Coma (1978)

PG | 113 mins | Mystery | 8 February 1978

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HISTORY

       A 1 Dec 1976 HR brief announced that Michael Crichton would write and direct Coma, based on the upcoming novel by Robin Cook, to be published in Apr 1977 by Little, Brown & Co. A column in the 29 Aug 1977 edition of Time revealed that Genevieve Bujold was hesitant about the subject matter, but was “cajoled” into accepting the title role by Crichton, whom the article described as a friend. According to the press material in the AMPAS library file, an appealing aspect for Bujold was playing a character that had been traditionally portrayed by male actors, and during her first read of the screenplay, she thought of Paul Newman as someone who would also fit the part. Similarly, as reported in a 22 Jan 1978 Modern People article, Crichton mentioned the importance of telling stories about female accomplishments, which he thought were lacking in current cinema. The press material stated that Tom Selleck earned the role as Sean Murphy based on his billboard appearances as the Salem cigarette man.
       Even though Crichton had graduated from Harvard Medical School, he did not want to prioritize the graphic details of medicine. In a 4 Mar 1978 Cue article, he said that the danger of making Coma too believable was scaring people away from hospitals and surgeons. Unlike Jaws (1975, see entry) and the presence of sharks, the medical profession was a common occurrence so Crichton felt a responsibility to engage the audience in a suspenseful story, rather than frighten or shock them. ... More Less

       A 1 Dec 1976 HR brief announced that Michael Crichton would write and direct Coma, based on the upcoming novel by Robin Cook, to be published in Apr 1977 by Little, Brown & Co. A column in the 29 Aug 1977 edition of Time revealed that Genevieve Bujold was hesitant about the subject matter, but was “cajoled” into accepting the title role by Crichton, whom the article described as a friend. According to the press material in the AMPAS library file, an appealing aspect for Bujold was playing a character that had been traditionally portrayed by male actors, and during her first read of the screenplay, she thought of Paul Newman as someone who would also fit the part. Similarly, as reported in a 22 Jan 1978 Modern People article, Crichton mentioned the importance of telling stories about female accomplishments, which he thought were lacking in current cinema. The press material stated that Tom Selleck earned the role as Sean Murphy based on his billboard appearances as the Salem cigarette man.
       Even though Crichton had graduated from Harvard Medical School, he did not want to prioritize the graphic details of medicine. In a 4 Mar 1978 Cue article, he said that the danger of making Coma too believable was scaring people away from hospitals and surgeons. Unlike Jaws (1975, see entry) and the presence of sharks, the medical profession was a common occurrence so Crichton felt a responsibility to engage the audience in a suspenseful story, rather than frighten or shock them. Producer Martin Erlichman also referenced Jaws in the press material, saying that the anxiety of hospitals had the potential to be stronger than the anxiety of the ocean, which is why he was confident about the film’s box-office potential.
       Validating Erlichman’s opinion, news items indicated the film’s convincing effect on the public. A 12 Apr 1978 Var brief claimed that the number “8” was removed from an operating room at the Women’s Hospital in Tampa, Florida after more than one patient complained. In the 21 Jun 1978 Var, a transplant surgeon in Columbus, Ohio thought Coma was a possible reason why organ donations in cities had declined 50% to 60% in 1978, compared to the previous year. On the other hand, The Illinois Eye Bank and the Kidney Foundation of Illinois received numerous offers to purchase body parts from people who had been inspired by the organ transplant profits of the fictional Jefferson Institute. Edgar T. Britton, speaking on behalf of the Eye Bank in a 16 Mar 1978 LAT article, claimed that there had been approximately 24 inquiries about selling eyes, sometimes for $5,000 or $10,000.
       The production start date was 22 June 1977 in Boston, Massachusetts, according to a studio advertisement in the 23 May 1977 HR and to an item in the 25 Jul 1977 Box. Press material specified that the eight days of location shooting in Massachusetts included a Boston subway station, Crane’s Beach, Boston City Hospital, Rockport, Marblehead and the Xerox building in Lexington. Afterwards, the production moved to Los Angeles, California and used the University of Southern California Medical School, Los Angeles City Hall, an air-conditioning plant in Century City and four soundstages at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in Culver City, where production designer Albert Brenner created the set for the Jefferson Institute, aided by the special effects knowledge of Joe Day. While the production was working at MGM, a 3 Aug 1977 HR brief stated that Victor Kemper replaced cinematographer Gerald Hirschfield, who was credited with photographing the Jefferson Institute sequences. Hirschfield was also responsible for the scenes shot in Boston.
