The Hospital (1971)


Paddy Chayefsky, the seriocomic screenwriter and one of our notable humorists, won an Oscar for his screenplay of The Hospital (1971). George C. Scott, as Dr. Bock in The Hospital, finished behind Gene Hackman in The French Connection that year for the Oscar for Best Actor and is superb as the overwhelmed, demoralized and fatigued Chief of Surgery at a huge ever-entropic Manhattan hospital. Chayevsky also wrote The Americanization of Emily and Network which resemble The Hospital in dramatizing the clamorous, frustrating, demoralizing challenges, often thanklessly shouldered and absolutely vital and saving, of trying to manage big, important enterprises in a contentious Republic: his heroes are the responsible knights who would restrict the corruption, pettiness, bureaucratic stiflings, incompetence, and fraud while mediating the inevitable social conflicts as imperfect compromises are necessarily made in steering crucial institutions and forces through stormy waters. He admires those who would accept such responsibilities when nearly everyone else would advise them against leaving comfort. Chayefsky is in spirit a little like Herman Wouk’s Barney Greenwald, the incisive military lawyer in The Caine Mutiny, who exposes Captain Queeg as a faulty commander during the court martial hearings but then defends him outside the courtroom as a guiltless small mind, a run-of-the-mill career Naval officer who got in over his head after the big World War Two mobilization pulled in the best and the brightest, but who might have managed to muddle through in the Big Show with a little more sympathy and cooperation from his crew in times when pulling together is vital.

Chayevsky knows his social types–the Young Romantic, the Middle Class Plodder, the Quietly Desperate Executive, the Political Activist, and so on–and he makes great serious comedy out of them that does not degrade them but, usually, is affectionately humorous. He has one especially marvelous and rare talent as a screenwriter: the autobiographical verbal resume–monologs with a rhetorical flourish and a standup-performer suspense. They are little subjective masterpieces. In The Hospital, in a scene set in Dr. Bock’s place late at night, Chayefsky has Diana Rigg as the fetching young Barbara Drummond, not too late of Harvard, give a spellbinding story of her energetic and far-flung life as an already veteran counterculture feminist now looking for some quietude and happy routine in her late twenties (“Then, in my early twenties, I turned in my SDS card and….”). Likewise, Dr. Bock gives an equally spellbinding version of his resume as the now middle-aged Good Son, Our Little Doctor, also of Harvard, a medical gray eminence and arrived at suffering a kind of post traumatic syndrome of an empty middle class marriage made at best in Purgatory and who is near suicide from the travails of the dogged muddler.

There is another reason why The Hospital is especially worth revisiting: it counters today’s relentless medical schlock infecting TV and Hollywood.