In the 42 years since the release of Sidney Lumet’s Oscar-winning film Network, much has been written about Faye Dunaway’s Diana Christensen. When we first meet Diana, she is the sole woman in a room of men. As the vice president of programming for the fictitious network UBS, she is the archetypal woman in a man’s world: cold hearted, ambitious and ruthless. She’s broken glass ceilings, surpassed the expectations of men and proven herself to be their equal.
It is due to Diana’s pragmatism that, when former anchor Howard Beale goes on a frantic tirade about the depravity of the world around him, threatening to commit suicide on-air, it becomes something of an opportunity to salvage the network’s declining ratings. She steps in, demanding the handover of the evening news from the news department to her entertainment department for management, and prompting significant change in the workings of the network.
Alongside Dunaway’s Diana and Peter Finch’s Howard, and completing the film’s triumvirate, is William Holden as Max Schumacher. Where Howard represents the American people and their discontent with the status quo, Max is the moral conscience of the film, the head of news programming and an old friend of Howard’s. Twenty years Diana’s senior, their generational difference is indicative of the shifting approach to news, and the old being pushed out to make way for the new. In the age of Walter Cronkite, Howard’s deviation from the traditional news format is at once revelatory and radical, blurring the lines between sensationalism and flagrancy. What follows is a prescient study in morality and the exhibitionism television was becoming so reliant upon, showcasing screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s unfaltering ability to balance realism with the macabre.
Diana considers Howard ‘a latter-day prophet, a magnificent messianic figure’, and it is as though with every word he utters about the hypocrisy of humankind, the threat of corporate conglomerates, the peddling of propaganda, she grows more powerful. The ratings skyrocket, with Howard drawing in ratings rivalled only by the likes of Mary Tyler Moore and All In the Family, and Diana is credited with the restoration and subsequent triumph of the network. Nevertheless, despite Howard being the reason for both her and the network’s success, not once does she herself meet or converse with the so-called ‘mad prophet of the airwaves’. She keeps her distance, maintaining only a statistical interest in his ramblings, his worth to her limited to that defined by HUT and Nielsen.
Sitting in front of the television in her sparsely and impersonally decorated house, she watches Beale’s now legendary vociferations with the fervour of a lion watching its prey. This presents itself in stark contrast to Max’s own situation; surrounded by his wife and children in a home filled to the brim with familial mementos and relics, testimonies to his twenty-five years of contented domesticity.
In light of this, it is hard to imagine the two finding any commonalities outside of their work. From the moment they meet, Max is enraptured by Diana’s intensity and modernity. To her he is a ‘middle-aged man reaffirming his middle-aged manhood’, and she a ‘terrified young woman with a father complex’, and she lays the details of her life out on the table with shameless dissemination, not hesitating to share the details of her sexuality and relationships.
“I was married for four years, and pretended to be happy; and I had six years of analysis, and pretended to be sane. My husband ran off with his boyfriend, and I had an affair with my analyst, who told me I was the worst lay he’d ever had. I can’t tell you how many men have told me what a lousy lay I am. I apparently have a masculine temperament. I arouse quickly, consummate prematurely, and can’t wait to get my clothes back on and get out of that bedroom. I seem to be inept at everything except my work. I’m goddamn good at my work and so I confine myself to that. All I want out of life is a 30 share and a 20 rating.”
The two bounce off one another with electric repartee, and with disregard for his matrimonial status, she propositions him, beginning another act of unwitting self-destruction. The romance that unfolds between the two is doomed from the moment it begins. She loves passionately and with reckless abandon, yet her sights are set beyond the man before her; UBS consumes her every thought to a comical degree, her work day extending far beyond the nine to five: over coffee, at dinner, during sex, it’s all that’s on her mind.
Diana wields an immense amount of power and despite her self-described ‘masculine temperament’, has no objection to using her feminine wiles to further her career. What she shares with Max is not, on her part, out of fondness, but a product of both unabashed sexual lust and ambition. She uses him to her advantage, and not even he can draw an ounce of sentimentality or human emotion from her corporate soul, despite the affection he openly has towards her.
“I don’t want conventional programming on this network. I want counterculture, I want anti-establishment. When I took over this department, it had the worst programming record in television history. This network hasn’t one show in the top twenty. This network is an industry joke, and we’d better start putting together one winner for next September.”
Searching for new content for the upcoming season, Diana sees a potential collaborator in Laureen Hobbs, the leader of the Communist Party. Diana approaches Laureen as she does Max: with dollar signs in her eyes and her sights set on success, and the two cynics fast build up a rapport, striking a deal giving the Party a slot the weekly show in exchange for footage of a terrorist group known as the Ecumenical Liberation Army.
It’s not long before Diana has Laureen wrapped around her finger with promises of fame and fortune, unperturbed by the potential ramifications of dedicating an hour of air time weekly to political propaganda. And just like that, the face of communism is tempted into capitalistic puppetry, growing fixated on ratings, distribution costs, and audience shares. Laureen becomes yet another notch in Diana’s belt, leaving Max as her last point of contact with humanity.
“It’s too late, Diana. There’s nothing left in you that I can live with. You’re one of Howard’s humanoids. If I stay with you, I’ll be destroyed. Like Howard Beale was destroyed. Like Laureen Hobbs was destroyed. Like everything you and the institution of television touch is destroyed.”
When it comes to the inevitable breakup of Max and Diana, he approaches it with a clinical coldness to match hers. He leaves to return to his wife ‘with whom he has established a long and sustaining love’, declaring Diana the ‘heartless young woman left alone in her arctic desolation’ in the script of their lives.
With the novelty of Howard’s show wearing off and the corporate going-ons undermining his anti-establishment rhetoric, and Laureen demanding he be fired to save the again declining ratings, the executives are left with little choice but to take him off the air. In a clandestine board meeting the upper echelon discuss the options with haunting nonchalance, and in a single utterance from the ever-cold Diana, they cement the deal: “Let’s kill the son of a bitch”.
Met with applause and cheers, Howard takes to the stage for what is to become his last show. Scattered in the cheering audience, hired members of the Ecumenical Liberation Army stand and take fire at the mad prophet and there, on live television, he draws his final breath, the network remorselessly milks the last of his profitability. Thus concludes the exploitation of Howard Beale, a man driven insane by television and dying at the hands of those with the power to help him, proving him to be to them just another pawn in their game of ratings and shares.
In 1976, a character such as Diana may have been considered nothing more than a caricature of the hardened career women of the day, but today, however, her antics mirror that of the current media circus, from the exploitation of sources to the inclination towards entertainment media. Her greatest crime was sacrificing journalistic integrity for the sake of good ratings: she encouraged political propaganda, turned communists into capitalists, brought a nation to its knees, and, coldest of all, unflinchingly called for the murder of a mentally ill man.
“You’re television incarnate, Diana: Indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are 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, Diana. Virulent madness. And everything you touch dies with you.”
Diana Christensen walks a fine line between villainy and outright sociopathy. She is exploitative and unfeeling in a world already so insincere, and a walking embodiment of the worst qualities of the so-called ‘television generation’. She is not a woman, nor even a human as such, but a personification of what Chayefsky saw in the crystal ball of televisual future. She is the Black Mirror of her era, a warning of the inevitable, and the emissary of a prophecy of mass media mistrust now eerily fulfilled. ◆