Robert Altman’s Dr. T & the Women is one perfectly decent man’s descent into a seven-layer dip of hell that makes less and less sense to him the deeper he goes. Like a dazed Philip Marlowe plopped into Dallas and taking up trade as an OBGYN, Richard Gere’s Dr. Sullivan Travis (or Sully to close friends, Dr. T to everyone else) stumbles through his very controlled life as it slowly begins to unravel with the quickness of a coming storm or rushing flood of water; Dr. T always saying, in so many words, “it’s ok with me” without ever really believing it.
“Never take a good woman for granted” is Dr. T’s motto as stated in a conversation about his shotgun. It’s also his implicit mantra in life. Happily married to the beautiful Kate (Farrah Fawcett) with two daughters; Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader Dee Dee (Kate Hudson), and militant, beret-clad Connie (Tara Reid) who leads tours at the JFK assassination site in Deeley Plaza, Dr. T is awash in love and affection. Added to the scrum is his sister-in-law, Peggy (Laura Dern), who is in the midst of a divorce and has taken up residence, three young daughters in tow, in Dr. T’s house; and Carolyn (Shelley Long), head nurse in Dr. T’s clinic who has an unrequited crush on him but who also keeps his professional universe tied together with steely determination and a fistful of Bayer.
But big trouble is brewing for Dr. T. Early in the film, Kate becomes completely and irrevocably detached from reality as she succumbs to what psychiatrist Lee Grant calls “the Hestia complex”, a condition in which the subject reverts into a childlike state after being overwhelmed with love and robbed of any real purpose in life. Having little choice but to commit her to a hospital when her breakdowns begin to have real-life and damaging consequences, Dr. T methodically begins to realize that the control and understanding he had was mostly illusory, courtesy the help and insight of Bree (Helen Hunt), a professional golfer turned golf pro at the country club frequented by Dr. T and his klatch of buddies (who intermix much like the fishermen in Short Cuts).
Dr. T is a curiously decent man who knows exactly what to say to each and every one of his patients. When a patient is beside herself due to the dregs of menopause, he has her strutting out the door in confidence with the entire waiting room cheering. A buddy’s wife comes to see him for regular visits and treats it if it were a clandestine affair. And, in fact, one of the best running gags in Dr. T & the Woman is his clinic being perpetually swamped with patients who will audibly get bent out of shape if their appointment gets cancelled. Though I have no experience on the subject, my guess is that literally no woman on the planet is even 1/10th as excited to be at their OBGYN appointment as they are in Dr. T & the Women.
But as well-intentioned and earnest Dr. T’s appreciation of women is, it mostly exists in small gestures and platitudes. He loves his wife dearly and is truly pained to stand by and watch as she fades further and further away but, in all his understanding and wisdom, can’t do anything about it. When Connie comes to him with the news that Dee Dee shouldn’t get married as she is in love with her maid-of-honor, Marilyn (Liv Tyler), Dr. T gets knocked for a loop of a rather remarkable degree.
In terms of a battle between the sexes, Helen Hunt is almost the most “traditionally” masculine character in the whole film. She, like Gere, is a victim of her profession and all that surrounds it. But as the new local golf pro, she dropped out of competitive play despite being a top 25 player because the game began to eat her identity. She is the only one in the whole film who has any clue how to live her own life and keep a proper balance. Where she has three brothers and no sisters, Dr. T’s universe is awash in females. And what she uncovers through their sweetly performed and beautifully played romance is that, for all of the exterior understanding he seems to exude, Dr. T doesn’t quite understand women at all.
Aside from the soft enjoyment derived by watching the upper crust of the Highland Park area of Dallas get the Altman treatment (which is as simultaneously as broad and on-the-nose as the targets in his other films), Dr. T & the Women is a film of many pleasures. Bursting with all sorts of detail, Dr. T’s waiting room is a hilarious, screwball comedy send up of the horror show that was Sandy Dennis’s doctor visit in That Cold Day in the Park. And those scenes hum due to the tremendous work of screenwriter Anne Rapp, whose work on Cookie’s Fortune recalls the strong back-to-back hands Altman played courtesy of Joan Tewkesbury, who penned Thieves Like Us and Nashville, both likewise set in the southern part of the lower 48 and produced within a year of each other. Laura Dern’s perpetually drunken aunt who is always there to give unconditional support to everyone regardless of who is asking and no matter if the advice she’s giving is contradictory is absolutely pitch perfect and Liv Tyler and Kate Hudson’s relationship is given emotional complexity and is handled beautifully. Much should also be said about Texas-native Lyle Lovett, who had become something of a margin player for Altman in the filmmaker’s latter years, contributing a truly stellar score with his Big Band that makes Dr. T & the Women yet another sneaky Altman enterprise with a soundtrack worth cherishing.
This movie is directed with a very delicate hand, acknowledging the difference between men and women while also celebrating it without a condescending attitude toward either, possessing some moments that are emotionally devastating without being overly manipulative. But it’s also a very funny film that’s full of true romantic spirit, evidenced by a passage in the middle of the film where Richard Gere and Helen Hunt go through a date in which they end up in bed which is handled with such a gentle grace, observing every single emotion of the ritual with a soft poeticism that could often be found at the center of most of Altman’s work.
If Robert Altman ever felt like he slighted the women in any of his pictures (despite his own best efforts at crafting complex characters that were unlike any other in American cinema), Dr. T & the Women feels like a mea culpa of an artist who, in Cookie’s Fortune, adopted the tone of someone who was perhaps a little melancholy in his final decade and observant of a new cultural sea change that was beginning to shift while understanding he was doing so while being in the middle of the sea. Dr. T & the Women a movie that feels like it’s listening as much as it’s talking and it comes replete with a coda as wonderfully optimistic as it is bizarre which seems to dreamily suggest that, in a revisit of the nightmarish conclusion of 3 Women upended with a little more hope for the next generation, humanity will eventually get over itself.
True enough. But probably only after a cataclysm.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain