At the outset, it is probably most useful to place Dr T and the Women (Robert Altman, 2000) within a couple of frameworks. First, it represents Robert Altman’s latest excursion into the panoramic form, a fret-work of observations, plot-lines and characters that are situated within a particular social, cultural, political and/or geographical milieu. In Dr T this is the world of high society women reputedly found in Dallas, Texas, and who revolve around easy on the eye gynecologist, Richard Gere. Second, Dr T might be considered as part of the autumnal phase of Altman’s career, a mode or period of filmmaking that is noticeably more languid, outwardly frivolous and less hard-edged (and sometimes off the mark) than what has come before. Dr T certainly fits this description, but it is also surprisingly sprightly and breezily entertaining. In this respect, the film can be said to resemble the work of some of classical Hollywood’s great directors, such as Ford and Hawks, or that of a post-classical contemporary such as Clint Eastwood. In fact Eastwood’s example sets up some useful comparisons to Altman’s work, his background in television and the ways he uses specific actors and personas, in particular.
Altman’s last film, Cookie’s Fortune (1999), took much greater pleasure than Dr T in the small observations of character, situation and most particularly, fishing, than the openly histrionic and plainly hysterical (read misogynist if you like) ‘plot’ and characters (notably Glenn Close) that kept threatening to take the film over. Thus, what seems to be most at stake in Altman’s later films is the nature and purpose of plot and storytelling themselves, and the great failures amongst this period are those films such as The Gingerbread Man (1998) and Prêt-à-Porter (1994) which focus too insistently upon their flimsy, scatological and, at times, downright puerile plots (for example, the running motif of dog excrement and the battle between magazine editors and photographers in Prêt-à-Porter). Thus, the most satisfying and least cruel plot thread of Prêt-à-Porter involves two characters who virtually never get to leave their room (Julia Roberts and Tim Robbins), and thus don’t get messed-up by the clumsy mechanics of the broader plot.
Dr T is at its weakest once one starts to consider what it is about, and why we are seeing such a portrait of grossly caricatured and often giddy Southern femininity. And although this is actually a fairly enjoyable and controlled Altman confection, one starts to worry about the point, and hard to avoid gaudy misogyny, of what it is representing. Like George Cukor’s The Women (1939), the film provides a mildly hysterical and conservative view of sexual politics, over-crowding its frame with ghastly caricatures and over-determinedly contrasting female types; though it would be wrong to automatically deride Altman’s use of caricature and archetype, as this has been the stock-in-trade of Altman’s revisionism throughout his career. Unlike Cukor’s film, which excludes men altogether, Dr T places the serene, and some would say sublime, surface and body of Richard Gere at its centre, a likable Teflon new-age man who both stirs the women up into a frenzy and provides a calm eye to the storm which circles around him. Gere is made to suffer, with hardly a ripple appearing over his expression, for the seeming inappropriateness and datedness of his chivalrous nature (he is a model of decorum in his surgery, providing life lessons and just a little flattery to the needy women who surround him). The film takes some pleasure in showing us Gere examining the nether regions of his patients – in fact, the film opens with such a scene – but gets extremely coy in showing us any of the love-making scenes between Gere and Helen Hunt (a female golf-pro), or anything of Gere other than pretty much fully-dressed. The ways in which the film shows us the unflappable Gere is in stark contrast to how the film shows women. For example, Farrah Fawcett is basically introduced as a nymph nakedly parading through the fountain of a Dallas shopping mall, while Shelley Long, in an otherwise enjoyable and likable characterisation as the woman who corrals Dr T’s patients, is given an excruciating scene in which she partially disrobes in order to attempt to ‘seduce’ Gere after he reveals his wife has asked for a divorce. Thus, although the film seems to revolve around the emasculation of pretty boy Gere’s character, it is the women who suffer all of the embarrassment (though the film does get more interesting if one considers the conventional pleasures the film might or might not be offering to male and female audiences). In general, the film appears to be playing a game with its characters and audience, denying expectations of what such a film seems to be showing us – pity audiences who go to this film expecting an eyeful of Gere or an insightful view of contemporary Dallas life (though, if you have these expectations, you may well not be adequately prepared for the iconoclasm and bitterness of Altman’s cinema).
