Dr. T and the Women
Screenplay : Anne Rapp
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Richard Gere (Dr. Sullivan Travis), Helen Hunt (Bree), Farrah Fawcett (Kate), Laura Dern (Peggy), Shelley Long (Carolyn), Tara Reid (Connie), Kate Hudson (Dee Dee), Liv Tyler (Marilyn), Robert Hays (Harlan), Matt Malloy (Bill), Andy Richter (Eli), Lee Grant (Dr. Harper), Janine Turner (Dorothy)
Over the last three years, director Robert Altman's films have been slowly winding their way through the South, from Savannah, Georgia (1998's The Gingerbread Man) to Holly Springs, Mississippi (1999's Cookie's Fortune). And now, in Dr. T and the Women, he has landed in Dallas, Texas. The South is the perfect place to situate Altman's films, as it offers him the kind of eccentric characters and environmental texture on which his filmmaking thrives.
The narrative of Dr. T and the Women is like a storm constantly threatening to explode, so there is little surprise that the film climaxes with a huge thunderstorm and tornado that functions like a kind of deus ex machina that, rather than making everything work out okay, simply whisks the beleaguered main character away from all his troubles and drops him in a situation in which he can remember what is truly important in life. In many ways, Dr. T is an experiment of controlled chaos, and screenwriter Anne Rapp (Cookie's Fortune) keeps multiple storylines juggling for the entire running time.
Like he did with the titular city of Nashville (1975), Altman turns Dallas into a character all its own. Dallas is seen as an isolated cosmopolitan city, one built primarily of glassy high rises, country clubs, and shopping malls. Altman gets the rich, white Dallas aesthetic down pat (large brick homes, housekeepers, cell phones, sport utility vehicles everywhere). Wealth and affluence dominates (the movie focuses exclusively on the lives of the wealthiest one percent), most notably in the well-dressed, expansively coiffured women in Dr. T's office. Yet, Altman also touches on some of the odder parts of the city, such as the Conspiracy Museum in the book depository building from which President Kennedy was supposedly assassinated (he even offers a brief shot of the X painted on the street where Kennedy was fatally shot).
The Dr. T of the title is Dr. Sullivan Travis (Richard Gere), a successful gynecologist who is constantly surrounded by women. First, there are the women in his office, both the nurses, headed by the assertive Carolyn (Shelley Long), and, of course, the patients, which run the whole gamut of age, shape, and size. The opening scene in the film is a classic Altman long take, with his Steadicam moving constantly about while following multiple conversations in the waiting room of Dr. T's office. The chaos is established immediately, and so is the threat of it going out of control.
At home, Dr. T is also surrounded by women. There are his two daughter, college-age Connie (Tara Reid) and Dee Dee (Kate Hudson), who is in her early 20s. Dee Dee is engaged to be married, but there may be some complications involving her maid of honor, Marilyn (Liv Tyler). Dr. T's soon-to-be-divorced sister-in-law, Peggy (Laura Dern), has recently moved into his house, along with her three small children who are, of course, all girls.
And then there is Dr. T's wife, Kate (Farrah Fawcett), who in an early scene has a breakdown in a shopping mall and is taken to jail for cavorting naked in a fountain. Kate is slowly pulling back into a childlike state, and her psychiatrist (Lee Grant) theorizes that it is a result of "the Hestia complex," a rare disorder that affects comfortable, affluent women precisely because they are comfortable and affluent. In essence, Kate is losing her mind because Dr. T has loved her too much, which is a hard irony in a comedy that is often painfully anti-romantic.
There is romance in the film between Dr. T and a golf pro named Bree (Helen Hunt). Dr. T is moved to be with her for a variety of reasons, most of all loneliness and the pain of losing his wife to a mental institution. Bree is easy-going and strong, and she takes care of Dr. T, which is exactly what he needs because he has spent his entire life taking care of other women.
Yet, Altman and Rapp have a number of tricks up their sleeve as the plot unfolds, many of which are dark, ironic turns that flip the sometimes jovial tone upside down. Dr. T and the Women is a comedy, but it is a sometimes caustic comedy that shows its cynicism about conventional romance and happy endings. There is one scene in which Dr. T goes to visit Kate in the hospital, and it at first appears that everything is getting better as she excitedly hugs him and starts introducing him to all the other patients. But, then she refers to him as her brother, and the look on Gere's face tells us immediately that there is no hope left in this relationship. It is a hard, painful moment, but one of utter truthfulness.
Granted, the film does get fleetingly whimsical at the end, with a wedding that goes completely awry for every conceivable reason. At this point, Altman seems to have completely let go, to allow all the chaos that has been rapidly simmering for two hours to finally boil over. And, although he almost loses it, he still manages to pull the narrative together at the end with a complete improbable, but strangely compelling, conclusion. Dr. T and the Women is certainly not a typical story, but, then again, Altman has never been attracted to anything typical.
©2000 James Kendrick