"Women are incapable of being bad luck by themselves. It's men who make them that way. Women, by nature, are saints. They're sacred, and should be treated that way."
– Dr. Sullivan Travis
Robert Altman's movies often begin in chaos. The camera moves, characters pass by, snatches of conversation are heard, and we seldom learn anywhere near as much as we want to, but almost always enough to make us curious. The beginning of "Dr. T and the Women" is masterful, as the camera moves in and out and around and through the waiting room and examining rooms of Dr. Sullivan Travis, a very upscale gynecologist in Dallas, Texas.
Robert Altman's movies often begin in chaos, and usually they coalesce, though not always. "Dr. T and the Women" is precarious until the very end. I think that ultimately it does work, though there is a sudden element of magical realism at the end which is neither appropriate nor necessary.
However, I can certainly understand people who think this movie doesn't work. What I don't agree with, though, is the argument that it's sexist. In talking about "King Lear," Orson Welles said that someone like Lear, a "man's man" who lives with his knights (his Queen is long dead), totally clueless about women, was clearly, in Shakespeare's eyes, a real loser.
Altman has taken this idea one step further, showing us a man who is surrounded by women on all sides (his family is all female, his staff is all female, and, of course, so are his patients) but is still as totally wrong about them as Lear. When Dr. T is out hunting with his buddies, the only time we see him with men, he comes off as an authority on the subject of women, sagely giving them the wisdom I've quoted above. It reminded me of "The Philadelphia Story," with all those disagreements about whether Tracy Lord was like a goddess, or more like a queen.
Another director might have thrown a wink at the audience, to make sure we realize that he knows what horseshit this all is, but (as I've said before) Altman always prefers to assume that his audience is paying attention and thinking for themselves.
Admittedly, most of Dr. T's patients (all idle upper-class women) are pampered and foolish and bitchy and vain, but the point is that Dr. T encourages and enables all of this. He books repeated appointments for women who have nothing wrong with them (thereby clogging his calendar and delaying the appointments of the few patients with actual ailments). He and his staff flatter all of his patients constantly. He indulges his patients in every way, most hilariously in the scene where he allows a woman to smoke while he examines her.
The ultimate result of all this is shown with Dr. T.'s wife, Kate, who basically reverts to being a child because for years he's treated her like one. He wants to give her everything, shield her from things that are unpleasant or troubling, flatter and adore her, never thinking that this might not be what she wants or needs at all. She is hospitalized after she takes off all her clothes and cavorts in a mall fountain, and her doctor explains to Dr. T that she is suffering from Hestia Complex.
Hestia Complex (which does not really exist, as far as I can tell) is something that supposedly happens to women who are loved too much, but Dr. T doesn't understand how he could have caused this, or why he's not being allowed to see his wife.
The other element in Dr. T's crisis is that he meets Bree Davis, the new golf pro at his club. A former member of the pro tour, she's pretty and intelligent and funny, and they hit it off right away.
And this is where Dr. T's cluelessness becomes impossible to ignore. Bree seduces him on their first date, and he immediately begins operating under the assumption that they're in love (he doesn't seem particularly worried about the ethics of the situation, either). As time goes on, he starts to make more assumptions about their relationship, completely ignoring all the realities of the situation:
1) He's a married man, devoted to his wife,
2) his wife is institutionalized,
3) Bree is a professional athlete, just taking a break from the pro tour, and
4) her seduction of him is as brisk and efficient as any you're likely to see, in or out of the movies.
In addition, this expert on women is oblivious to the fact that his nurse is desperately in love with him, he's oblivious (as far as we can tell) to that fact that his sister-in-law (who's living with him, along with her three daughters) is a lush, and he's oblivious to the fact that his daughter, who's about to be married, is gay and in love with her maid of honor.
All of these threads come together at the end of the picture, along with some unnecessarily apocalyptic weather, to put Dr. T face to face with two things. He realizes that women may not actually want the smothering devotion he calls love (he offers it to Bree, describing his vision of their life together in detail, and she quite reasonably asks, "why would I want that?"). And he realizes, or remembers, that his original motivation to become a doctor may have been for some reason other than providing flattery and pampering to the wives of Dallas' elite.
I won't reveal the final scene, except to say that I think it works (once you get past the phony "magical realism" transitional device, which is every bit as silly as the frogs in "Magnolia"), and to report that there was applause in the theater where I saw the film.
I thought Richard Gere's performance was excellent, though I admit that I don't have much to compare it to, since this is the first film I've seen him in since "Days of Heaven." Altman uses Gere's movie star looks and demeanor just as he has in the past with Paul Newman. Outside of Gere and Helen Hunt, nobody in the cast has a whole lot to do. This is not a multi-character fugue like Nashville or "Short Cuts." All the characters are basically only there because of how they relate to Dr. T.
The best performance in the picture, besides Gere himself, is Shelley Long, who plays Dr. T's adoring nurse Carolyn. I usually don't care for Long all that much, but once again Altman has taken somebody we know mostly from television and figured out exactly what they could do best in a movie. She gets more laughs around the edges of many scenes than any of the other actors do when they're center stage.
Altman has used Lyle Lovett in minor roles in several films, but this time Lovett doesn't appear on screen but instead provides the soundtrack, and it's very good. The music (by Lovett and his Large Band) is light and mostly understated, subtly telling us how to take certain scenes. For example, it's really the music which makes sure we see Kate's dip in the fountain as sad rather than funny. Also, Lovett's songs "You've Been So Good Up To Now" and "She's Already Made Up Her Mind" run through Bree's seduction of Dr. T, commenting on the action without being at all redundant.
There are two things which keep this from being in the first rank of recent Altman films. One is the ending, which is flawed, as I said. The other is that its concerns are so narrow. It has one basic theme, one story to tell and one point to make, and this makes it pretty thin compared to Cookie's Fortune and, especially, Kansas City. But still, it's worth seeing.
Dr. T: Do I make you happy?
Bree: I'm a very happy person.
Dr. T and the Women
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Annie Rapp
Dr. Sullivan Travis : Richard Gere
Bree Davis : Helen Hunt
Kate Travis : Farrah Fawcett
Peggy : Laura Dern
Carolyn : Shelley Long
Connie : Tara Reid
Dee Dee : Kate Hudson
Marilyn : Liv Tyler
Harlan : Robert Hays
Bill : Matt Malloy
Eli : Andy Richter
Dr. Harper : Lee Grant