       As several news sources pointed out, real actors portrayed the hanging, comatose bodies. An article in the 22 Jan 1978 Modern People contained additional details that hydraulic jacks positioned the bodies and when the jacks were removed, the actors had to hold a rigid posture, supported only by a sling at the hips and tiny ones at the arms and legs. Because of the physical challenge, the actors were suspended in six-minute intervals during the three days it took to complete the scenes. Additionally, two versions were filmed, one with the actors nude and the other with the actors covered, as required for the televised film. Crichton was careful to keep the set of the Jefferson Institute restricted, so that the striking visuals of “sleeping puppets” would not be leaked before reaching an audience.
       The article from Modern People listed the budget as $4.5 million. The press material included an announcement that the film grossed an impressive $10.7 million in the first 28 days of release. By the end of June 1978, the box office earnings were $30 million, as reported in a 6 Jul 1978 LAT article about MGM’s recent record profits.
       A 4 Dec 1980 HR article described a $10 million plagiarism lawsuit by writer Ted Berkic against MGM and the publishers of the novel, claiming that the film borrowed from his screen treatment, Reincarnation, Inc., which was registered with the Writers Guild of America in 1968. This civil case in Los Angeles Superior Court was eventually dismissed. In Mar 1983, Berkic filed a similar copyright lawsuit in federal court against MGM and additionally named as defendants, Crichton, Cook and talent agent Marvin Moss. This $75 million suit was reported in briefs from the 7 Mar 1983 DV and the 5 Mar 1983 LAHExam. By the end of 1983, Berkic’s copyright claim had been dismissed and judgment had been granted for the defendants, according to court documents from the United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit.
       A television remake of Coma, produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, was scheduled to air on the A&E network in Sep 2012.
      The end credits include the following acknowledgements: “Location sequences filmed with the cooperation of the Massachusetts Film Bureau; Baseball footage provided courtesy of the Boston Red Sox; Our thanks to: Birtcher Corporation; Raytheon Data Systems; Puritan-Bennett Corporation; Chemetron Corporation; Stryker Corporation; Wang Laboratories, Inc.; American Sterilizer Co.”
More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
25 Jul 1977.
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Cue
4 Mar 1978.
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Daily Variety
25 Apr 1977.
---
Daily Variety
7 Mar 1983.
---
Hollywood Reporter
1 Dec 1976.
---
Hollywood Reporter
25 Apr 1977.
---
Hollywood Reporter
23 May 1977.
---
Hollywood Reporter
3 Aug 1977.
---
Hollywood Reporter
25 Jan 1978
p. 3, 24.
Hollywood Reporter
27 Jan 1978.
---
Hollywood Reporter
30 Jan 1978.
---
Hollywood Reporter
1 Feb 1978.
---
Hollywood Reporter
17 Feb 1978.
---
Hollywood Reporter
15 Mar 1978.
---
Hollywood Reporter
4 Dec 1980.
---
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
7 Nov 1980.
---
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
5 Mar 1983.
---
Los Angeles Times
8 Feb 1978
p. 1.
Los Angeles Times
16 Mar 1978
Section IV, p. 30.
Los Angeles Times
6 Jul 1978
p. 12, 15.
Los Angeles Times
6 Nov 2008.
---
Modern People
22 Jan 1978
p. 8.
New York Times
29 Jan 1978.
---
New York Times
2 Feb 1978
p. 15.
People
26 May 1980.
---
Time
29 Aug 1977.
---
Variety
25 Jan 1978
p. 24.
Variety
22 Feb 1978.
---
Variety
1 Mar 1978.
---
Variety
12 Apr 1978.
---
Variety
21 Jun 1978.
---
Variety
20 Jun 1979.
---
Variety
19 Oct 1983.
---
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Presents
A Martin Erlichman Production
A Michael Crichton Film
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Unit prod mgr
Asst dir
Asst dir
2d asst dir
PRODUCER
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Jefferson Institute seq photog
Still photog
ART DIRECTOR
Prod des
FILM EDITORS
Asst ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Prop master
Asst prop master
COSTUMES
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff
Video coord
Process coord
Titles and opticals
MAKEUP
Miss Bujold's hairstyle des
Hairdresser
PRODUCTION MISC
Casting
Casting
Scr supv
Loc mgr
Unit pub
Tech adv
Asst to the prod
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novel Coma by Robin Cook (Boston, 1977).
AUTHOR
DETAILS
Release Date:
8 February 1978
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 1 February 1978
Los Angeles opening: 8 February 1978
Production Date:
began 22 June 1977
Copyright Claimant:
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.
