The Method of Sidney Lumet's 'Network'

With 'Network' now on Broadway with Bryan Cranston, we look at what made Sidney Lumet's original film a masterclass in acting.

Network
MGM

Sidney Lumet’s Network is a rare kind of film. Not because of the acclaim and awards that it received, but because of just how prescient it became. The satire, written by Paddy Chayefsky, has effectively predicted our modern media landscape. The idea of news riddled with violence, fear mongering, and screaming white men is just part of our daily lives now, but in 1976, the concept could still be viewed through the lens of black comedy. Audiences innocently thinking, “At least it’ll never get that bad.”

But it has gotten that bad and then some. Which is exactly why revisiting Network is insightful during these tumultuous times. Rather than simply re-watching the movie, however, Belgian stage director Ivo Von Hove has brought Network back to life on Broadway with Bryan Cranston in the central role of Howard Beale.

While Cranston’s performance is being lauded, the reviews for the play have been mixed. So much focus has been racked on the crumbling Beale, that the ostensible leads Diana and Max don’t resonate with the same power they did in the film.

Ironically, though, the original film achieved these staggering performances by taking a note from the theatre and extensively rehearsing. Lumet’s impactful process is wonderfully detailed in CinemaTyler’s video essay “Network: Why The Acting Is So Good.” Watch it below.

While the essay does touch upon each key performance of the film and how they came together, what I found most enlightening is the rehearsal process that Lumet brought to the ensemble cast. His future script supervisor Martha Pinson documented this work in her essay The Lumet Method.

Two weeks before shooting, Lumet gathered his cast in a hotel ballroom in Times Square. There Lumet told them his vision for the film, had a table read, showed visual references, and then led a long discussion about the themes of the story. If you’ve ever worked on a play, you’ll know that this is exactly how every first rehearsal starts. It’s a way to onboard the cast to the bigger picture of what they are making, something which is so integral to the ensemble dramas that Lumet directed.

Then, in Lumet’s words, they put the film on its feet. Six hours a day, five days a week, with the layout of each set taped out on the floor, the ensemble cast meticulously dissected and discovered what the film, and their characters, represented. And perhaps to counteract how theatrical the pre-production felt, Lumet gave his actors this note: keep it simple, and exhibit “pure behavior.” Lumet says:

So many times on pictures, because they haven’t rehearsed it, haven’t worked it out cleanly in advance, these things are mechanical and forced. But not here.

But that isn’t how everyone views the rehearsal process. For many actors, especially for film, they see rehearsing as bleeding dry their spontaneity, as if true emotion can only happen in the moment. And to an extent, there is a shred of truth to that. Spontaneity can be an electrical spark that lights up a scene, transcending the words from the page. But to Lumet, rehearsal is actually what gets you the freedom to have that spark:

Because they know what they are doing, because they know where they are in the character, because they feel safe in the selections they made, they’re twice as free. On a location, if a plane goes by, fine. They’ll incorporate it or ignore it…they are open to whatever the momentary situation is because they are much more secure. So if anything, it helps spontaneity.

You can only be earnestly spontaneous in a scene when you know what your character is doing, in and out. It’s why basketball players practice ad nauseum. So in the moment, if they must make a critical change, they know exactly what’s happening on the court. Spontaneity in acting is the same. If you are fully aware in a scene, and an issue arises, it doesn’t knock you off balance. It’s no wonder one of the most famous books on acting is called An Actor Prepares, because confidence in this artform comes from preparation.

One of my favorite phrases in the theatre is “Learn it, then forget it.” Rehearse, run lines, go over blocking, whatever you have to do to physically embody your performance, and then try your damnedest to put that all out of your head and live in the spontaneous moment. This is exactly what Lumet asked of his ensemble of actors, from Dog Day Afternoon to 12 Angry Men. With the structural foundation that extensive rehearsals provided his cast of Network, they had the confidence to go for broke.

Even in the famous “Mad As Hell” scene, during the second of just two takes Peter Finch broke mid-monologue saying, “I can’t go on any further.” He had poured so much of himself into that moment, he reached a breaking point. He would not have been able to do this if he hadn’t completely entrusted himself in the work that he had rehearsed.

That’s the gift that Lumet gave to his actors. He inspired artistic risk through sheer preparation in ways that are still uncommon in film today. While Paddy Chayefsky’s story will always remain remarkably prescient, it’s Lumet and his actors that have made Network utterly timeless.

Actor. Writer. Available to host your next public access show. Find more of my writing at Rue Morgue, Ghastly Grinning, Diabolique Magazine, and Grim Magazine.