Dr. T and the Women (October, 2000)

You need to have a quick eye — and quick ears — to watch a Robert Altman film. So many important and tiny elements are embedded into each scene like pixels on a Web page. I saw Dr. T and the Women yesterday – and there were indeed many quirky details to track.

The story centers around Dr. Sullivan (“Sully”) Travis (Richard Gere), an uber-popular Dallas-based OB-GYN (“The lucky kind [of doctor]” a character remarks) — surrounded by women: petulant fur-trimmed, Manolo Blahnik-stamping, demanding patients; a pathetically loony wife; a recently divorced, champagne-drinking alcoholic sister-in-law (brilliantly drawn by Laura Dern) and two sexually-confused daughters.

Dallas is the perfect setting in which to exhibit the most extreme caricatures of girly-girlish femininity: the big hair, lavish jewelry, fur and more fur, elaborate use of cosmetics. The women (gals?) are a pouting, flouncing, frowning, cuckolding bunch. They seem so in need of male attention that they gladly ease their pedicured heels into mink-lined stirrups for pap smears. (“Dr. T will use the small speculum if you ask him – he’s just soooo considerate,” coos one simpering patient to another.) They are all so spoiled and so hateful and distrustful of their fellow double XXers — an overly-powdered, feathered hat-wearing elderly woman trips emotionally-needy Dorothy (Janine Turner) with her cane at every turn. One patient insists on smoking during her examinations. Dr. T’s staff, reassuringly normal (except for nurse Shelley Long, who’s almost dementedly perky — I loved it when she reminded Dr. T that the “fillies are gettin’ restless out there,” followed by a horsey snort). They seem just as appalled by the behavior of the patients as they suffer insults from the bratty scions.

Poor Dr. T — he suffers shrill female cacophony every minute of his life, except in the company of his buddies for some skeet-shooting or duck hunting. But they’re no comfort: they are just as pussy-whipped and hen-pecked as he is. Sully has a lot of love to give, but none of the women he offers adoration, love and support to return the favor in kind. When he admits to his buddies in the country club locker room that he “wouldn’t have it any other way,” you can see a trace of wistfulness in his eyes. Dr. T is even told by a psychologist (Lee Grant) that his wife Kate (a brief, touching performance by Farrah Fawcett) has regressed to a childlike state because Sully has simply “loved her too much.”

And so with Kate institutionalized, Sully eventually meets a woman golf-pro/golf instructor named Brie (not like the cheese but short for Briede, as she points out) played with witty East-coast smarts by Helen Hunt. She’s completely unlike all the other women in Dr. T’s life, so he can’t help but fall for her. In the midst of this epiphany, Dr. T must still sort through the ongoing female chaos that surrounds him: his troubled daughter Connie (Tara Reid) informs him, conspiratorially, that his soon-to-be-a-bride older daughter Dee-Dee (Kate Hudson) is really a lesbian and still in love with her newly-chosen Maid of Honor Marilyn (Liv Tyler), with whom Dee-Dee had had a supposedly short-lived college affair. His perpetually chirpy, devoted nurse (Shelley Long) even attempts an embarrassing all-or-nothing confession of love for him one night. (And really, would she have given Dr. T the genuine love he so very much needs? Not likely. She’s simply far more needy than he is.)

Women, women, women — surrounding and suffocating, demanding his attention before all others. Sully Travis has dutifully given them what they crave — but no one’s even recognizing the good doctor’s own needs. After Dee-Dee’s outdoor wedding is spoiled by unpredictable Texas weather and a jolting, champagne-spewing revelation, Dr. T heads for what he hopes is his emotional salvation: Brie the Golf Lady. Soaking wet from the rain and jubilant in his newly-realized clarity, he proposes that the two of them spend the rest of their lives together. Sully, in a joyous outpouring, tells her that she won’t have to work or give another golf lesson ever again, that he’ll take care of her… Unwittingly, he’s fallen back into the old trap of Protector, Apologist and Supplicant. But Brie saves him — she rebuffs him gently by asking, “But why would I want that? I like what I do.” She is actually what he wants, what he needs — but that is precisely why he can’t have her…on his unconsciously atavistic terms. Shaken, he realizes that he is trapped in a world of his own making by simply allowing the women in his life to have the emotional overrun of his psyche.

After a dizzying, frightful tumble within a tornado (seriously) — Dr. T arrives at a satisfying punch line ending. A lot of details and a lot of fun — if only more films could be this complex and this simple at the same time.

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