Best When Pissed Off

Best When Pissed Off

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Dec 14th 2018

Rage is all the rage on Broadway these days, with the reemergence of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network in a new theatrical stage adaptation of the Oscar®-winning screenplay by Lee Hall, directed by the innovative firebrand Ivo Van Hove in a dazzlingly assaultive multimedia-infused production, and starring a combustible Bryan Cranston as the mentally fraying news anchorman Howard Beale, who is “as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” The 1976 Sidney Lumet-directed original wasn’t the first time that movie audiences got a taste of well-researched Chayefsky outrage: underneath the sparring and witty romantic byplay of military driver Julie Andrews and self-serving “dog robber” James Garner in his script of the World War II-set comedy The Americanization of Emily (1964, dexterously directed by Arthur Hiller) was a caustic and revisionist antiwar take on calculated heroism, mythmaking and, like Network, deceptive media packaging. In between came a critical family event that would inspire a self-described “Gothic horror story.” Shaun Considine wrote in his detailed 1994 opus Mad As Hell: The Life and Work of Paddy Chayefsky: “Writer Herb Gardner and Chayefsky were walking along a New York street one evening when Paddy turned to him and asked if he knew of a good way to kill off nurses. ‘I think Susie had been in the hospital,’ said Gardner, ‘and Paddy was not happy with what went on there.’ Susan Chayefsky, according to some people, was suffering from a neurological disorder and was in great pain. ‘The doctors did numerous tests, but could find nothing wrong,’ one friend recalled. When asked to submit to a research study, Susan Chayefsky refused. The staff tended to dismiss her ailments after that, which infuriated her husband all the more. So he decided to write a story that would expose the hospital staff’s apathy and incompetence. ‘Nothing got him going like anger,’ said Gardner. ‘Paddy was always best writing when he was pissed off about something.’” 

Hence The Hospital (1971), the prolific author’s second Oscar®-winning Best Original Screenplay, which opened 47 years ago today starring George C. Scott and Diana Rigg atop an exactingly assembled cast, again under Hiller’s direction, because “‘when the moral fiber of a community erodes, it is the poets who have to stand up and establish some kind of a moral contact,’ Chayefsky said (paraphrasing T.S. Eliot).” Chayefsky’s medical malpractice research was typically exhaustive and organic, such that, Considine observes, “the deaths in Chayefsky’s hospital came first by mistakes and neglect, then by deliberate execution. It was easy for people to die by negligence or by design in an automated, machinelike society, where no one really knows anybody. With the murders his story gradually turned from satire to black comedy. At the helm of his busy and error-prone hospital, Chayefsky created a hero, Dr. Herbert Bock [Scott, whose fiery work earn Best Actor Oscar® and Golden Globe® nominations]. As a youth, this ‘boy genius’ and ‘brilliant eccentric’ was terrified of women, so he finds his purpose in life in medicine. Twenty-five years later, as the bitter, bruised and betrayed chief of staff of a large city hospital, he feels his life is over. The fact that Bock would be Chayefsky’s most popular character since Marty [1955, the writer’s first Oscar® encounter] was again attributed to the personal traits he chose to reveal, most notably his despair and wrath. The anger that had been largely repressed in Marty would now be allowed to explode at full force in Dr. Bock. ‘Up until 1970, my father was going through the same self-torture as Bock,’ said Dan Chayefsky. ‘During those last five years of the 1960s, he felt absolutely useless. He had done everything in the business and it meant nothing. All he had wanted was approval and he found out nobody cared anyway, which made him more despondent.’ At home at night, the boy would watch his father drinking in the dark. ‘He was never a heavy drinker, but he would sit in his study with a glass of scotch in his hand and a bottle of Johnnie Walker nearby. This was every night. I’d pass by the room and see him, sitting motionless, a silhouette in the dark.'” 

When Chayefsky had an epiphany that his depression and self-pity was damaging his family, Chayefsky drew back from the brink, and writing The Hospital became a vital therapeutic outlet. As Everett Chambers, a Chayefsky friend, casting director and producer, told Considine about Chayefsky’s dark moods during this period and the writer’s eventual emergence from them: “And two years later I go to the movies and I hear the exact same dialogue coming out of George C. Scott’s mouth in The Hospital.” Also featuring Barnard Hughes, Nancy Marchand, Donald Harron, Richard Dysart, Frances Sternhagen, Katherine Helmond, Stockard Channing, Marilyn Sokol, Lenny Baker, Tresa Hughes and Christopher Guest, The Hospital was an unexpected success that, according to Considine, “helped boost United Artists’ much needed revenue. At the box office, it was third in receipts to Diamonds Are Forever and Fiddler on the Roof. It succeeded where Chayefsky’s last credited film The Americanization of Emily had failed, because ‘the public was ready for a sacred cow to be attacked,’ said one essayist.” Chayefsky was revived, and in the press room after his Academy Award® win, told reporters: “Two years ago I was told that I was finished as a writer. I’m back, and I hope to write some more. Thank you.” Experience The Hospital’s full-bore array of Chayefskyan humors, horrors and potential healings on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray at 33% off original list through January 2.