Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Hospital (1971)

          Speaking as a cineaste, a devotee of ’70s film, and a screenwriter, I’m about to commit an act of heresy by admitting that I don’t dig The Hospital, which netted Paddy Chayefsky one of his three writing Oscars. While I understand the use of dark satire to skewer the foibles of the medical industry—and, on a larger scale, the foibles of bureaucracy and capitalism run amok—I’ve watched The Hospital twice at very different times in my life, and on both occasions I’ve found the movie to be cold, pretentious, and tiresome. Seeing as how Chayefsky’s writing was singled out for praise, it’s possible my reaction stems from a problem of execution. Arthur Hiller’s sloppy camerawork and undisciplined dramaturgy prevents a clear point of view from coalescing, so he seems lost as the story zooms back and forth between tonalities.
          Proving that giving an ambitious Chayevsky script a pleasing shape wasn’t impossible, Sidney Lumet made a masterpiece from Chayefsky’s next opus, Network (1976). Many of the outrageous narrative maneuvers that make Network so wonderful are present in The Hospital, but they don’t work nearly as well. The omniscient narration, the religious allegory, the spectacular monologues—whereas these elements feel germane to the coherent lunacy of Network, they contribute to making The Hospital feel scattershot. The Hospital is not without its virtues, of course, because George C. Scott’s leading performance is impassioned, and the movie’s dialogue vibrates with Chayefsky’s unique blend of indignation and intellectualism (even though all of the characters sound identical). Furthermore, the best jabs at the medical industry land with tremendous impact. Taken as a whole, however, The Hospital is contrived, episodic, long-winded, and underwhelming.
          The picture is set at a fictional Manhattan hospital, which is perpetually surrounded by protestors, some of whom also work at the facility. Chief of Medicine Dr. Herbert Bock (Scott) is a suicidal drunk reeling from a divorce, and therefore emotionally unprepared for a series of crises. One by one, doctors and nurses start dying as a result of absurd mix-ups—injections given to the wrong patients, sick people pushed aside and “forgotten to death,” and so on. Herbert’s life takes a turn when he meets Barbara Drummond (Diana Rigg), the daughter of an eccentric patient. A hippie involved with Native American mysticism, she tries to remove her father from the hospital, sparking many debates about the efficacy of Herbert’s management. Other subplots include the travails of one Dr. Welbeck (Richard Dysart), a snobbish surgeon who has incorporated himself in order to prioritize money over medicine. All of these things come together in wild ways. A serial killer stalks the hospital’s halls. Herbert confesses self-destructive thoughts to a shrink, nearly injects himself with lethal chemicals, and overcomes impotence by raping Barbara.
          In one of the film’s least pleasing developments, Barbara interprets Herbert’s sexual assault as an act of love. Suffice to say the film is not as sharp on women’s issues as it is on economics and medical ethics.
          While The Hospital is all over the place in terms of mood and themes, Scott is incredible, even if the script requires him to exclaim “Oh, my God!” a few too many times, and the supporting cast is filled with lively players. Beyond Dysart and Rigg, The Hospital features Roberts Blossom, Stockard Channing, Stephen Elliot, Katherine Hellmond, Barnard Hughes, Nancy Marchand, Frances Sternhagen, and Robert Walden. Moreover, the movie has unquestionable literary quality, and it’s a meticulously researched examination of a worthy topic. Yet it’s also bewildering and strident and ugly. Still, what else could be expected from a self-proclaimed examination of “the whole wounded madness of our times”? Happily, Chayefsky found a perfect vessel for his op-ed rage in his next project.

The Hospital: FUNKY


Kaejae said...

I, too, tried to enjoy this movie. The performances are very good, in the case of Scott, he is down right Brilliant. I think the Oscar Winning Script is oddly the weak link in this film. It is way to cerebral to be in this type of film. I thought it was an attempt at Black Comedy, but it is very depressing at times.

Movieman 65 said...

Give me Peter Seller's 'Where Does it Hurt?',over this overrated film any day. And yes I realize that I'm in a minority on the admiration of that film.