Over the decades I have worked in hospitals, I have seen countless movies that draw on the drama, humor, joy and frustration that happens every day in the medical world. It’s a tough call, but if pressed to choose my favorite of such films it would be 1971’s The Hospital.
The magnificence of the movie ultimately derives — as is so often the case with the best films — from a sterling script. Even though he died young and was not particularly prolific, Paddy Chayefsky was an extraordinarily influential screenwriter. He wrote unusually realistic, tightly constructed scripts for television plays in the 1950s that he later turned into superb films (Marty is the most famous, but I like The Bachelor Party even better). He went on to achieve two mammoth movie triumphs in the 1970s, of which Network is better remembered but The Hospital is every bit as impressive. He also delivers The Hospital’s pricelessly sardonic opening narration about the trials of a recently admitted patient who is subjected relentlessly to the benefits of modern medicine until he expires.
The heart of story is Dr. Herb Bock, Chief of Medicine, one-time wunderkind of immunology and now a hard-drinking, acutely depressed, and suicidal man who sees himself as a failure in every sphere of life. George C. Scott, an actor of great range (it’s hard to believe that the same man played General Patton, General Buck Turgidson and Dr. Bock), gives a bravura performance as the bearish, pained, raging and pitiable Dr. Bock. He is a classic hero/martyr type who works hard to help everyone else at great cost to himself, and is incapable of accepting the love and support he needs. I have known many Dr. Bock’s in my career, people who would say as he does that “love doesn’t triumph for the middle class — responsibility does”. The collision of an A-list actor with a beautifully-written character, as we have here, is one the most enduring delights of film watching.
On top of his considerable personal problems, Bock’s hospital is under great pressure from two directions. Angry activists are protesting the medical center’s alleged insensitivity to the local community (Chayefsky’s take on much of 1970s activism is bitter, but also hilarious). Meanwhile, why are so many people dropping dead…there couldn’t be a mad killer on the loose, could there? As Bock struggles against overwhelming challenges, he is emotionally upended by a loopy yet appealing hippy who seems to understand him better than he understands himself. Diana Rigg is perfect as said hippy, and she and Scott work together brilliantly, particularly in a long and emotionally complex scene involving suicidal and sexually violent longings.
The script has many laughs, almost all of which come with an undercurrent of anger. The foibles of hospitals and physicians are well-skewered, although in one poignant speech at the end, Scott gives a rejoinder to all the cynicism, which also hits home. The supporting players are very good indeed, including Barnard Hughes in two different parts (only one of which is credited), Nancy Marchand as Head Nurse Christie and Frances Sternhagen as “the bitch from the accounting department” (Sternhagen, whose work I have highlighted before, remains underappreciated as an actress).
The Hospital is one of the great black comedy/dramas of the 1970s and beyond that will resonate profoundly with anyone who has spent much time in a medical center as a staff member or as (the poor dears) a patient.