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Movies Have Always Held Network News in Disdain

January 21, 1988|BOB THOMAS | Associated Press

"Television is not the truth. . . . Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats and storytellers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers and football players."

Those ringing words by the late Paddy Chayefsky, spoken with Academy Award-winning fervor by the late Peter Finch as the raving anchor Howard Beale in "Network," signaled the film world's most slashing attack on the medium that once threatened Hollywood's existence.

TV has been the subject of the movie world's fear, suspicion and disdain ever since Uncle Miltie first flickered on the home screens in 1948. The latest treatment of the TV world is "Broadcast News," James L. Brooks' dissection of the ins and outs of network journalism.

During the late 1940s and through most of the '50s, Hollywood considered TV the enemy. Neighborhood movie houses were shutting down because Americans were staying home to watch "Your Show of Shows" with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca and "I Love Lucy."

The movie industry was so paranoid that MGM had a strict rule: Interior scenes could not display TVs, even though most U.S. homes had them. Studios also forbade their stars from appearing on the upstart medium.

Columbia Pictures' Harry Cohn broke the anti-TV stand by selling series through a subsidiary, Screen Gems. Walt Disney started a weekly show to raise the money and garner publicity for his theme park, Disneyland. Studios discovered the publicity value of TV and recognized it as an added source of income. An uneasy coexistence developed.

Warner Bros. tried to cash in on the Berle phenomenon by starring him in the semi-autobiographical "Always Leave Them Laughing" (1949). The studio also offered Liberace in "Sincerely Yours" (1955). Both films bombed, proving that the public would not pay for stars they could see at home for nothing.

A more acerbic view of TV was offered by two 1950s films, both perhaps inspired by the popularity of Arthur Godfrey.

"The Great Man," with Jose Ferrer as star, director and co-writer, investigated the dark past of a lovable TV personality. Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd" cast Andy Griffith as a homespun humorist turned megalomaniac. A remake is being considered, with Whoopi Goldberg in the Griffith role.

TV journalism has long been a movie target. News crews often play the villain role, clamoring for pictures and quotes as a character emerges from a courtroom or hospital.

TV reporters and producers have often been portrayed as unscrupulous, willing to do anything for a story. In the British-made "Stardust," a news broadcast allows a famous rock star to die on live TV. In "The Howling," broadcaster Dee Wallace Stone turns into a werewolf before viewers' eyes.

As a TV reporter in "Eyewitness," Sigourney Weaver romances William Hurt in order to win a scoop on a murder case. Jane Fonda exploits Robert Redford for a national news story in "The Electric Horseman" until she falls for him. Fonda mended her scruples in "The China Syndrome," pursuing the story of a nuclear meltdown as a TV reporter.

The role of the network anchor was explored with the blackest of humor in "Network." Finch as the news commentator becomes a messiah to the people and an embarrassment to his sponsors.

In Richard Brooks' little-seen "Wrong Is Right," Sean Connery portrayed a Walter Cronkite figure with loose principles--until he uncovers a worldwide CIA plot. In "Broadcast News," Hurt is destined for the top anchor spot despite a shallow intellect and willingness to fake a story.

The movies have sometimes taken a benign view of TV. "My Favorite Year" was a hilarious reminiscence of the appearance of a boozy film star (Peter O'Toole in an Errol Flynn impression) on a '50s comedy show parodied after "Your Show of Shows."

And Richard Lester's "A Hard Day's Night" showed the impact of TV in creating pop stars. Some observers consider the Beatles film the precursor of today's music videos.

The peaceful coexistence between the film industry and TV continues. Networks have bought and played major motion pictures on the home screen but are buying fewer films and paying less because of cable TV. Also, theatrical releases are becoming increasingly difficult to adapt to TV because of excessive violence, language and sex, and networks are producing much of their own movie product.

Meanwhile, the movie world continues conjuring even more TV-theme films. The next attempt will be out next summer: "Switching Channels," with Burt Reynolds, Kathleen Turner and Christopher Reeve in a TV-news update of the 1940 "His Girl Friday," which was itself a gender-switch of "The Front Page," made in 1931.

But it's unlikely that any of them will have a view as black as this expressed by William Holden's character, head of network news, to Faye Dunaway, rising TV executive, in "Network": "You're television incarnate. All life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death--all the same to you as bottles of beer, and the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays. You're madness."

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