Whose Life Is It Anyway? Review

Ken Harrison (Richard Dreyfuss) is a successful sculptor in his early thirties. His latest work has just been unveiled and he is happy with his dancer girlfriend Pat (Janet Eilber). Then he has car accident which causes his spleen and kidneys to be removed…and his fourth cervical vertebra broken. Permanently paralysed from the neck down and hospitalised, Ken makes a profound decision. He wants to be allowed to die.

Brian Clark originally wrote Whose Life Is It Anyway? as a play for Granada Television in the UK. It was broadcast in 1972, with Ian McShane playing Ken. I didn’t see it then, and as far as I know it has not been repeated. It does still exist in the archive, so maybe it’ll turn up as an extra on a Network DVD one day, as it would make interesting viewing. The play then had a successful run on stage, given impetus by euthanasia being a hot topic in the 1970s. The film version relocates the story to Boston, Massachusetts: Clark and Reginald Rose wrote the screenplay.

British-born John Badham will probably go down in history as the director of one big hit in particular, Saturday Night Fever. WarGames and Short Circuit didn’t do too badly either. There was a time up to the early 1980s that he showed signs of being an interesting director, working squarely within the commercial system but not without craft and intelligence. However, something happened: maybe he didn’t want to fight the system. You can see it in Short Circuit, a lazy crowdpleaser which loses more points for an Indian racial stereotype (played by a white actor) that was embarrassingly out of place then and is probably all but unwatchable now. Stakeout and The Hard Way had their moments, but from about 1990 onwards Badham’s films have drifted into mediocrity. He has worked exclusively for television for the last decade.

Whose Life Is It Anyway? seems like an anomaly in Badham’s filmography: an intelligent, very well acted drama with more than its share of comedy to leaven the potentially depressing subject matter. Given that, and a central character who is necessarily immobile for most of the running time, Badham and the scriptwriters do make an effort to make the film more appealing to audiences, notably the sharp wit and gallows humour that comes out of Ken’s mouth. Richard Dreyfuss gives a remarkable performance, conveying a considerable energy despite not being able to move anything other than his head for most of the film. In different circumstances you’d say he has a lust for life, and in a way he has – but also a wish to be able to bring such a life to an end when he sees fit. The film is pretty much a one-man show: John Cassavetes may be second-billed and have his name above the title: there’s nothing wrong with his performance, but his function is to act as a foil to Dreyfuss and also as his antagonist. He’s acting from the best of motives: as a doctor he’s vocation-bound to preserve life, not to end it. Christine Lahti is impressive in an early role, and it’s nice to see Kaki Hunter, best known for the three Porky’s films, to be given a chance to act. There are solid contributions from Thomas Carter, Bob Balaban and others, but it’s really Dreyfuss’s film. His performance is all the more remarkable in that Dreyfuss was suffering from flu throughout the shoot and also was in the throes of major substance-abuse problems. (Dreyfuss claims not to remember even making the film.)

Clark and Rose do load the dice in the film’s argument somewhat. Ken Harrison’s high intelligence and incisive wit are no doubt necessary as sugar-coating some rather bitter medicine. However, Ken cannot be seen as an “ordinary” person. He’s also given a great talent which he cannot now practice, even with adaptations. This is a trap that a more recent treatment of a similar theme, The Sea Inside doesn’t fall into (though a recent Oscar-winner, whose name I won’t reveal to avoid spoilers, does). If Ken Harrison had been older, less articulate, less gifted, would it be any easier or harder to let him die?

Interestingly, Badham and his DP’s Mario Tosi’s original intention was to make Whose Life Is It Anyway? in black and white. According to the commentary, this – along with shooting it in Scope, a format often used by Badham – was partly done to make the film not look like a televisual hospital drama. However, MGM resisted the idea of black and white: they only let Badham proceed if the film was shot on a colour negative. This he and Tosi did, though they did deliberately restrict the film’s colour palette to mostly whites, greys and browns, with only skin tones standing out in many scenes. Simultaneous previews were held of a black and white print and a colour print, after which MGM insisted the film be released in colour. Much as I’m a fan of black and white and I’d wish more people would use it, I’m not certain it would be right for this film. Fifteen or so years earlier, there would have been no question that it would be appropriate, as black and white then was “reality”. But time moved on, as did advances in the sensitivity of colour film stocks, not to mention the introduction of colour television, and “reality” was no longer monochrome. (Nowadays it connotes deliberate artificiality and/or period or nostalgia.) The only sequence in black and white is Ken’s memory/dream of his ballerina girlfriend, which comes over as a miscalculation, a tilt too far into artiness.

Whose Life Is It Anyway? did not live up to its stage success on the big screen, and it’s tended to be undervalued over the years. Watch it now for one of Dreyfuss’s very best performances, and a hint as to what director Badham might have become. Watch it also as an intelligent, involving, often funny and moving story.

Whose Life Is It Anyway? is released as one of four titles in Warner’s “Director’s Showcase: Take Two”, along with Prince of the City, Steelyard Blues and Straight Time. The DVD is NTSC format and encoded for Regions 1, 2, 3 and 4.

The DVD transfer is the ratio of 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced, and is fine. For reasons given above, the film has generally muted colour and is slightly grainy in a late 70s sort of way. Shadow detail is fine and blacks are solid. (Presumably Badham didn’t try to include his favoured black-and-white version as an extra.) The soundtrack is the original mono, mixed through the centre channel only, and is an entirely professional piece of work, with the all-important dialogue clearly audible. The subwoofer picked up some redirected bass from the band-concert scene. Subtitles are available in English for the feature only, and they are not of the hard-of-hearing variety.

The commentary is the work of John Badham and composer Arthur B. Rubinstein. The two are recorded together. Having worked together several times, they are clearly comfortable in each other’s presence. Badham says the most, with Rubinstein talking more about his own contribution in a deliberately non-technical way, including the story of his one and only entry in the genre of ska-punk, with added xylophone. An interesting and worthwhile commentary.

The only other extra is the trailer, which is anamorphic in the ratio of 1.78:1 and runs 2:19. This does a fair job of selling the film without shying away from its subject matter and avoiding the kind of quote-heavy effort trailers studios often use for their prestige productions.

Whose Life Is It Anyway? will no doubt never set cash tills alight, but it’s a film that will affect those who seek it out. It’s certainly worth re-evaluating, and Warner’s DVD – which should not be too expensive – gives us a good opportunity to do that.

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