Robin’s Underrated Gems: The Hospital (1971)

They say that screenwriters don’t get any respect in Hollywood, so you can imagine what a miraculous occurrence it is when a screenwriter’s name is actually used to help sell a movie. However, that was the case with Paddy Chayefsky, who was such a renowned screenwriter, playwright and novelist that in the opening credits for his movies, his name would actually be listed right underneath the film’s title! I’m not talking about a separate “Written by Paddy Chayefsky” credit. When the title of his movie pops up on-screen, it literally reads: “The Hospital by Paddy Chayefsky” or “Network by Paddy Chayefsky”! I’m not sure a screenwriter’s name has ever garnered that amount of recognition and prestige in Hollywood before, and I doubt it will ever happen again! However, if there was ever a screenwriter who deserved it, it was Paddy Chayefsky. He is the only writer to ever win three Academy Awards for “Best Screenplay”. After building up a stellar reputation as television writer, Chayefsky’s first major success in film came in 1955 when the big-screen adaptation of his television drama, Marty, wound up winning four Academy Awards, including “Best Picture”. Chayefsky won his other two “Best Screenplay” Oscars in the 1970s for The Hospital and Network, two films which were considered absurdist satires at the time, but almost come across as documentaries today! While Network has become one of the most iconic films of all time, its success has somewhat overshadowed The Hospital, which remains highly underrated.

The Hospital is a scathing satire of the medical industry which takes place at an urban teaching hospital in Manhattan, a place that is so disorganized and dysfunctional that you are pretty much taking your life into your hands if you check in there. The Chief of Medicine, Dr. Herbert Bock (George C. Scott), is a suicidally depressed alcoholic whose wife has just left him and has become completely estranged from his kids. Even though is personal life is a trainwreck, the one thing that keeps Dr. Bock going is the belief that he is working in a profession that helps people and makes a positive difference. However, it’s become obvious to him that his beloved hospital is completely falling apart and he is pretty much pushed to the breaking point when he finds out that his staff is so incompetent that they could accidentally mistake one of their own doctors for a patient and wind up killing him. Things get even worse a few hours later when another doctor on the staff is found dead of a heart attack in the hospital waiting room after he is also mistaken for a patient and left to die in the confusion. Bock comes very close to committing suicide that very night, but suddenly finds his passion reinvigorated by the arrival of a young woman named Barbara Drummond (Diana Rigg). Barbara’s father (Barnard Hughes) is a patient at the hospital who has slipped into a coma, and she wants to have him transferred to a clinic at the Sioux Indian reservation they live on in Arizona in order to receive better care. Dr. Bock soon discovers that Mr. Drummond had checked into the hospital for a routine check-up and wound up slipping into a coma due to several incompetent mistakes by the staff.

After instantaneously falling in love with Barbara, Dr. Bock must decide whether he wants to leave everything behind and take off to Arizona to start over with her. However, when other doctors and nurses from the hospital start turning up dead after being mistaken for patients, Bock starts to realize that these are not coincedences. It becomes apparent that some madman is moving throughout the hospital and has perpetuated an elaborate scheme that will cause the worst members of the staff to die very ironic deaths at the hands of their own hospital’s incompetence. This is the kind of writing style that Paddy Chayefsky is known for, as his screenplays often use his absurdist humour to tackle some very serious issues. Some of the scenes in this film are done in the style of a Marx Brothers farce, yet they contain a lot of truth to them and would possibly be too scary and unsettling to watch if it weren’t for the humour. Chayefsky understood society so well that his scripts were always way ahead of their time. While Network was the ultimate expose about television, The Hospital provides lots of eye-opening revelations about the medical industry. Network contains numerous scenes that probably seemed like an absurdist fantasy at the time, but have become a complete reality today, and the same logic applies to The Hospital. In 1971, it may have seemed ridiculous that a patient could die in a hospital waiting room and remain there for hours before anyone even noticed they were dead, but how many stories just like that have popped in the news during the last several years? Of course, Chayefsky’s screenplays often get their points across through a numerous amount of monologues and angry speeches, an approach that could wind up backfiring badly without the right actors to deliver them. Thankfully, The Hospital features George C. Scott at his absolute peak and he delivers a dynamite performance as Dr. Bock. He takes Chayefsky’s lengthy passages of dialogue and knocks them completely out of the park, especially this memorable monologue where he preaches about the merits of impotence!

Scott was so good in the role that he somehow managed to secure an Oscar nomination for his peformance, even though he had given the Academy the finger the previous year by refusing to accept his “Best Actor” Oscar for Patton! Even though Bock is obviously a deeply flawed and troubled character, Scott somehow manages to make him endearing as you can sense a genuinely decent and well-meaning person beneath his unhinged exterior. The Hospital is pretty much Scott’s show all the way, but he does get a lot of solid support from the rest of the cast. Each character in this film, no matter how minor, is so well-drawn that anyone who’s ever been inside a hospital will probably recogize them. A particular standout is Frances Sternhagen as the hospital’s head of accounting, who’s such a soulless bureaucrat that she’ll get angry at a dead guy for not providing his health insurance number! Like many of Chayefsky’s screenplays, The Hospital is probably a bit too ambitious and tries to do too many things, which does lead to some erratic changes in tone and a few underdeveloped ideas. However, the most important thing is that The Hospital still remains completely relevant a full 40 years later and even its most ridiculous scenes have a truthfulness to them. Those who have had first-hand experience in the type of hospitals and medical institutions portrayed in this film will say that this one of the scariest non-horror movies ever made. Paddy Chayefsky was only 58 years old when he died of cancer in 1981 and he reportedly refused to check into a hospital for surgery after he was diagnosed, fearing that he was going to encounter the exact same problems he wrote about and that doctors might seek retribution against him for exposing their profession. The Hospital still remains a highly underrated and overlooked gem for many viewers, but it really deserves to be more widely seen. Let’s it put this way: if they were to do a remake of this film today and not change a single thing, it would still seem as current and timely as ever. And how many 40-year old movies could you say that about?

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