I’m getting an early start on the Robert Altman blog-a-thon, with this review. If you’re interested, I wrote about Altman’s The Company when this blog was a wee lad. There’s more to come this weekend.
Dr. T and the Women (2000). Directed by Robert Altman. Written by Anne Rapp. Starring Richard Gere, Kate Hudson, Liv Tyler, Laura Dern, Farrah Fawcett, Shelley Long, and Helen Hunt.
I feel lucky—Robert Altman has dedicated himself to making a movie about my hometown. (He’s also made Cookie’s Fortune about Mississippi, the state in which I currently live, so I’m twice blessed.) Dallas is a hard city to portray in art or to understand intellectually. I lived there for the first 18 years of my life, and even I have trouble with it. I tried, though, in July 2005:
Because of this fixation with the new and glistening, Dallas doesn’t treasure its past. The city’s a century old, but you’d never know it from looking. There aren’t many historical landmark signs in downtown—sure, there’s the one by Dealey Plaza, but Dallasites would just as soon forget that it’s there. There’s not a well of great, or at least terrifically sordid, Dallas tales to draw from. At least, I didn’t learn them in school, or on the streets, or anywhere else.
Dallas is all shiny glass surfaces and sunglare reflections. It’s a city you slide off of when you try to grab it.
In Dr. T and the Women, Altman gives it a go, too.
Of course, some people would rather he hadn’t. My friend L(2) professed to despite the movie’s meanness towards the city in general and women in particular, but that was five years ago and perhaps her opinion has changed. Admittedly, Dr. T is no masterpiece—the denouement veers the movie suddenly (and ineffectively) from a realistic tone to something out of bad opera; a few of the characters aren’t fleshed out. The ending is a horrid deus ex machina—a genuine Texas tornado—that sweeps our hero to Mexico, though the Lyle Lovett song that plays as the credits roll is phenomenal.
But the movie pins down a slippery city, and it’s honest about how men and women treat each other in ways that are rare in American comedies. Dr. T is, as are lots of Altman movies, women-focused. Sulley Travis (Richard Gere), better known as Dr. T, is the best gynecologist in Dallas, and all of Dallas’s socialite women know it. He’s the consummate charmer, but he doesn’t sleep with his patients. Rather, he treats them as if he would—and how!—if he weren’t such a gentleman. He mollycoddles and spoils these women—and they are all women—because he realizes that this bedside manner and comfort is as important (and maybe more so) to his job as the actual poking and prodding.
Now, this smooth chivalry isn’t quite the same thing as respect, and in fact it’s more than a little patronizing. Altman knows this from the get-go; Dr. T finds out as he goes along. Dr. T spends most of his days around a chattering, hilarious, gossipy complicated bunch of women, but he doesn’t really get what makes them tick. His secretary (the hilarious Shelley Long) has a smoldering crush on him, but he doesn’t see it. His soon-to-be-married daughter (Kate Hudson) is more smitten with her maid of honor (Liv Tyler) than her fiancé, but he doesn’t see it. His wife (Farrah Fawcett) is losing her mind, but he pretends not to see it.
Part of this is simple human frailty. We’re all emotionally isolated from each other, ultimately. But part of this is Dr. T’s smugness, which looks like charm to the characters and the movie’s audience. And who better to play a smug charmer than Richard Gere? (Well, George Clooney would have done just as well.) Gere seems to have made a Y2K resolution to become a convincing actor and a charming, sexy onscreen presence, instead of a block of wood with a self-satisfied grin. He’s delightful here. Dr. T’s cluelessness is hilarious, because he thinks he’s got a better handle on women, literally and figuratively, than most of the movie’s men. He’s right—and that’s funny, too. (Sad funny, but funny all the same.)
