Dr. T and the Women
Robert Altman was one of my favorite directors. He labored in the television chain gangs for many years, and then broke out with one of my Top 25 films: M*A*S*H. After that he skyrocketed with one popular and/or critical hit after another … for about a decade. After that, his record became a bit spotty. We all remember Nashville and McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Player, but do you recall O.C. & Stiggs, or Beyond Therapy or HealtH? I didn’t think so. Nobody does. Not to mention Popeye, which a lot of people recall only painfully. So he made some masterpieces and he made some flops, and he made a handful that really weren’t very good. Well, so did Hitchcock. The thing is, he took chances, he experimented. When you to that, you’re going to fail here and there. So you dust yourself off and you try again, which he always did. And went out on the sweet little film A Prairie Home Companion.
I’d put this one in the mid-range of his accomplishments. It’s not a major film, but it doesn’t suck. Richard Gere is Dr. T, gynecologist to the rich and pampered in Dallas. He’s a good doctor, dispensing good advice and good care to those of the rich twits who will take it. His office is in constant turmoil, because these rich twits all feel entitled, you see. Getting ten rich women in a small space, each of them wearing $10,000 with at least $1,000 on their feet, many of whom feel it’s just fine to drop in unannounced with no appointment … it’s my idea of hell.
The title is very apt, as he is surrounded by women, and there really are only four speaking parts for men: himself, and three buddies who join him for hunting and golf (sometimes combining the two, as in a very funny scene where they shoot skeet with golf balls). Everyone else is female: his patients, his staff, his office manager Shelley Long, who is in love with him, his wife Farrah Fawcett (who for some reason is regressing into a child-like state), his two daughters Kate Hudson and Tara Reid, his sister the alcoholic Laura Dern, and her three daughters, and best of all, Helen Hunt as the golf pro at the country club, the woman he begins an affair with. As is often the case with Altman, the plot is secondary to the feeling of the thing. Altman loved scenes with many, many people in them. There’s a long one at the very beginning where everyone was improvising as the camera tracks in and around them. He also loves overlapping dialogue, which frustrates a lot of people. But you aren’t meant to understand every word, just as you wouldn’t at a crowded party. Humans don’t interact in discrete scenes, and I don’t see why every scene in a movie should be diagrammable. What plot there is involves his wife’s deterioration, his affair with Helen Hunt, and the discovery, just before she is about to get married, that his daughter is a lesbian who had an affair with Liv Tyler when she was in college. Will she go through with the wedding? Or will she run off with her girlfriend?
The ending frustrated a lot of people, and I can’t say I loved it. The wedding is about to start but is being threatened by a big thunderstorm. In a literal deus ex machine, a tornado sweeps T’s chaotic life up and sets him and his battered Cadillac convertible down in a tiny village in Mexico, where he has to deliver a baby. Clearly, we are not expected to believe this any more than Dorothy in Oz, but just what he was trying to say eluded me. Still, I had a lot of fun up to that point.
The movie is remarkable for two things. One, Farrah loses her mind in a huge mall, takes off all her clothes, and dances in a fountain. She did her own nude scene, and rejected Altman’s offer to cheat it with only him and the cameraman as witnesses. She said what the hell, I’m not ashamed, and frolicked with dozens of extras around. And second, in the village at the end, an actual childbirth was filmed. Don’t think that had ever been done in a major motion picture. It was quite effective.