Dr. T and the Women
review by Gregory Avery, 13 October 2000

Watching the bustling activity during the opening scenes of Dr. T and the Women, I was reminded of that particular, fierce energy which women are capable of generating. One friend of mine routinely works until 12:30 at night, goes home, catches a few hours of sleep, and then is up at the crack of dawn so she can see her kids off to school for the day. Gentlemen, look to your laurels.

In the case of the film's main character, Dr. Sully Travers (Richard Gere), his waiting room is always packed with many, many women from the more moneyed environs of Dallas. Why? The director Robert Altman said that the initial concept for this film, written by Anne Rapp (who scripted Altman's previous film, Cookie's Fortune), was how a woman would respond if she was readied for an exam and found that the doctor who would be attending her was Richard Gere. But the women also flock to Sully because he's very good at what he does, and he's very good with his female patients -- he doesn't scare them, he's attentive, considerate, and concerned. As he says in one scene, he respects women with an almost sacred devotion, and so the women in the film respond in kind.

The story's rum joke, though, is that the one woman Sully cares about the most, his wife Kate (Farrah Fawcett), is the one he can't help. Sully is told by Kate's doctor (Lee Grant, in a performance that channels Viveca Lindfors) that she is slipping further and further away from him as a result of  "Hestig's condition", a rare psychological disorder, named after one of the mythological Greek goddesses (an actual one, according to Edith Hamilton), in which women who have been pampered and are living in too much comfort -- women who have been "loved too much" -- regress into a childlike state. Fawcett gives Kate a genuinely unnerving quality, as if she has succumbed, rather than voluntarily retreated into, innocence, as if she had become its victim, and when she tells Sully not to kiss her -- "We don't do that anymore. It's bad." -- the sting that Sully feels, that his greatest asset is what is estranging, even destroying, his wife -- is palpable.

Sully starts befriending Bree (Helen Hunt), the new assistant golf pro at the country club he frequents, and who exudes a confidence and easy attitude that he finds invigorating amidst the swirl of people and events around him. In a remarkable scene, the two of them have dinner at Bree's place, after which she takes their wine glasses and, with a movement and a look, indicates that she's ready to take things on to the next level with him. Gere's character hesitates -- he doesn't want to be callous and betray Kate even in his mind, but he also needs something that's gone from his day-to-day existence. The sequence unfolds with a minimum of dialogue, but it's a beaut, and both Gere and Hunt perform it beautifully.

In fact, I asked my great and good friend TH, who has been a Helen Hunt fan from way back (not just the TV show Mad About You, but also WAY back, to when she appeared in Project X in 1987) what he would say if somebody asked him to describe why Hunt appealed to him in particular. "Well, for me...it's like she's the girl-next-door with sex," TH replied. "Plain enough, but pretty. But, to me, she's always had the 'girl-next-door' quality that's sexy, combined with intelligence. And it all comes together." In fact, he concluded, what gives her the most appeal is the fact that she comes across as "extremely intelligent". And on this description I cannot improve, regarding either Hunt's performance in Dr. T, or her increasingly extraordinary ability as an actress.

Dr. T ultimately winds up being mid-level Altman, meaning it still has more interesting stuff in it than a lot of other films currently showing. In Cookie's Fortune, many of the female characters were depicted broadly and sometimes cartoonishly, and, in this film, a lot of the female characters are barely differentiated. Some of this is on-purpose, so that the film can show Sully navigating his way through ladies who are all slender, well-dressed, and blond, just like the fashion magazines, but the characterizations are still slim. Laura Dern appears as Sully's sister, who moves into his house and manages three young kids with one hand while holding a flute of Cristal with the other. There are Sully's two almost-grown daughters, one (Kate Hudson) shuttling between tryouts for the school cheerleading squad and preparations for her huge upcoming wedding ceremony; the other (Tara Reid), who works as a tour guide at Dallas' Conspiracy Museum (is this an actual place?), trying to grab ahold of her dad long enough to tell him that her sister's impending betrothal is a big mistake. I would have liked to have seen a bit more of Liv Tyler's character (Tyler really bloomed as an actress in Altman's previous film), but she doesn't show up until the film is halfway over. And Shelley Long, who starts out fine as Sully's indomitable-in-the-midst-of-total-chaos main receptionist, falls back on almost oafish TV comedy antics during her main scene with Gere.

Altman and his longtime, ace editor Geraldine Peroni keep the multiple plotlines flowing smoothly and in sync, yet taking the time to add nuanced soupçons along the way: a house servant's reaction when a child hands her a pastry to eat during a wedding shower; the way one of Sully's nurses runs her hand across her tummy after he has performed an examination; a character's reaction to being caught in the sudden crossfire of lawn sprinklers; and the way veteran actress Dorothy Deavers deftly trips a particularly offensive woman in Sully's waiting room. And Lyle Lovett's original music for the film is wonderful.

The film also includes one moment between Sully and Bree which shows that he hasn't entirely rid himself of all old-fashioned ideas about women and men's relationship to them. It's something that's a little dark in a film that is otherwise generally light in mood, but it's realistic. It's also the type of thing that would cause Altman's detractors, who have said some pretty mean things about him over the years, to reiterate that he is a filmmaker who is a misanthrope, towards his characters and his audience. Rather, I feel, Altman is a realist, and he has never been at his worse except for when he has made films that are phony. He has found -- and continues to work in -- a way of making films the way he thinks he should make them, ones that offer no easy resolutions and don't jeopardize their own integrity or his. A commodity in short supply. So be it.

Directed by:
Robert Altman

Richard Gere
Helen Hunt
Farrah Fawcett
Shelley Long
Laura Dern
Kate Hudson
Tara Reid
Robert Hays
Lee Grant
Liv Tyler

Written by:
Anne Rapp







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