THE MAD AS HELL EDITION
Once again, ON THE SLATE takes a break from the sexual metaphors and glib remarks about casting announcements, to give you its second profile of a great American, one of the most celebrated writes of the cinema: Paddy Chayefsky.
Not even a land mine could kill Paddy Chayefsky. Like his golden age of television compatriot and fellow liberal humanist Rod Serling, he was a bona fide war hero. Where Serling was a soldier in the Pacific during WW2, Chayefsky fought in the European Theatre. Like Serling, Chayefsky had a compassion and understanding of working class America, coupled with a cynicism toward overarching bureaucratic institutions and the hate, stupidity, and lethal ineptitude that often hide within their halls. But where Serling is primarily remembered for “The Twilight Zone” and contributions to elevating the American consciousness on television, Chayefsky is now celebrated less for his acclaimed teleplays than his contributions to the cinema, contributions which resulted in three Academy Awards.
“Marty”, the first of his Academy-Award winning screenplays, was expanded from his 1953 teleplay of the same name. Described by Chayefsky as “the most ordinary love story in the world”, it told the story of a lonely Italian-American butcher, who is not particularly attractive and unmarried at 34. Written and played with great sensitivity by Rod Steiger in the teleplay and Ernest Borgnine in the film, Marty spends his nights in the melancholy state of the man who knows his life will probably never change. He and his best friend Angelo seem to have the same exchange every night:
Angelo: What do you want to do tonight?
Marty: I dunno, Angie. What do you want to do?
Henpecked by his family and friends to find a mate, Marty meets a plain young woman named Clara. He finds her crying on the roof of a dance hall. They share a mutual desire for something better in life. Delighted, Marty introduces Clara to his family and friends, which reveals an undercurrent of envy for any one happy with their life. They almost succeed with destroying the relationship, but Marty snaps to his sense, telling off Angelo in one of Chayefsky most poignant scenes:
“You don’t like her. My mother don’t like her. She’s a dog and I’m a fat, ugly man. Well, all I know is I had a good time last night. I’m gonna have a good time tonight. If we have enough good times together, I’m gonna get down on my knees and I’m gonna beg that girl to marry me. If we make a party on New Year’s, I got a date for that party. You don’t like her? That’s too bad! Hey Ang, when are you going to get married? You’re 33 years old, and all your kid brothers and sisters are married. You oughta be ashamed of yourself.”
Chayefsky, a tough working class kid from NYC, demonstrates in a single paragraph the desire of your average guy to be loved, to rise up, to do better. He also reveals the bitterness that hides within people we call friends and family, whose support sometimes is a front for envy, the kind of envy that stems being trapped in a loveless marriage or endless cycle of labor, where the hours and days blur into years. In the simple story of lonely butcher, Chayefsky managed to marry both the cynicism and optimism of life in Post War working class America. It was pretty heavy stuff for the early 50s, but it resonated with audiences everywhere, in the same way “Rocky”, which beat Chayefsky’s screenplay for “Network” (by supplanting the bleakness of the 70s with a renewed sense of optimism) captured the hearts of the American public, by giving them a hero they could relate to.
“Marty” would win Oscars for Borgnine, Chayefsky, Delbert Mann’s direction, and Best Picture. It was also the second American film to win Cannes prestigious Palm D’Or.
But what is regarded as Chayefsky’s greatest achievement came two decades later, in the form of his screenplay for “Network”. After taking on a medical system that was more about shifting beds than curing people (sound familiar?) in his script for the 1971 Arthur Hiller picture “The Hospital”, Chayfesky set his sight on an even bigger target: the Idiot Box.
Through the story of newsman named Howard Beale who loses his sanity (Peter Finch, who won Best Actor posthumously) and who begins preaching his own mad gospel about corrupt corporations and urban decay, only to have his message co-opted by his network in a shameless grab for ratings. Surrounding him with an aging news producer (William Holden) and a young, power hungry exec (Faye Dunaway), who despise each other yet have an affair, Chayefsky demonstrates how to be successful (nay, survive) in television requires a certain willingness to literally lie down with cheap, tawdry ideas that run counter with any hopes of elevating the medium. Casey Anthony, anyone? Real Housewives? 16 and Pregnant (advocacy TV, my ass)? Yes, like the lunatic Beale, Chayefsky predicted a new age of television, where sensationalism would replace decency, and where truth in news would fall to the wayside. Mr. Chayefsky, Rupert Murdoch. Rupert Murdoch, Mr. Chayefsky.
But, despite the film winning four Academy Awards, society seemed to ignore the warning.
No matter. Wherever he is, I’m sure Chayefsky is laughing his ass off.
But contributions to cinema are justly revered and remembered.
Oh, and the time Chayefsky was wounded? Placed in an English hospital where he recuperated from the injuries resulting from his encounter with the land mine (in Aachen, Germany), Chayefsky immediately started work on a musical-comedy, “No Time For T.O.”, which went on to tour army bases and would eventually open on London’s West End, effectively launching Chayefsky’s career. Some are born with writing in their blood and a messy feeling for their fellow man. It also helps if they’re mad as hell.
Paddy Chayefsky 1923-1981
Until next week, keep writing, keep thinking, and always believe in the future.