Best Cancer Movie Ever

~ Wit, directed by Mike Nichols, starring Emma Thompson, HBO 2001

I was attending an oncology nursing convention the first time I saw this film shortly after its release.  My  best memory of it was that it was the most searingly honest portrayal of a person with cancer that I has ever witnessed outside of hospital.  It was also the most powerfully honest portrayal of a nurse that I had seen in any media.  My recent second viewing only confirmed those impressions.

Wit is based on a play by Margaret Edson who at one time in her life worked as a unit clerk on an oncology ward.  This teleplay was written by Mike Nichols and Emma Thompson, both Academy Award winners.  Ms. Thompson inhabits the role of Vivian Bearing, a British professor of English, specializing in the poetry of John DonneBearing is a brilliant scholar, aloof, and demanding as much of her students as she does of herself.  She is both feared and revered on campus.  Then she gets diagnosed with Stage IV advanced ovarian cancer and is enrolled in a very difficult eight month course of an experimental chemotherapy regimen. She has never married, has never had children, and has accumulated more rivals than friends in her academic career.

Nearly the whole action of the film takes place in hospital.  In transposing the piece from theater to film, the director retains the device of the character speaking directly to the audience in extended monologues.  Though not a properly cinematic device, it works perhaps even better here than on the stage because of the camera’s ability to frame Thompson’s face in close-ups that convincingly capture her deteriorating appearance and her growing desperation.

“Wit” can be defined as a form of intellectual humor.  The monologues demand careful listening, part of their power stemming from erudite puns and other language tricks and paradoxes.  This makes repeated viewings fresh and engaging. Wit is also the basis of style in metaphysical poetry such as Donne’s, a contemporary of Shakespeare.  This “wit’ along with Donne’s obsession with the intersections of love, death, and religion become central to Bearing’s metamorphosis.  Over the course of treatment her health declines.  The tumor shrinks but metastasizes.  She comes to realize that she has devalued love and affection in favor of reason and intellect.

Her doctors are more academic researchers  than dedicated clinicians.  They are drawn to the science rather than the art of healing.  There are certainly oncologists with more empathy and better bedside manner than seen here.  But the portraits are focused rather than exaggerated.  Their determined, exacting approach to science mirrors Professor Bearing’s own approach to literature.  Of all the hospital staff, it is her nurse, Susie Monahan, who most keenly recognizes and respects the humanity of this dying woman’s situation.  Actress Audra McDonald (who would be later cast as a physician in TV’s Gray’s Anatomy) manages to play Susie as an authentic human being without falling to sentimentality or stereotype.  The scene in which she sits on the patient’s bed in the middle of the night, sharing a popsicle, struck me as something I would have done as a nurse.

This is possibly Emma Thompson’s best screen performance.  She is totally convincing as a cancer patient, whether she is enduring intractible nausea and vomiting or hoarsely whispering poetry through a great veil of pain.  Having spent two decades working in hospital, I judge the entire production to be very realistic and true in both form and spirit. Medical procedures, staff interactions, power differentials in the hospital hierarchy, nurses working to advocate for patients are presented as background rather than highlighted as the drama proceedsThe “Grand Rounds” scene would be funny if it weren’t so sad“That was very educational” Bearing says to the camera, “I am learning to suffer.”  The contrast between the necessarily indelicate realism of the resusitation (Code Blue) scene with the ethereal beauty of the ‘runaway rabbit’ scene that precedes it is powerful.  That scene of Bearing’s friend and mentor reading the classic childrens book will bring tears and remain in memory.

Wit” remains one of the very best examples of this genre, perhaps the best “cancer” movie to date. It is brilliantly informative at both an intellectual and emotional level.  I would recommend it to anyone, but especially to anyone close to someone dealing with cancer.  For persons with cancer, watching this film can be an enlightening though painful journey of self-exploration.   ****

Available through local libraries, Netflix, or Blockbuster.  Or buy it through this site.  It’s a keeper.

Purchase from Amazon: Wit


About Dennis Pyritz

Dennis W. Pyritz, RN, BA, BSN, has been a cancer nurse since 1987 and a cancer and bone marrow transplant survivor since 2004. In December 2001 he was diagnosed with t-cell prolymphocytic leukemia (T-PLL), a rare aggressive form of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). Dennis was treated with the then new monoclonal antibody, alemtuzumab (Campath) as this disease has a median survival of 7.5 months. He achieved a 26 month remission but relapsed in February 2004. He was retreated with Campath and went into a second remission. In August 2004 he underwent an allogeneic peripheral blood stem cell transplant with his brother, Mark, as donor. Dennis has remained in remission since - a near miracle. Throughout his career as cancer nurse and patient, Dennis has had the opportunity to speal to both lay and professional groups. Dennis has spoken on cancer topics and survival issues across the country as well as in the United Kingdom, Norway, Austria, Portugal, Honduras, Panama, Guatemala, Trinidad, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Cyrpus, Israel, and India.


Best Cancer Movie Ever — 4 Comments

  1. This might be helpful to you or a loved one…Have you ever heard of cancer insurance. Some might think, “Oh, it’s just another insurance policy” -Yes, but this is different than the traditional insurance plans we all know of. Have you ever heard of a policy that pays people to have their wellness tests? I’ve had so many ladies, ages 50 on up, that have never gone in for a mammogram but once they got paid for this…it became a no brainier. Here’s the value part: once a year, a woman can get paid the cost of mammogram or max $200, same thing for a pap test. Plus there’s a huge list of one more wellness tests (colonscopy, blood tests, skin biopsy,chest x-ray, etc.). This is the reality of this, most woman get $200 for their mammogram, $75 for their pap (cost of this test is usually lower) and $100 for another equaling $375 dollars back a year in their pocket every year! The cost of the best policy we have for a 48 year old woman is $361.00!! And there’s financial support for other cancer treatments if ever diagnosed.

    I don’t want to sound like I’m selling you something because I am not. All I’m saying is when my husband was fighting cancer and we lost our house due to the expenses that where not covered under health insurance …well I just want to make sure I do my part and let people know that this is out there and its real. I’ve attached a brochure so you can see for yourself.

    I’m not saying it’ll be free for everyone and this is only the California plan but that’s already a lot of people that don’t know about this. Allstate does offer this coverage in all states but I’m only a California agent and can only talk in detail of this plan. But I encourage people to find out how it works in their area…who knows it might not be for them but at least I’ve done my part.

    I really appreciate your attention and thank you so much for letting me post this!

  2. This is truly a great movie. I lost my father to cancer, and Emma Thompson’s performance in Wit was as close to what I watched my father go through than I’ve ever seen. Especially when she’s near the end.

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