Copyright Date:
27 July 1978
Copyright Number:
PA9993
Physical Properties:
Color
Filmed in Metrocolor®
Lenses
Panaflex® camera and lenses by Panavision®
Duration(in mins):
113
MPAA Rating:
PG
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
25074
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

At Boston Memorial Hospital, resident surgeons and lovers, Dr. Susan Wheeler and Dr. Mark Bellows have a busy day making rounds and performing operations. While trying to unwind after work, they have an argument, and Susan leaves to spend the night at her own place. The next day, she takes a break from the hospital to attend her regular dance class with best friend, Nancy Greenly, who informs Susan that she will have a D and C procedure at the hospital tomorrow. Susan tells Nancy not to worry, as it is routine. Prior to Nancy’s surgery, the anesthesiologist, Dr. Cowans, instructs medical students on safely putting the patient to sleep. Once Nancy is unconscious, he checks to make sure her pupils react to light, indicating her brain is functioning. During the procedure there are signs that something is unusual, but Dr. Cowans relaxes as Nancy’s blood pressure returns to normal. When he tries to wake her though, she is unresponsive, and her pupils are fixed. From intensive care, Mark pages Susan about Nancy’s tragic, anesthetic reaction that has left her brain-dead. Although distressed, Susan immediately begins a clinical assessment, concluding that there was nothing unusual during the surgery to lead to an irreversible coma. Despite Mark’s suggestion that she rest, Susan is determined to investigate further and in the process obtains a useful list of all the surgical patients in the last year who have been discharged from Boston Memorial with a coma diagnosis. Unlike Susan, Mark isn’t surprised that ten patients on the list were young and admitted for minor procedures, especially considering coma ... +


At Boston Memorial Hospital, resident surgeons and lovers, Dr. Susan Wheeler and Dr. Mark Bellows have a busy day making rounds and performing operations. While trying to unwind after work, they have an argument, and Susan leaves to spend the night at her own place. The next day, she takes a break from the hospital to attend her regular dance class with best friend, Nancy Greenly, who informs Susan that she will have a D and C procedure at the hospital tomorrow. Susan tells Nancy not to worry, as it is routine. Prior to Nancy’s surgery, the anesthesiologist, Dr. Cowans, instructs medical students on safely putting the patient to sleep. Once Nancy is unconscious, he checks to make sure her pupils react to light, indicating her brain is functioning. During the procedure there are signs that something is unusual, but Dr. Cowans relaxes as Nancy’s blood pressure returns to normal. When he tries to wake her though, she is unresponsive, and her pupils are fixed. From intensive care, Mark pages Susan about Nancy’s tragic, anesthetic reaction that has left her brain-dead. Although distressed, Susan immediately begins a clinical assessment, concluding that there was nothing unusual during the surgery to lead to an irreversible coma. Despite Mark’s suggestion that she rest, Susan is determined to investigate further and in the process obtains a useful list of all the surgical patients in the last year who have been discharged from Boston Memorial with a coma diagnosis. Unlike Susan, Mark isn’t surprised that ten patients on the list were young and admitted for minor procedures, especially considering coma statistics and the size of the hospital. During rounds, Susan and her fellow residents are at the bedside of Sean Murphy, a young, healthy architect who is scheduled for knee surgery, when Dr. Harris, Chief of Surgery, summons Susan to his office. Harris recognizes that she is under stress since her friend’s coma, but reprimands her for obtaining unauthorized access to patient data, suggesting her position as a resident is at risk. Harris keeps the coma list and demands that Susan see the staff psychologist, Dr. Morelind. Susan appears more at ease after talking with Morelind, but her paranoia returns upon learning that Sean has slipped into a coma during surgery. Resuming her inquiries, she visits Chief of Anesthesiology, Dr. George, who is offended by Susan’s implication that he and his staff might have missed something as part of their own internal investigation and declines to loan her the charts of the unexplained coma patients. In the cafeteria, Mark insists that she should have never confronted Dr. George, a respected doctor, as well as a very influential figure on account of his wife’s millions. Meanwhile, after finding out that Nancy has died, Susan observes the pathologist, Jim, as he autopsies Nancy’s brain and discovers no abnormalities. Jim informs her that coma patients who don’t die at the hospital are transferred to the Jefferson Institute, a chronic-care facility in the suburbs. When Susan asks a hypothetical question about how to deliberately put someone in a coma, Jim suggests the simplest and least detectable method would be carbon monoxide, but then reminds Susan that in each of the healthy coma cases, there has been a different procedure, anesthesiologist and surgical team, making her case