Thirty-Day Movie Challenge: Day Four

Thirty Day Movie Challenge:

Day Four: Favorite Drama

The Hospital (1971)
Directed by: Arthur Hiller
Starring: George C. Scott, Diana Rigg, Richard A. Dysart
By Gabriel Ricard

I didn’t set out to reference black comedies yesterday and then come back to them for day four. It just seemed to work out that way. I wrote at great lengths yesterday about my ability to laugh at a lot of different things. However there does seem to be a pretty large place in my cold, nicotine-battered Canadian heart for the dark comedies. People frequently comment that the things I find humorous are sometimes quite horrifying. I don’t debate that for a second. I’m aware that they are horrifying. It might be a cop-out to deal with how terrible the world can be by immediately looking for the humor, but I’ll take the cop-out over feeling helpless and angry.

You can indeed look at The Hospital as a very, very black comedy. You can also see it as one of the most depressing movies ever made. The consensus from critics at the time of its release and people who have seen it now puts it somewhere in the middle. Personally I think the movie is hilarious, but I’m also capable of doing MST3K-style commentary for Grave of the Fireflies or Requiem for a Dream. I’m probably not the best person to consult for what the world at large is going to find funny.

Still, people who have seen The Hospital seem to consider it a pretty brilliant mix of one vicious gallows punch line after another and callous observation. The film hit its forty-year mark in 2011, but I would say a lot of those punch lines and observations are as sharp now as they were in 1971. Paddy Chayefsky would win a score of writing awards for the script (including an Oscar). I didn’t know anything about the movie before seeing it, but I wasn’t surprised when I found out later. A forty-year-old script can’t help but suffer from being a little dated as the decades wear on. Great scripts can shrug that off and still suck you in. They can stand as good a chance of engaging somebody as they did the year they were filmed. I’m willing to show The Hospital to anyone to prove that point.

There’s a lot of reasons why I won’t go near doctors or hospitals. This movie is one of them.

The acting is a big part of that enduring quality, too. The Hospital is one of my favorite films simply for the amazing performances by George C. Scott and Diana Rigg. Scott had a pretty good career being a larger-than-life, terminally brooding presence kicked in the stomach by day-to-day life and just hanging on to his dignity and sanity by a thread as large as a few inches of floss. This is my by far my favorite version of a persona he played so consistently well (but he could play other characters, too). He takes hold of Chayefsky’s great script, chews every line to pieces and spits them back out with a ferocious, career-making bark. The “We cure nothing!” speech is quite possibly my favorite rant in a film of all time. George C. Scott plays a man at the brink of self-destruction amidst absolute chaos so well that I have to wonder just how much of it was really acting. He was clearly as intense a guy as you were ever going to meet in real life (and I’ve read things about him that seem to indicate this was true).

Diana Rigg makes Scott even better. There’s no doubt in my mind about that. Her character is largely amused by the weary doom and gloom of Scott’s exhausted Chief of Medicine to one of New York’s largest, most unwieldy hospitals. Rigg was (and still is—she’s not actually dead) the kind of actress who could chemistry with anybody she was paired up with. It worked on The Avengers, and it worked with actors like Vincent Price in the phenomenal Theater of Blood. Her amusement, affection and then love (maybe, you know? Her character is clearly not playing with a full deck, so it’s difficult to tell if she really loves the guy or not) for Scott’s Dr. Bock is like everything else in the movie. It comes out of nowhere and seems to exist by its own universal set of rules. The same thought applies to the murder spree that goes on as Scott struggles to survive his latest bout of suicidal despair before falling into his bizarre-yet-inexplicably charming relationship with Rigg (it probably doesn’t hurt that she’s incredibly sexy in this).

There’s a lot going on here beyond the clearly-defined anguish, love, sex, murder, bedlam and cruel cosmic humor. The hospital itself, and by extension everything else, is falling apart under the weight of constant, Kafkaesque (I don’t like that term, but it does work here) bureaucracy, indifference (Richard A. Dysart is brilliant as the unfeeling, sadistically greedy Dr. Welbeck) and deranged, counterproductive social upheaval. It’s a pretty frantic collection of scenes, characters, motivations and events for a hundred and three minutes, but it comes together quite well when taken from start to finish. It was a forerunner of the kind of pessimism that would later be the heart and soul of TV shows like House and E.R. You should be right at home with The Hospital if you consider yourself a fan of those shows. My favorite moments in either of those shows were the ones that could be savagely funny over the bleakest of circumstances. The Hospital is one of those moments after another. It has a well-earned reputation for being a severe ride.


In the next scene, George C. Scott literally eats this man’s soul.

This was one of the first movies I ever rented from Netflix some years ago. It was appropriately a completely random choice, and I’ve always been grateful that I gave it a shot.  The Hospital turned me into a fan of both Scott and Rigg, and I’ve enjoyed several performances of their ever since I checked this out. It only takes a few minutes a day on Facebook or an afternoon in a city to remind myself that the anarchy in The Hospital is not only pretty close to the kind of thing I see in real life, but it’s probably gotten even worse since 1971. It could be that I’m just being pessimistic myself. Then there’s the Dr. Bock character. You don’t need a sprawling back story to know that the mess he’s in has come about from a combination of his own design and whatever the hell that twisted cosmic humor is doing to him. A lot of people are victims of that combination. It can exhaust you into old age long before you actually get there in years, if you happen choose to take on more than your body and spirit can handle. At times I relate to the mood of this film (and of Scott) far more than I should probably admit.

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