkoff countered by saying, "That's what Twitter is, at best, a bunch of people gathering in the courtyard of an apartment building, all shouting at each other, and creating this cacophony of thunder." "That's the idea, certainly," responded Sorkin. "That's what we hope it is."

An alternate ending of the film featured terrorists killing everyone at the TV station other than Faye Dunaway's character, Diana Christensen.

Aaron Sorkin in the ACN newsroom HBO

I really don't think anything else needs to be said about this.

Aaron Sorkin likes "Rocky," but not as much as "Network."

After discussing the stiff competition facing "Network" the year of its release, eventually the two somewhat partial judges touched on the 1976 Best Picture winner and all-time great film, "Rocky." Itzkoff made a remark about how Sylvester Stallone's film should be separated (implying disrespect) from other films of the year, but Sorkin cut him off, saying, "'Rocky' is a good movie." Itzkoff shot back, "Do you really think it was the best picture of 1976, though?" "No, it was not the best picture of 1976," Sorkin replied. "It was a great movie. I don't like it when it's slighted. It's a really good movie, but any one of those movies -- 'Network,' 'The Sting,' 'All the President's Men'...'Taxi Driver' -- should win Best Picture in any other year."

Peter Finch was relatively unknown until shortly before his death

Both Sorkin and Itzkoff spoke somberly about Peter Finch's death and posthumous Oscar win. Itzkoff uncovered a story about George Carlin appearing on "The Tonight Show" with Finch the night before he passed. Carlin performed a standup routine focusing on death that Finch found very amusing. Coincidentally, sadly, and somewhat eerily, Finch died the next day. To add to the sorrow, Finch didn't get to experience the lifetime of fame he earned with his performance. "No one had ever heard of Peter Finch until 'Network,'" Sorkin said. "The guy, in his 60s, becomes a movie star for three minutes before he dies."

Paddy Chayefsky created an entire programming grid for the fictional news station UBS in "Network."

Itzkoff mentioned how the screenwriter made up one TV show called "Celebrity Canasta," and then took note of the film's impressive predictive powers what with NBC's current program, "Celebrity Game Night." "The book is worth [buying] just to read Chayefsky's programming schedule that he made up for UBS," Sorkin said. Many fans would doubtless agree.

Season 3 of "The Newsroom" will begin shooting at the end of March.

If you thought a panel on a movie almost four decades old was the best place to avoid breaking news, you thought wrong. Sorkin dropped this unsolicited production update after a fan asked him about the future of news. "We'll start shooting season three in about four weeks," Sorkin said to tepid applause. "That's very kind of you, thanks. And I'm so very sorry for plugging in the middle of this."

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2 Comments

  • Bill Buchanan | February 26, 2014 5:08 PMReply

    This is the second mini-examination of "Network" I've come across within the last year, and neither has mentioned the film's director, Sidney Lumet. Known for his ability to illicit great performances from great actors (he didn't have much use for unknown/unproven actors when the best actors in the business would kill to work with him), for his scene blocking and his visual sense (he chose the lens and framed each shot). Perhaps he pissed off some folks when in an interview before his death he admitted disappointment about never having won an Oscar saying, "I always lost to crap." He was referring to "Rocky." If the only films he ever made were "12 Angry Men" and "Network," every person working in feature films should kiss his ass.

  • jmw | February 26, 2014 3:43 PMReply

    UBS was not a "fictional news station". It was a fictional national television network. Refer to the opening scene which shows the (then) real-life headquarters of ABC, CBS and NBC, followed by the UBS building. Like the other networks, news was only one department of UBS. The plot revolves around the ludicrous (at the time) idea of the entertainment division taking control of the news department. Prophetic indeed.