Getting It Messy Good
He considered directing as a craft that got honed through regular practice on one project after another, so the gentlemanly Arthur Hiller (1923-2016), whose 94th birthday would have been marked today, kept active behind the camera – and as an eminence in the Directors Guild of America and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – for a formidable 40+-year period. Following a diverse and prodigious early era of episodic television (Playhouse 90, Gunsmoke, Naked City, Route 66, etc.), his most successful movie Love Story (1970) and most topically challenging Making Love (1982) established a sturdy level of professional respectability, while his Neil Simon one-two punch – The Out-of-Towners (1970) and Plaza Suite (1971) – and respective Colin Higgins and Andrew Bergman hits Silver Streak (1976) and The In-Laws (1979) gave him serious comedy cred. But a particular – and most deserved – reverence has been afforded to the versatile filmmaker’s two seriocomic broadsides written by passionate provocateur Paddy Chayefsky, the devastatingly antiwar and piercingly romantic The Americanization of Emily (1964, Hiller’s own career favorite) and the trenchant, still relevant, pitch-black fable The Hospital (1971), which film historian David Thomson in his invaluable Have You Seen…?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films called “formidable” and “a grand satire on liberalism and every attempt to have a health policy for a race of animals that are error-prone, self-destructive and doomed.” Both Hiller and Thomson use the word “genius” to describe Chayefsky. Hiller went further, saying of the combative eventual three-time Academy Award® winner: “People often say to me, ‘You’ve done two pictures with Paddy, how did you get through it?’ My answer always is ‘When a genius speaks, I listen.’ He’s really the only genius I ever worked with. He was way above the rest of us.” Hiller, who came aboard after Chayefsky and producing partner Howard Gottfried initially started work with Michael Ritchie before a parting of the ways, determined his contribution would be to ground the writer’s ominous absurdist vision in a gritty, even dilapidated, everyday reality. He downplayed overemphasis on rehearsal for a rough-edged feel of catching shots and flashes of emotion on the run, working tightly with the production, design and lighting personnel to allow maximum camera mobility – years before Steadicam photography development breakthroughs in subsequent years would make this easier. He would tell DGA interviewer Ron Underwood: “I wanted to give the audience the feeling that they were peeking around the corner, that everything was happening right there, a sort of semi-documentary feel. And in order to do that, I created various kinds of visuals that were, how shall I say, messy good. And it was very difficult, because the camera operators find it very hard to be messy good. They're trained to give you that perfect shot. And so I would have to make the visuals so difficult to do, that they couldn't do it neatly, or do it with a hand-held camera, or create problems that gave it that sort of feel.”
With a few New York films already under his belt, Hiller worked in concert with Chayefsky to recruit class actors from the Big Apple pools of theater veterans in support of the towering George C. Scott as unraveling Chief of Medicine Dr. Herbert Bock, who must cope with not only his personal alcoholism, impotence and depression but also his own institution’s recent detours into malpractice and, possibly, murder. Thus, we find among the hapless and helpless administrative types, slipshod medical practitioners and potential victims we find Nancy Marchand, Frances Sternhagen, Stephen Elliott, Donald Harron, Richard A. Dysart, Robert Walden, Katherine Helmond, Roberts Blossom, Marilyn Sokol, Lenny Baker and in their first (uncredited) movie appearances, Stockard Channing and Christopher Guest. Two key players came to the film directly from co-starring as niece and uncle in the Spring 1971 Broadway production of Ronald Millar’s dramatization of Abelard and Heloise. British visitor Diana Rigg (hot off TV’s The Avengers and incarnating the only cinematic Mrs. James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) was signed to play the mysterious and sexy hospital visitor who intrigues the fraying Dr. Bock, and Bedford Hills, NY, native Barnard Hughes (who played the scheming uncle to Rigg’s sensual – and momentarily naked – Heloise on the Brooks Atkinson Theatre stage and reportedly coaxed Rigg into rereading The Hospital’s script and reconsidering after first turning down the role) would be her father, as it turned out, a man of multiple guises. All were in service of a writer of pungent wit and extraordinary vision (Chayefsky would win an Oscar®, Golden Globe and British Academy Awards for his script) as well as a director of adaptable and seasoned versatility who could shape the process to suit the storytelling. The Hospital is both convulsively funny and bleakly sad, a dose of good/bad medicine the eminently professional Hiller brought off with a miraculous physician’s skill at controlling chaos brilliantly. You’ll be admitted via Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray December 19. Preorders open December 6.