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Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1981) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

ken ken’s emerson hospital

Principal social themes: end-of-life issues, suicide/depression, disabilities

MGM. R rating. Featuring: Richard Dreyfuss, John Cassavetes, Christine Lahti, Bob Balaban, Kenneth McMillan, Kaki Hunter, Thomas Carter, Alba Oms, Janet Eilber, Kathryn Grody, George Wyner, Mel Stewart, Charles Gross, Ward Costello, Jeffrey Combs. Written by Brian Clark and Reginald Rose based on a play by Brian Clark. Cinematography by Mario Tosi. Edited by Frank Morriss. Music by Arthur B. Rubinstein. Produced by Lawrence P. Bachman. Directed by John Badham. Color. 118 minutes.


Whose Life Is It Anyway? is a very literate picture built around a specific premise. A brilliant man is injured in an accident. Transformed into a helpless paraplegic, he decides that his life is in fact over, and his existence is being artificially prolonged without his permission. He undertakes a legal battle to assert control of his own destiny, even if his choice is for his life to end. Perhaps no other film focuses the spotlight on this subject to such an extent, while at the same time attempting to be both balanced and open-minded. While both an artistic and critical success, Whose Life Is It Anyway? was largely shunned by the general filmgoing public as a “downer.”


Ken Harrison (Richard Dreyfuss) is a brilliant young sculptor living in Boston, where his career is beginning to take off. His life changes drastically when he is involved in an automobile accident, which cripples him due to a spinal cord injury. He has become totally physically helpless, incapable of any movement below his neck, and also dependent on dialysis to survive. In the emergency ward, Ken becomes the patient of Dr. Michael Emerson (John Cassavetes), a passionate physician and teacher who regards death as a personal adversary who must be fought on a patient-by-patient basis.

In a way, Ken is an ideal patient, witty, clever, and continually joking with the nurses, orderlies, and other members of the hospital staff. After six months, Ken begins to become more irritable, as the extent of his disabilities begins to dawn on him. He finally asks Dr. Emerson if there might be any chance for an improvement in his condition. When he learns there is not, Ken assumes a new attitude. He asks Pat, his girlfriend, to cease her daily visits. He tells her that he is touched by her love and devotion, but that it is too painful for him to see her because it reminds him of who he was and what he has become. Tearfully, she agrees to his request. Ken refuses to try any rehabilitation services, such as learning to use a reading machine. He starts to resent the power and control Dr. Emerson has over him, particularly when the doctor injects him with sedatives against his wishes. He finally contacts his insurance lawyer, Carter Hill (Bob Balaban) and asks for his help in gaining his discharge from the hospital. When Dr. Emerson learns of Ken’s efforts, he contends that Ken is not fit to make any decisions because he is depressed due to his condition. Other staff members become involved in the emerging struggle. Dr. Claire Scott (Christine Lahti), a physician fond of Ken, visits Pat and asks for her help to break through Ken’s emotional wall, but instead Pat says she respects Ken’s decision. Claire takes one of Ken’s sculptures, a hand modeled after Adam from the Sistine Chapel painting by Michelangelo, and brings it to him in the hospital. John, an orderly, sneaks Ken in a wheelchair to the basement, so he can hear his steel drum band. Ken’s attorney asks for a writ of habeas corpus, for Ken to be discharged from the hospital. A hearing is held at the hospital, and the issue is thoroughly examined. The judge decides that Ken is of sound mind and grants his request. Dr. Emerson tells Ken that he will not have to leave the hospital if he chooses, and they will respect his wish to discontinue dialysis. No attempt would be made to revive him when he slips into a coma. Ken is returned to his bed. He looks at his sculpture of the hand and smiles as the end credits roll.


Whose Life Is It Anyway? is a quality production on all levels, both well acted and well photographed with a rather briskly moving screenplay. A strong effort is made to keep the tone of the proceedings light and optimistic, a rather difficult challenge given the storyline. The musical soundtrack, for example, is always upbeat. Ken, as portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss, is always a fun individual, with an endless stream of wisecracks and clever asides. This makes his arguments in favor of ending his life that much more powerful. At one point, he asks the judge, if he denies his request, to come back and see him in five years to see the results of his decision; it is one of the most potent lines in the film.

The reviews of the picture were largely positive, and a few critics even suggested that Ken would change his mind and not choose to die (simply because Dr. Emerson noted he was free to change his mind). This interpretation appears unlikely, since Ken’s decision seemed irrevocable and unwavering. This brings out what may be the most serious flaw in the screenplay: No one is permitted to engage with Ken about his rationale in a meaningful way. No one challenges Ken when he dismisses an idea. If someone suggests he could learn to write a book, Ken responds that if he wanted to be a writer, he would have been, but he chose to be a sculptor. The logic is rather weak here, and the film suffers because there is never a cogent plea for life. Nevertheless, the issues involving medical intervention, the right to die, and freedom of choice are all given strong and logical presentations without any maudlin sidetracks. To this extent, the film is rather unique in its viewpoint. It is also interesting to note that the film has an “R” rating apparently due to the subject matter alone, since the film shows no violence (outside the car accident), no sex (except for an innocent flashback), and no bad language. The ratings board simply concluded that you needed to be mature enough to deal with the film’s subject matter.

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