George C. Scott’s best?: The Hospital (Arthur Hiller, 1971)

thehospital

I’ve read repeatedly that although The Hospital is a mediocre film it does perhaps feature George C. Scott’s finest onscreen performance. I need to see more of his films before I agree with that, but he is certainly the best reason to watch The Hospital. He plays Herbert Bock, chief of medicine at a hospital beleagered by incompetent and lazy staff, a lack of funding, and crowds of furious protestors. Bock is worn down not just by his disastrous personal life but by his inability to believe in the purpose and effectiveness of his work. He’s impotent and on the verge of suicide, and someone in his hospital is murdering people. Did I mention that this is a comedy?

The Hospital pulls off some of its wackier elements. Take the hospital’s disorganisation, or the monstrously complicated forms that patients have to complete, or the feminists, Marxists and civil rights activists who are temporarily united in their hate for the hospital but could just as easily turn on each other. The comedy (even if it isn’t always actually funny) works because these elements are grounded in a familiar reality, albeit highly exaggerated.

Unfortunately, the two heightened aspects of The Hospital that are the most ungrounded and unbelievable are also the most important. First is the reason for the murders, which I won’t spoil. Second is the romance between Bock and Barbara Drummond. Diana Rigg brings her presence and acting chops to the role, but Barbara is a straight up Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, more obviously so because she changes Bock’s life in just one night. Her attraction to him is the hardest part of the film to accept. These two aspects make The Hospital ultimately unsatisfying.

The film is, overall, a showcase for Scott. This is most obvious in the lengthy, dialogue-heavy scene set in Bock’s office that features him and Rigg. The two of them are spotlit as though on a stage, making their acting the focus. Rigg acquits herself well, but it’s Scott’s scene. At one point, he starts crying in the space of the few seconds that it takes for him to turn away from the camera and scream “We cure nothing! We heal nothing!” out of the doorway before turning back again. Scott shows a great amount of humanity and control in his performance here.

The Hospital doesn’t back away from having a miserable ending. If you do decide to watch it, take my advice and plan to do something nice afterwards. You’ll need it.

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