Sunday, April 27, 2008

Paddy Chayevsky for Beginners

His name is on a Broadway marquee again this month with a musical version of "The Catered Affair," one of his lesser works, but having Paddy Chayevsky back in any form is good for our culture.

In the second half of the 20th century, he almost single-handedly invented TV drama, then went on to theater and movies, winning three Academy Awards and leaving behind classics like "Network" and "The Hospital" that tell us more about what went wrong with American media and medicine than the history books do.

On our high-school paper, I had taken over a column from Paddy nee Sidney. We were part of a generation coming of age between wars who hoped we could earn our way in the world with our brains rather than backs, as our immigrant parents were doing. We went on to a free college education at City College of New York and then into the Army, where Sidney was rechristened Paddy.

In the 1950s, he mined our lives for “kitchen sink” dramas: “Marty,” “The Bachelor Party,” “Middle of the Night.” From there, he moved on to the confusions of the larger society with savage satires, not only about TV and doctoring but wartime heroism in “The Americanization of Emily.”

But praise was not universal. At one of our occasional lunches, Paddy's characteristic wry smile was a grimace. His movie, "The Goddess," based loosely and respectfully on the life of Marilyn Monroe, had just come out to good reviews. The screenplay would soon be nominated for an Academy Award.

"Got a call from Arthur Miller this morning," he sighed heavily," and he said 'I want to tell you that what you've done is despicable.'" Years later, I would recall Paddy's pain as I sat through "After the Fall," Miller's nasty portrayal of Marilyn after her death.

Now, Paddy Chayevsky is best remembered for "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more," the mantra of the crazed anchorman in "Network."

A few years after the movie came out, I was in the grill of the Four Seasons, a clubby gathering place for media moguls and their hirelings, having lunch with a literary agent as Paddy passed by and said hello on his way to the next table to be introduced to William Paley, founder of CBS, avatar of the TV executives in the movie who exploit a madman for ratings and then, when they fall, have him killed on camera.

“I must admit,” we overheard Paddy telling Paley, “I’m nervous about meeting you.”

The agent leaned toward my ear. “He should be. They showed ‘Network’ on CBS the other night, and it got lousy ratings.”

Now new generations can discover Paddy Chayevsky's work on videos and Turner Classic Movies. Start with "Emily," "Network" and "The Hospital," and work back to "Marty" in the 1950s. The trip is worth taking.

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