But he’s also delightful because he’s an effective straight man to all the madness flying around him. His casual, delicate grace grounds Dr. T—and, boy, does it need it. Filled with overlapping conversations, wildly gesticulating women, multiple plot strands, a snappy country-pop soundtrack, and fast camera movement, the movie is so animated that it’s sometimes a blur. It’s screwball raunch—there’s a scene in which a woman smokes and chatters comically on a cellphone even as her gynecologist is inspecting her vagina.
Dr. T is the lens through which we see the Dallas elite and all its foibles. He’s like a doctor (well, he is a doctor) peering at this social world as if it’s a petri dish. He doesn’t quite realize that he’s living in, and not above, the primordial soup until Altman decides to add a single drop to the mix.
Sometimes, one drop creates a tremendous rippling. In Dr. T, the drop is Bree Davis (Helen Hunt), a touring women’s golf pro. She’s undoubtedly as wealthy as all the women (and Dr. T, for that matter) in the movie, but she shares none of their vanities and pettiness. She prides herself on being athletic and, unlike everyone else in the movie, she doesn’t particularly like shopping. She speaks and moves bluntly instead of indirectly, and Hunt’s got a rare beauty that’s not at all classical—almost every part of her jigs when you think it should jag—and that looks like no one else’s in the movie. She’s unconformist in a city in which people are always comparing themselves to others. Dallas seems to always get a new cultural institution just after New York. The city’s Museum of Art was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright after he became famous; it has a concert hall designed by I.M. Pei, but well after his prime; it has commissioned a Santiago Calatrava bridge, now that they’ve become trite. It’s always looking over their shoulders, culturally speaking.
Bree does not do so. Most importantly, she likes and is attracted to Dr. T, but she’s not bowled over by him. Of course, Dr. T is knocked out by her.
As he pursues her, his life—and the film’s pace—becomes increasingly unhinged. Watching Gere execute a slow burn is exhilarating, in part because I’ve never seen him do so before. Bree seduces Dr. T effortlessly, and he’s not used to that at all. When he tries to place her on a pedestal, as he does with all women, she calmly steps off of it, and tells him why in no uncertain terms. His genteel machismo—symbolic of the nature of Dallas men, or at least a certain class of it—can’t handle it, and this inability is a source of lots of laughs. The city is nothing if not well-bred, ever mindful of appearances and all those shiny surfaces. Dr. T is a true representative of it, and has a hard time handling a woman who just doesn’t care about the glitter, and sees through it to find a roiling, sticky mess.
It’s the mess underneath the gloss that I think riles up so many critics of the movie. Women (and men) are not idealized, but shown to be overly materialistic, obsessed with appearances and money. It’s fairer to say that Altman presents a panoply of incredible women, none of whom are perfect but also none of whom are ever less than fascinating. There are so many different types of womanhood on display that you can’t even consider the idea that there is an “ideal woman,” or that she’d even be interesting if she did exist. Part of that’s Altman, but part of that is the film’s screenwriter Anne Rapp (a Dallasite, incidentally), who gives the dialogue and the obsessions a zest that only a native could give.
Another part comes from Altman’s cinematic method. He allows his actors to free-associate and improvise onscreen. If Dr. T’s women are complicated and messy, and they truly are, then some of the blame (or praise) should rest with the actresses themselves.
In any case, Altman finds sexiness and weirdness in the oddest sources—the voluptuous but babyfaced Hudson; the oddly proportioned but utterly enchanting Hunt; the dizzy, alcoholic Laura Dern. The only woman who comes across as rather pitiful is Farrah Fawcett, the ex-Charlie’s Angel who was, in the 1970s and early 1980s, the American sex symbol. The “perfect” woman is rather unattractive in Dr. T, just as the perfect city is both unattainable and ultimately undesirable.
As Altman tells us again and again, messiness is part, and maybe the best part, of life. That’s why the movie’s ending, which wraps up things too nicely, is so disappointing. For two hours, he’s given us hilarity and truth, and then tries to tidy it up and make it shiny. For the most part, though, the movie isn’t shiny at all, but it does sparkle.