Street Date 8/22/23;
Stars Geneviève Bujold, Michael Douglas, Richard Widmark, Rip Torn, Elizabeth Ashley, Lois Chiles, Hari Rhodes, Joanna Kerns, Tom Selleck, Ed Harris, Phillip Baker Hall, Benny Rubin.
Looking back on Coma, one memory remains undimmed. Chicago newspaperman cum TV personality, Irv Kupcinet was that toddlin’ town’s King of Malapropos. (He made Norm Crosby sound like James Earl Jones.) Not surprisingly, the always alliterative punctilious punctuator had no problem passing Geneviève Bujold’s prenomen through his pursed portal, but damn if he didn’t add the extra “m” to inadvertently (and uproariously) change the name of her latest release to, “Michael Crichton’s Comma.”
With a nod to Francisco Di Leo’s Slaughter Hotel (1971), Crichton and Company welcomed us to Boston Memorial Hospital, “Where the patients check in, but they never check out.” Of the 240 patients who died in the previous two years, 10 were young and admitted for minor surgical procedures. Dr. Wheeler’s best friend Nancy (Lois Chiles) sparks a butt before breaking the news that she’s pregnant. Without her husband’s knowledge, Nancy schedules a routine D&C that leaves her in an irreversible coma. The abortion is filmed straightforwardly and without sensationalism. No questions asked, no judgment passed. But even by 1978’s standards, the authors leaned a bit too hard on the feminist button. Wheeler rebuffs Bellows’ attempt to comfort her with, “You think because I’m a woman, I’m going to be upset.” Well, yes. Gender doesn’t define emotion and the doctor’s professional cool in light of her BFF’s sudden plunge into a state of permanent unconsciousness could have used some massaging.
Writer, director and Harvard Medical School graduate Michael Crichton (Westworld, Physical Evidence) was doing post-doctoral work in San Diego when he met Navy Medical Corps officer/thriller novelist, Robin Cook. To the eye, they seemed a likely pair to translate to screen America’s fear of hospitals. Together they conspired on placing a fresh paradigmatic spin on familiarity breeding contempt. The dialogue is over-rehearsed, with a pronounced clinical ring that strains so hard for factualness that it crumbles under the weight of its own expeditious leanings towards over-authenticity. The script calls for two medical students to observe the lead anesthesiologist so that complex procedures can be broken down and explained to both characters and audience alike. It’s convenient plotting like this that for decades determined the Invaluableness of TV medical dramas.
The novel’s feminist leanings were also tamped down for the screen. (The studio had to be talked out of casting Paul Newman in the lead.) How are we informed that Dr. Susan Wheeler (Bujold), surgery resident at the fictitious Boston Memorial Hospital, is an honest-to-goodness member of the women’s movement? She refuses to fetch a beer for boyfriend and fellow physician Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas). Instead of the little woman who endures her husband’s nightly litany of work-related gripes, roles reverse and Bellows is the little man surviving a relationship that finds him on the receiving end of a succession of barked orders. Bellows is up for the chief resident position, but everything hinges on how well he can keep his gal under control. Surrounded by a coven of sawbones, will Crichton crib from Polanski and have Douglas play John Cassavetes to Bujold’s Rosemary? It’s sad how quickly the strong woman dissolves into a damsel in distress. The second Bellows proves that it was all in her head, a Hallmark greeting card montage signals a return romance.
Richard Widmark kicked off his 30th year in the business playing Dr. George Harris, chief of surgery. Consumed by a wingback chair, Wheeler’s breakdown in Harris’ office is a beautifully staged highpoint. Alas, he acts a wee bit too comforting to be believed, and while the part is small and packs little surprise, he gets the curtain shot. Rip Torn and Elizabeth Ashley pop up as the head harvesters. Ed Harris and Phillip Baker Hall can be spotted in early bits, but it’s a nascent appearance by Tom Selleck that provides the film with its one big unintentional laugh. After Selleck checks out, check out his rag doll replica on the embalming table that changes position from shot to shot. Crichton could have learned a thing or two about dummies and continuity from The Three Stooges. And the mind boggles at the gag potential inherent in the boys running a human brain through a manual deli slicer.
The minimalist-style building that doubled the intimidatory Jefferson Institute, a government sponsored facility for comatose patients, was at the time home to the Xerox Corporation. The film’s money shot — the bodies of 30 or so naked cadavers suspended by piano wire — was filmed at the MGM Studios in Culver City. Victor Kemper (Mikey and Nicky, Slap Shot) took screen credit with Gerald Hirschfeld (Young Frankenstein, My Favorite Year) receiving honorable mention for meeting the lighting requirements needed to illuminate the film’s grand set piece. The question remains, why did visitors have to wear sunglasses when observing where the patients are slung?
As was customary of the day, a TV safe version was filmed so as not to hamstring small screen sales. The film received a ‘PG’ rating for brief nudity. Bujold is seen showering through fogged-up glass doors while the corpses at the Jefferson Institute — cleaned, hung, and ready to be harvested for their organs — dangle au natural. The suspended stiffs totalled 15 actors and an equal number of dummies. Remnants of the sanitized hanging room can be found in the film’s trailer and TV spots, all of which are housed in the supplementary features along with a newly-recorded commentary track with critic and author Lee Gambin and novelist Aaron Dries.