for murder, unimaginable. In his office, Dr. Harris explains to Susan that he wants to protect her from being fired, but criticism from powerful doctors like Dr. George is putting him in a difficult position. Susan becomes emotional, and Harris suggests that she take the weekend off while he worries about the politics. Outside the hospital, Susan’s car will not start and she notices a man watching her. That evening, Susan confides in Mark about her theory that carbon monoxide could be pumped into Operating Room 8, the location of the two recent, unsolved cases. Knowing that her determination will not rest, Mark suggests they immediately inspect O.R. 8, and assists in satisfying Susan that there is nothing out of the ordinary about it. That weekend, she is able to relax during a romantic getaway with Mark along the New England coast. On the way home, they pass a sign for the Jefferson Institute, and Susan convinces Mark to let her go inside the modern fortress. An unflappable nurse, Mrs. Emerson, appears to be the only staff member on duty and reminds Susan that the tour for physicians is on Tuesday, no exceptions. The next day in the physician’s lounge, Kelly, a maintenance man who had overheard Susan’s conversation with Dr. George, discreetly tells her to meet him later, explaining that he knows “how they do it.” That evening, while Susan is on her way to the maintenance room, a hit man, Vince, dumps a bucket of water on Kelly before throwing him against a power grid and makes his death appear accidental. Susan arrives to witness the electricity paralyze and kill Kelly. After speaking with the police, she continues to search maintenance and follows a gas line, which eventually leads to a trigger device over the ceiling of O.R. 8, thereby verifying the method for controlling the flow of carbon monoxide. After convincing a security guard to unlock the anesthesia lab, she goes through the charts of the healthy coma patients, noting that each one had surgery in O.R. 8 and was later transferred to the Jefferson Institute. Vince, pretending to be the guard, knocks on the lab door. Dubious, Susan eludes him, only to have him pursue her to another floor. In a refrigerated room of hanging cadavers, Susan finally manages to escape by launching the bodies so that they tumble on top of Vince. At Mark’s apartment, Susan is breathless trying to recount what just happened. Mark appears sympathetic, but Susan becomes suspicious when she notices him quietly making a phone call, so she quickly leaves and checks into a hotel room. The next morning, Susan attends the Tuesday tour at the Jefferson Institute led by Mrs. Emerson. After explaining the purpose of the facility, Mrs. Emerson guides the group to the main care unit, where wires suspend comatose patients from the ceiling and computers regulate their bodily functions. Within this eerie technology of life support, Mrs. Emerson presents coma care as a business that is both efficient and cost-effective. When the tour ends, Susan sneaks around unnoticed, and discovers lab technicians weighing organs from Sean Murphy’s corpse. While hiding in a bathroom, she overhears staff discussing orders for body parts and how “good old George has the connections.” At her desk, Mrs. Emerson negotiates phone bids for a kidney and the timeline for shipping it to Zurich. When security finally notices Susan on the monitors, a pursuit begins, but she manages to hide within the ceiling infrastructure to avoid detection. She is eventually able to get away by riding on the roof of an ambulance that is departing the Institute with a shipment of human organs. Back at the hospital, Susan confides in Dr. Harris, who appears grateful for her determination and pours her a Scotch. While relaxing in a chair and looking up at Dr Harris’ diplomas, Susan reads his first name, George, and realizes that he is the George who has connections and not Dr. George, the anesthesiologist. Confirming Susan’s suspicion, Dr. Harris no longer pretends to be innocent of the wrongdoing and begins to preach about the responsibility of doctors to make the tough moral choices. As he talks, Susan becomes more disorientated and eventually falls to the floor with abdominal pain caused by a drug that Dr. Harris put in her drink. He arranges for her to have an emergency appendectomy. Prior to the operation, Susan struggles to tell Mark that her appendix is fine and that he has to stop the procedure. Mark reassures her that she has nothing to worry about since the Chief of Surgery himself will perform the operation. When Dr. Harris insists on using O.R. 8 instead of O.R. 7, Mark becomes suspicious. Susan manages to press Mark’s pager, providing him with an excuse to leave and retrace her discovery of the gas line in maintenance. While the surgery begins, Mark hurries to follow the trail. As Susan’s blood pressure drops in the O.R., Mark finds the trigger box above the ceiling and smashes it, just in time. Dr. Harris is surprised when Susan coughs and comes out of the anesthesia. Outside the O.R., the police are waiting, and Mark holds Susan’s hand as she is wheeled down the hall. Stunned, Dr. Harris remains alone in O.R. 8. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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