DUBIOUS ASSUMPTIONS lie under the most tantalizing metaphors, works of art, philosophical arguments. Last summer my boss, a journalist, described America's radical movement as a rape by disturbing forces to which the country would now for ever be reluctantly indebted for its arousal. This provoked an irate and speedy reaction from a nun, who began her letter: "Perhaps it's just journalism, but..."
Perhaps it's just a clever plot, but Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay of The Hospital hides almost the same assumption and a few more to boot. Rapist (George C. Scott, playing a doctor) and rapee (Diana Rigg) fall in love; Scott, his flagging potency restored, finds life worth living again; Rigg is cured of her nymphomania. Meanwhile life-and death-in a big New York City hospital goes on. The story evades numerous intriguing issues: Rigg has a potentially interesting madman for a father. He causes chaos in this wonderland of technological medicine, but he assures us that in Mexico, where he lives almost as a hermit, he gets on very well. Cynical laugh from the sophisticated audience, end of joke.
Scott is about to commit suicide when Rigg walks in and provokes him into raping her. As she is the one who reaffirms his potency (he's halfdrunk, of course, and she's asking for it, so the rape is morally all right), it's quite conceivable that he should fall in love with her--an ex post facto defense of his actions, a justification of his renewed will to live, and so forth. But the film doesn't examine any of these possible motivations: "And so they fell in love." Period.
Ms. Rigg's side of the affair is even more unexplained. Is Scott the first man who's resisted her advances for more than ten minutes? (She's certainly very enticing-and after the first five minutes it would be hard to misunderstand her intentions.) Or is it because he's the first one who's ever been more eager than she was when it came to the crunch? Or does he remind her of her father? This seems far-fetched when we meet the old lunatic in the hospital. He was once a doctor, Rigg relates, but if this is a plausible connection more must be made of it. Having tentatively raised such speculations, the film ignores them.
WHY DOES anyone fall in love? Does it have more to do with the faller of the fallee? Could Rigg have been anybody; is Scott just looking for an excuse to fill in the space in his life? And Rigg-is she just seeking someone to enliven the boredom of her life with Daddy in Mexico? And, after all, what's wrong with that? In America, in 1972, one person may encounter a hundred others with whom he could fairly happily spend the rest of his life-or at least ten years. One at a time is all you need, so it's senseless to try to make a rational decision, to foresee the ten years with that one person, to imagine the ten years with all the possible others.
Scott the doctor makes his decision, but it involves more than just himself: should he save scores of patients or should he first save himself and Rigg by fleeing with her to Mexico? With about the profundity of a television script-Chayefsky is a veteran TV writer-Hospital examines such Pressing Issues of Modern Times. The hospital is in the midst of a community whose members are parading around outside holding unconvincing placards and demanding that the hospital relinquish its development land to the people; there's an abortion which provides contemporary color but gives no hint of its potentially controversial aspects; Scott mentions having thrown his "long-haired hippie son" out of the house but hardly seems to recognize in Diana Rigg a member of the same generation. He's more interested in the revelations of her short skirt than in its ideological connotations. There's another doctor--an old-fashioned slimy-capitalist type--who's set up a private practice for immense personal profit and continually refers his non-fee patients to it for private treatment. Near the end he gets his just deserts when the IRS or somebody calls up and he scurries around panic-stricken muttering, "They can't do this to me!"
Years of judging audience reaction seem to lie behind Chayefsky's script; it's tuned to a higher sensibility than the average television audience, but it appeals to the chosen audience--pseudo-cynical, self-styled liberal--with a sure-fire style of scripting calculated never to lose audience attention. ("Make sure they don't switch over during the commercials," becomes, "My God, we gotta keep 'em here or they might walk over to Cinema One.")
GIVEN CHAYEFSKY'S obvious if sublimated talent and Scott's ability to turn even dross into gold, Hospital is a wretched disappointment. I laughed through most of it, including the purportedly serious parts, and enjoyed myself. A literate television show, in good color and on a large screen, is not fundamentally so unbearable. Scott plays a magnificant wreck of a man, overbearing yet sympathetic, cold because of despair, not heartlessness. Seen first obliquely from behind, he looks like a Grecian noble deep in thought until the camera tracks around to reveal his less-than-heroic profile and the clutter following a solitary drinking bout in a hotel room, a television glowing blankly in the corner.
Arthur Hiller, who also directed Love Story, has done a better job here. The pacing is snappy: the opening describes documentary-style how a certain bed comes to be empty--the result of a death by misdiagnosis. The following morning a nurse discovers yet another dead body in this bed; it is the corpse of a philandering med student who has used it for a clandestine rendezvous. Next comes a series of further strange deaths among the medical staff. The hospital is in a flurry, the demonstrators are chanting outside, the slimy capitalist is trying to cull support for his encounter with the hospital director, the director is going frantic trying to stave off the demonstrators. Meanwhile patients are mislaid, the bookkeeper harasses a dying man to get his Blue Shield number, and Scott and Rigg are carrying on their own private tug-of-war over whether to stay or go to Mexico, she dressed in a nurse's uniform because her blouse had been ripped.
Unfortunately great competence had been wasted on mindless trivia; both Scott and Chayefsky should--and can-do better. The Hospital is amusing and skillful, but five-finger exercises shouldn't be performed in public.