Two From the Vault: Depression Early 70s Style

Twilight Time has released two films from the early 70s when a new generation of filmmakers eagerly challenged the forms and convictions of American cinema.

Recently, Twilight Time has added two more heady, thoughtful films to their catalogue of oft-forgotten prestige dramas, and these are among their very best yet. Both were made in the early 70s when the Hollywood New Wave was in full swing and a new generation of filmmakers eagerly challenged the forms and convictions of American cinema. Though their methods differ—one is a devastating tragedy, the other a black-as-licorice comedy—they are united in several key aspects: both are set in the economically depressed Northeast; both deal with characters navigating the wreckage of broken homes; both see their “heroes” grappling with failing societal safety nets. And perhaps most crucially, both films downplay the contributions of their directors. These are very much “writer’s pictures,” one an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the other a personal project where the screenwriter received top billing above the actors and director.

The first is Paul Newman’s heart-wrenching The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972), an adaptation of Paul Zindel’s semi-autobiographical play of the same name. After seeing it on Broadway, Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward snatched up the film rights, casting their daughter Nell Potts in the main role as Matilda Hunsdorfer, a whip-smart but painfully shy young girl living with her mentally unstable single mother Beatrice (Woodward) and her bra-stuffing, boy-crazy, epileptic older sister Ruth (Roberta Wallach) in a dilapidated old house in a dilapidated old lower-middle class neighborhood in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Heavily influenced by the family dramas of Tennessee Williams, the film watches as the three women smash against each other like island surf, tumbled by wave after wave of humiliation, broken promises, and selfishness. Little Ruth is dominated into emotional submission by the dueling personalities of Beatrice—an on-again, off-again alcoholic working an endless procession of dead-end jobs—and Matilda, whose self-centered antics and willfulness suggest she’s doomed to become like her mother one day. Both are possessed by foolish fantasies, Beatrice of opening a tea room she clearly has no capacity to operate as a successful business, Matilda in being among her school’s social elite. And all the while Ruth tends to her class rabbit and her small garden of marigolds, irradiated for a school project to prove that even organisms exposed to toxic environments can flower and bloom into something beautiful.

Newman vanishes into the background of “Marigolds,” utilizing an invisible method of directing that forces all attention towards the painfully realized performances of its actresses and the exquisite screenplay adapted by Alvin Sargent—it’s so stylistically mute it occasionally almost slips into cerebral artifice. It’s a lax, loose film, prone to extended tangents and monologues, quiet scenes measuring the fallout of arguments and Pyrrhic confrontations. There’s an extended subplot involving an elderly, senile boarder abandoned to their family’s care by her workaholic daughter. Newman could have easily cut it from the film, reducing the run-time to a more comfortable ninety minutes. But her presence becomes a crucial tool for sussing out the emotions of the three women and their capacities for cruelty and love—Beatrice alternatively teases and dotes on the old woman, Matilda is physically disgusted by her presence, and Ruth regards her with the wary awe of a rabbit spying a stranger in the warren. All this communicates more about these characters than any hackneyed shout-fest could, and it’s characteristic of the film’s measured, roundabout approach to drama.

But the film’s true revelation is Beatrice. Though the most outlandish figure in the film, she’s far from some Southern Gothic grotesque; we see scenes of genuine kindness and tenderness with her daughters. There’s a brilliant sequence late in the film following a disastrous and abortive one-night stand where Beatrice mentally breaks down. She drives into the countryside, parks her car by the side of the road, and wanders onto a nearby hill. When a police officer comes by and tries to talk her back down, she surprises him by not only remembering that they were once classmates, but by reciting the names of their shared classes and teachers. In this moment we realize the paramount tragedy of her life: she’s not a monster, she’s not an unbalanced tyrant. She was a social butterfly who married too young, matured too late, and got trapped in a society with no use for impoverished single mothers. All of this is communicated brilliantly by Woodward who received a well-earned Best Actress award at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival for her performance.

