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The Hospital. 1971. Directed by Arthur Hiller. Screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky.
Starring George C. Scott, Diana Rigg, Barnard Hughes, Richard Dysart, Stephen Elliott, Donald Harron, Andrew Duncan, Nancy Marchand, Jordan Charney, Roberts Blossom, Frances Sternhagen, & Katherine Helmond. Simcha Productions.
Rated PG. 103 minutes.
Arthur Hiller is probably most well known to people through his directorial work with the comic duo of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, on such films as See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Silver Streak. Of course he’s done much more, but many will know him from those. I’d seen a few of his movies before ever getting the chance to see The Hospital. Then there’s the great writer Paddy Chayefsky, whose Network I also saw before ever seeing his previous work on this film. And boy, was it ever a treat once I did get the chance.
The Hospital is a rare type. I’m not saying there aren’t any other movies like it. Not at all. What I mean is that it’s not exactly the kind of thing you’d see even today, let alone in the early 1970s. But such was the spirit of filmmaking then. The indie directors and writers were looking to change things, to show a different side to themselves, to America, to the world. Chayefsky’s story hones in on the touchy subject of suicide, at the same time he takes on the bureaucratic nature of hospitals and the stress of morality under the weight of that bureaucracy. There’s a whole ton of smart insight within the dark package presented. It’ll make you laugh. It will have you pondering the effectiveness of the American healthcare system, one that hasn’t changed (too) much since ’71. It will reassure you of the greatness who was George C. Scott. And Chayefsky has never been so funny or so on point. His brand of honesty has not been seen since in American screenwriters, though there have been plenty of great writers. Just the way his words cut to the core of the subject is truly art.
I mean, I’m likely in the minority here but I believe Chayefsky is at his sharpest, darkest, wittiest here all in one fell swoop. The first moments let us know that while we’re dealing with life and death, literally as we’re situated in a hospital as the constant setting, this is a story rife with comedy. Dark, yes, but comedy nonetheless. Network is a god damn classic. One of the single most poignant entries in American cinematic history, as far as I’m concerned. However, The Hospital has a certain quality that struck me the very first time I had the pleasure of watching it. The open honesty of the suicidal thoughts Dr. Herbert Bock (George C. Scott) feels is at once a little shocking and all the same incredibly refreshing. The performance is one thing. Chayefsky’s writing another. He makes Bock into someone intense and brooding while simultaneously a fucking riot. Scott only furthers that to chuckle-worthy ends. There’s a truthfulness in how Chayefsky depicts suicide, the thoughts of suicide, and everything surrounding the concept. He finds the absurd. His screenplay for this film juxtaposes actual death and the idea of death in close quarters. There’s often the trope of someone close to death confronting it somehow, then discovering they truly want to live. Meanwhile, Dr. Bock is busy trying to figure out the best way to off himself, so as to cause the least amount of grief, and a possible serial killer, or terrible employee, is walking the halls underneath the nose of everyone present. A genius lot of writing that’s aided by the properly jaded Scott in one of his greatest roles, as well as a well-rounded cast that lifts Chayefsky’s words right off the page into hilarious life.
What I love about Bock so much is that he’s sick and tired of the actual discrepancies in the world. He hates his own son because of the boy’s insistence on being a hypocrite, whether he knows that himself is another thing. He hates the place where he works because the healthcare system is backwards as all hell; medical technology, even in ’71, was hurtling through innovation all the time and people, mainly the disenfranchised like the African-American community, the gay community (et cetera) were out in the streets dying. He hates life – not only does his impotence involve the penis, it involves his “purpose” and all he “ever truly loved” and that’s a desperate sadness. There’s a brutal honesty in the character that makes this movie so rare as a whole.
Scott makes you wonder how a man can become so many different characters so flawlessly over time and not lose his mind. He is one of the greatest; ever. Even just watching him sitting in a chair, acting drunk, his talent is immeasurable. One of those national treasures that America ought to relish like the flag. He was an actor’s actor, throwing himself to the role as an actor should. The desperation of Dr. Bock comes across vividly in the way Scott tumbles him further, further, until we’re not sure what kind of ending this man is going to find for himself. Chayefsky fleshes the character out well enough, then Scott takes him for a ride. In the quietest scenes, his face does more acting than half of the so-called superstars today combined. Once the scenes get intense he rages, as I’ve come to love from Scott, but also he rattles you. It isn’t just empty screams or over-the-top emoting. You really feel grabbed by his character. So convincing and genuine. One of my favourite roles of his, right up next to his character in Dr. Strangelove.
I’m actually not a huge one on comedy. Anybody that frequents this site will now that. That isn’t because I don’t like to laugh. Those who actually know me know that laughing is one of the things I love most. I laugh too much sometimes, like an idiot. The Hospital is just my brand of funny. Dark comedy, the stuff that hits too close to home, that makes you cringe while also making you question things: this is what I dig. I can get down with foolish comedies, too. Those are few and far between for me; best examples are Dumb and Dumber and Step Brothers, both of which endlessly kill me. But the darkness, it’s always what draws me. I love horror and disturbing thrillers, so maybe it’s only natural I’ve gravitated towards comedy that’s more unsettling. Still, Chayefsky’s writing isn’t only darkness. It is poignant work. It throws social themes into a story about a suicidal doctor in a hospital that may or may not be stalked by a serial killing maniac. There’s a wildly effective mix of things happening. You almost expect it to fall flat. Only this movie is nearly a perfect bout of comedy and drama.
The Hospital may not make all the big lists or get mentioned too often. Who cares? The damned thing is genius.