Film and Television Features

Three Screenplays By Paddy Chayefsky

So far, so awful. The madness has just started. A new world disorder is upon us, and we didn't heed the warnings. Though some believe the corporate takeover of America came unannounced, it's been long in the making since the days of J.P. Morgan. Our core values have been trampled by prejudice and isolationism, still being bulldozed the last time I looked. This is democracy at its ugliest, with daily attacks on immigrants, myriad civil rights suits, and the branding of judges and journalists as enemies. There's a concerted effort to spin the world backwards, and the resistance lacks the strategy to push back. The thing is, we've been here before. It all makes me think of the late Paddy Chayefsky, dramatist and screenwriter, who lived through some of our most troubled episodes in history. Having witnessed the horrors of World War II and the persecutions of the McCarthy era, his writings constantly warned us about the destructiveness of absolute beliefs. I wonder what he would make of our current political climate. He'd probably scoff at this "alternative facts" nonsense; most certainly he'd use his acerbic wit to tell some uncomfortable truths.


Chayefsky was born in the Bronx, NY in 1923, the son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. Growing up through the Great Depression, the hard times gave him a unique perspective. As a writer, he was better equipped to articulate the concerns of workers, blue or white collar, because he'd lived that life. His flowering as a dramatist came after the war, when the works of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams ruled Broadway stages. However, it was a tough environment for a budding writer. His plays never got the financial backing to be staged, and the script work he found in Hollywood wasn't steady. Luckily, there was a new field of opportunity in television, where the demand for original material was high. Chayefsky soon made a name for himself as the foremost writer of live TV dramas. Hecht-Lancaster Productions took notice, buying the film rights for Marty, his most famous teleplay. Chayefsky's film adaptation won him his first Oscar in 1956.


Chayefsky's early work went against the optimism of the Eisenhower era. For instance, the characters of The Bachelor Party (1957) and Middle of the Night (1959) are overwhelmed by social mores and rigid codes of conduct, barely carving a stake at personal happiness. Chayefsky gave us here an early glimpse of the cultural clashes that would characterize the Sixties, yet he would never be at ease among conservative hawks or bleeding-heart liberals. He kept a distance to see more clearly, his sharp eyes fixed on human behavior.


There are some glimpses of satire in The Goddess (1958), but Chayefsky's sardonic wit actually made its grand entrance with his screen adaptation of The Americanization of Emily (1964). The novel's main character, Charlie Madison, is a slick Navy lieutenant. Chayefsky's script focuses on the least noble side of Madison, stressing his cowardice. Madison's PR skills has kept him off combat duty and on firm ground as adjutant to Rear Admiral William Jessup (Melvin Douglas), who is fond of the luxury items and loose women he procures for him. The symbiotic relationship comes to an end when the mentally-unstable admiral decides that the first casualty on D-Day must be a sailor. He orders Madison to join the first men at Omaha Beach to film the glorious event. Madison's attempt to weasel out of the assignment meets the reproof of Emily Barham (Julie Andrews), a motor pool driver who's become his sweetheart. Emily has lost a father, a husband, and a brother to war, and her views on duty and sacrifice run counter to Madison's. The film's key scene isn't in a battlefield; it takes place at teatime in a garden, where Madison expresses his feelings about blind sacrifice to Emily's mom: ''I don't trust people who make bitter reflections about war, Mrs. Barham. It's the generals with the bloodiest records who are the first to shout what a hell it is. It's always the war widows who lead the Memorial Day parades." There's a weight of irony to these words, considering that the movie was released on the cusp of the Vietnam War.


By the early Seventies, it seemed as if the whole fabric of society was coming apart.  Chayefsky's The Hospital (1971) is a reflection on the disorder and gloom of the times. The titular NYC hospital is a virtual madhouse. Overcrowded, mired in bureaucracy, and staffed with self-serving doctors, this is just another decaying institution among many. Dr. Herbert Bock (George C. Scott) has also lost his purpose. As chief of medicine, he's barely able to deal with the daily pressures. Divorced and estranged from his children, he's suffering from periods of acute depression that have him contemplating suicide. He's not in the right frame of mind to deal with a killer on the loose, who for some unknown reason is murdering his doctors and nurses. A welcome distraction comes in the shape of Barbara Drummond (Diana Rigg), a missionary nurse who's flown in from Mexico to get treatment for her father. Fueled by alcohol, Dr. Bock vents out his frustrations to her: "We have established the most enormous medical entity ever conceived and people are sicker than ever. We cure nothing! We heal nothing!" By the end of the film, Bock realizes he can't drop out. Someone has to assume responsibility to deal with the mess and keep the institution going.


People often talk about the prescient warnings of Network (1976), particularly those concerning the rise of reality TV as a mirror of societal breakdown. Though Chayefsky takes plenty of stabs at the TV industry, the satire cuts deeper. The plot centers around news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch), who declares he's going to kill himself on air during his last broadcast. He's fired on the spot, but the incident creates a spike in the ratings. Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), head of programming, convinces her boss to hire him back. The only obstacle to high ratings is Max Schumacher (William Holden), head of the news division, who's concerned about Beale's deteriorating state of mind. However, his ethics fly out the window when Christensen becomes his lover.  Schumacher is blindsided when the evening news is placed under the entertainment division. Christensen gives Beale his own show, and his madman rants strike a chord with the viewers.  Flush with profits, the top executives are happy with Beale. It goes awry when the madman starts a campaign against the corporation that owns the network. The film's best scene comes when Beale is summoned to the chairman's office. Though Beale is a raving lunatic by now, Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) instills sobering fear in him: ''There is no America! There is no democracy!" Jensen goes on to list the corporations who own the world, our actual leaders. Beale shifts uneasy in his chair as Jensen explains how the money system works: "We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business."


These three films has stood the test of time because society hasn't changed much.  Namely, our institutions and governing bodies keep feeding us the same romantic notions of duty and sacrifice, notions that keep us blind to facts and sometimes get us killed. Furthermore, while we're being distracted with dumb entertainment and trivial news, our future is being decided at board meetings. Chayefsky's aim wasn't just to spell out these grim truths but to get us to think for ourselves. His philosophy was grounded upon basic human rights. Those rights still matter. We aren't human blanks, so be wary of powerful people talking about glories to come and dictating new rules. As Howard Beal would put it, "I'm a human being God damn it! My life has value!"