Arthur Hiller’s The Hospital (1972) similarly orbits a self-destructive parent who alternatively helps and terrorizes those around them, but whereas Marigolds regards Beatrice through the lens of tragedy, Hiller views the irascible Dr. Bock (George C. Scott) as a man too sick, too damn tired to realize he’s in a comedy. Recently divorced from his long-time wife, estranged from his good-for-nothing grown children, and beaten down by the daily drudgery of operating within a broken medical system, Dr. Bock has lost the will to live. He spends his few precious hours between shifts pissed on vodka in his darkened office, teetering on the edge of a suicidal breakdown. He’s lost all interest in the very work he once took such pride in. And in a final indignity, he’s tormented by an incurable case of impotence. But he can’t seem to kill himself just yet. An odd string of deaths have been plaguing the hospital, his hospital—within the span of a single day two doctors and a nurse mysteriously die after being mistaken for patients and treated for conditions they didn’t have. One doctor with diabetes was given a fatal IV injection by a careless orderly, another was “forgotten to death” following a heart attack by being abandoned in an overcrowded ER waiting room, and the nurse was switched with an elderly patient getting a hysterectomy and promptly croaked when given the incorrect amount of anesthesia. What’s more, the entrancing (and very leggy) daughter of one of his patients, a Miss Barbara Drummond (Diana Rigg), seems morbidly fascinated with his self-destruction and refuses to let him kill himself—at least not until she figures him out, seduces him, and/or convinces him to allow her to remove her sick father Edmund (Barnard Hughes), a missionary plagued by religious visions, from their hospital so he can be moved to his mission in South America.

Though directed by Hiller, The Hospital should be accredited first and foremost to its screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. Receiving top billing in the opening credits, Chayefsky served quadruple duty as the film’s screenwriter, producer, narrator, and casting agent. The result was one of the most caustically brilliant American dramas of the early 70s, a feat that would earn Chayefsky the second of his three solo Oscars for Best Screenwriter, a record still unmatched to this day. Predicting his equally prescient screenplay for Sidney Lumett’s Network (1976), the film regards the decay of America’s New Deal optimism in the face of urban decay, bureaucratic overload, and a public at once inured and outraged by unfettered capitalism gone wild. His screenplay is equal parts howling fury—“We’ve established the most enormous medical entity ever conceived… and people are sicker than ever. We cure nothing! We heal nothing!”—and howling hilarity—“I mean, where do you train your nurses, Mrs. Christie? Dachau?!” Chayefsky proves equally comfortable with lengthy dialogue scenes of obtuse medical jargon and impassioned soliloquies on the evils of the human condition. One of the best scenes in the film sees Dr. Bock and Barbara sitting in his office and alternatively talking at, not with, each other, sharing their histories and miseries in turn as the endless night trickles by.

If “Marigolds” couldn’t have survived without the polestar of Woodward’s performance, neither could The Hospital without Scott’s. Here he gives perhaps the finest cinematic depiction ever recorded of exhaustion. Not tiredness, but true bone-deep, sweaty-browed, zombified exhaustion; the kind of exhaustion where you can’t even fall asleep for fear of never waking up. Scott staggers from scene to scene, now in a growling rage, now in an anhedonic daze, managing brief moments of lucid calm and charm among students and colleagues before stumbling back into the bottom of a bottle. As he stalks the halls and sick wards searching for a mad killer who might not even exist, we realize that his transformation from human being to societal cog is complete. He is the hospital as the hospital is himself—broken, overlooked, overworked, neglected.

Both The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds and The Hospital are tour de forces of writing and acting as well as indicators for the imminent future of American cinema. In a couple more years Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) would officially murder the Hollywood Happy Ending, apotheosizing a movement filled with numbed characters navigating the world of a curdled postwar Pax Americana. In this way the pessimism of “Marigolds” and the prediction of social upheaval in The Hospital seem as farsighted as Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) with its martyred cross-country bikers. They envisioned an America to come, an America we still grapple with today.

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About Nathanael Hood 124 Articles
Nathanael Hood is a 25 year old film critic currently based out of South Florida with a passion for all things cinematic. He has a Master's Degree in Film Studies from New York University - Tisch and is currently a writer for the Turkish Journal of American Studies, TopTenz.net, and TheYoungFolks.com.

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