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A movie tradition: mocking television

It doesn't take much effort to figure out the real-life models for ''American Dreamz," the Paul Weitz-directed satirical comedy that opens April 21.

The hit TV show that gives the movie its title is, yes, ''American Idol." Its sarcastic English host (Hugh Grant) is Simon Cowell. The US president who goes on the show as a judge (Dennis Quaid) is George W. Bush. The manipulative vice president (Willem Dafoe) is Dick Cheney. And television is . . . television.

The movies have long had a strained relationship with politics. (Frank Capra claimed that a consortium of Hollywood studios wanted to suppress his ''Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," that most beloved and uplifting of political movies, for fear it would offend members of the US Senate.) Yet that relationship is nowhere near as strained, or strange, as the medium's relationship with its smaller-screen kid brother.

How could it be otherwise? There's a long tradition of biting the hand that's strangling you. Weekly moviegoing in the United States peaked 60 years ago, at 100,000,000 people per week. By 1950, it was down to 60,000,000. The difference was television.

On the principle that size matters, the movies tried to make the big screen that much bigger, with the likes of CinemaScope, VistaVision, and Todd-AO. On the principle that if you can't beat them, join them, movie studios became the leading producers of television programming and developed a major source of revenue by selling broadcast rights to previously released movies.

So movies and television learned to live with each other -- in many respects, each came to depend on the other -- but that never eased the sibling rivalry. And it's always been the older, more prestigious sibling who's been the one acting out.

Usually, movies have taunted, teased, and otherwise flayed television. From ''A Face in the Crowd" (1957) to ''Network" (1976) to ''Videodrome" (1983) to ''The Running Man" (1987) to ''Anchorman" (2004), the movies have shown television as a threat to democracy, opium of the people, mind-altering substance, and/or vast polyester wasteland.

In ''Face," Andy Griffith gives what remains an astonishing performance as hillbilly TV host/proto-fascist Lonesome Rhodes. It isn't just the quality of the acting that makes Griffith so amazing. It's our knowledge of the television stardom that awaited him -- or, rather, the numbingly wholesome nature of that stardom -- as folksy sheriff Andy Taylor on ''The Andy Griffith Show" and folksy lawyer Ben Matlock on ''Matlock."

A similar bit of persona jujitsu occurs in ''The Running Man." Based on a Stephen King novel, it's set in a future where executions are staged as game shows. (Don't let anyone at Fox know about this.) The host of the game show is Richard Dawson, whose kissy-face ''Family Feud" image gets turned just as upside down as Griffith's. Either way, the implication is clear: The movies give us the truth (or at least a truth), while television just sugar-coats.

Sugar-coats or, the lesson of ''Network," panders to maximize profits. ''Network" is in a class by itself: the ''Sunset Boulevard" of movies about television. (Did William Holden suffer from whiplash?) When Peter Finch, as rogue network newsman Howard Beale, bellows ''I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore," you can almost see a thrilled membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences mouthing the words along with him. Take that, TV! Is it any wonder Finch won the best actor Oscar (the only actor ever to win posthumously), and Paddy Chayefsky won for best original screenplay?

Television hasn't always come off badly on the big screen. It can be safely patronized in a comedy, such as ''Tootsie" (1982) or ''Soapdish" (1991). Note that in ''My Favorite Year" (1982), the whole point of the movie is the absolute superiority of Peter O'Toole's character over everyone else on the TV show. You bet he's superior: He's an honest-to-goodness (or, in this case, badness) movie star.

''Broadcast News" (1987) -- written and directed by, ahem, TV veteran James L. Brooks -- gets a double pass: It's a comedy set in a newsroom. Since the movies don't do newsgathering, they generally give a bye to TV journalists, so long as they're serious: ''Medium Cool" (1969), ''The China Syndrome" (1979), ''Good Night, and Good Luck" (2005). If they're not serious, though, watch out -- just ask Ron Burgundy.

Perhaps the clearest indicator of the movies' attitude toward TV is to look at the movies' attitude toward themselves. From ''Once in a Lifetime" (1932) and ''The Bad and the Beautiful" (1952) to ''The Player" (1992) and ''Swimming With Sharks" (1994), even the ostensibly harshest indictments of Hollywood can't get past a fundamental self-infatuation.

Of course, any distinction between movies and TV is becoming increasingly academic. DVDs and the prospect of downloadable movies threaten to supplant the big-screen experience. Plasma-screen televisions and home-theater systems are making television-viewing more like moviegoing. And technology is only part of it. In an interview last month with the Chicago Sun-Times, Hugh Grant pointedly noted he'd never seen ''American Idol" and dismissed television as ''mostly just such trash." Yet what American film of the past decade approaches ''The Sopranos" as an artistic achievement? What Hollywood studio can match HBO for daring, innovativeness, and artistry?

It's not just HBO that's testing the limits. CBS has given George Clooney the go-ahead to make a broadcast version of ''Network." Howard Beale is stunned as hell and, well, he's speechless.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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