Word should surely be around by now that "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" is not just a show about a quardiplegic who wants to die, but a lively and entertaining show about a quardiplegic who wants to die.
It is not, in other words, a drearily uplifting downer, but a philosopical challenge, stated with force and wit. stage productions, in London, New York or here at the Folger or the Kennedy Center, might want to see the movie, which adds an extra emotional depth to the drama. It was not the immobility of the hero that limited this in the play, but the confinement of a one-room set. The sweep of the motion picture camera is a poignant reminder of the world from which the hero is excluded.
Brian Clark has enriched his already fascinating play, in adapting it for the screen with Reginald Rose; and the production, directed by John Badham, is superb. Wrenching as the story now is, it is nevertheless still meticulous about not letting the audience judge whether the hero's life is worth living, but asking instead whether he has the right to make that judgment himself.
This is a play in which opposing forces are of equally intense morality -- the medical profession representing those who value life above any other consideration and the patient and others making the case for weighing its quality.
The style of the film is soap-operatic, but not in the sense of being melodramatic. It achieves what soap opera aims at, in juxtaposing crisp hospital routine with the messy humanity it serves, and the heroics of dedicated individuals with their ordinariness.
Richard Dreyfuss, as the sculptor whose career has been severed by an automobile accident, heads a cast that excels in the naturalistic style of which soap opera, often able to lure fine talent through its offer of steady employment, offers a high standard. One constantly feels the lashing of his feelings against a brittle exterior. The dilemma is almost unbearably stated in such fleeting moments as the patient's intermittently successful attempt to look thrilled when two good-natured hospital underlings give him an exciting outing that is physically beyond his endurance.
John Cassavetes and Alba Oms, as a doctor and nurse whose credo the patient violates, Kaki Hunter and Thomas Carter, as a student nurse and orderly whose feelings he has engaged; and Kathryn Grody, George Wyner and Mel Stewart, as closed-minded professionals, are excellent, as are Christine Lahti, Bob Balaban and Kenneth McMillan in the larger and more complex roles of a doctor, lawyer and judge reluctantly won to the patient's point of view.
The triumph is that no matter how many tears this film wrings, it leaves the mind unblurred to struggle with its problem.
WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY -- At the Avalon 1.