Much has been written about the improvisatory nature of Altman’s cinema and the opportunities his ‘canvases’ afford to actors to design and augment their own characters. At the same time, his films often exhibit both an incipient theatricality and explicit choreography. Thus, the waiting room of Dr T’s practice is often shown teeming with elaborately costumed and coiffured women, and although this does produce a sense of mayhem, everything seems to be carefully composed, and the audience’s attention carefully directed. It is this waiting room that provides the film’s harshest series of representations of callous and vain women, only vaguely sweetened by a few moments of bravado, pathos and genuine insight (such as the woman who announces she is going to celebrate her menopause, but only after being advised by Dr T).
Ultimately the weakest element of this film lies in its representation of time and place. Throughout his career, Altman has tackled particular cultural industries (Nashville, Hollywood, Kansas City jazz, haute couture), political institutions (the Democratic party), social milieu (weddings, casinos), historical figures (Nixon, Buffalo Bill, Van Gogh), generic formations (the western, musical, thriller, war movie) and geographic locations (Los Angeles, Nashville, Kansas City, Dallas), and the strength of the observation of each has determined the success of the film. Although Altman is rarely sympathetic enough to his characters and situations, the greatness of films like Nashville (1975), The Player (1992) and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) lies in their ability to present both a sympathetically encompassing view and a blistering caricature or parody of their exigencies (just think of the extraordinary range of types and qualities of musical performance in Nashville). Altman’s great films, such as The Long Goodbye (1973), also rely upon providing a portrait of an environment or genre at a particularly pertinent moment, or from a distanced but involved point of view. For example, McCabe and Mrs. Miller relies upon both an iconoclastic response to the western and an insider’s knowledge of the genre’s deeper operations. However, Altman’s last three films have retreated from the childish scorn of Prêt-à-Porter and the obtuse autobiography of Kansas City (1996), and moved into territories which although explicitly marked by Altman’s immediately recognisable free-flowing style, hide behind the authorial fudging of adaptation and collaboration. Thus, although Dr T may seem very much like an old man’s filmic fantasy or nightmare, it was actually written by a woman, Anne Rapp, and reportedly represents her actual experiences within the Dallas milieu the film haughtily sketches in. Similarly, the film relies upon the blandness and indistinctness of its Dallas locales, its only real reference to such historical events as the Kennedy assassination and historical personages as Belle Star, being found in the job of one of Dr T’s daughters (a tour guide on Dealey Plaza), a vague reference to Star, and the permanent influence of Jackie Kennedy on the clothing, style and manner of many of the women who troupe into Dr T’s surgery. More sustained connections might also be found to the television series that takes the city as its name (and which features a similarly monickered male central character).
Dr T and the Women has been relatively poorly received by Australian and particularly American critics. This is not surprising as the film is not suited to isolated criticisms, or reviews that are inattentive to subtler aspects of performance, staging and the director’s style (and that don’t wish to get past the surface and perhaps deeper misogyny). Altman’s customary combination of devices such as long shots, long takes and mobile framing, often produces self-conscious effects, giving the effect of either a camera controlled by Bruegel or involved in surreptitious surveillance. This is particularly true of the film’s opening which maps out the simple but labyrinthine space of the doctor’s practice, and also manages to sketch in the overlapping gaggle of grotesques who occupy his waiting-room. Much of Altman’s technique seems to be both genuinely cinematic and in debt to the style he learnt during his apprenticeship in television. This joining of traditions and media extends to the choice of actors and the style of performance in many of Altman’s films. Thus, Dr T draws upon the television backgrounds of actors such as Shelley Long, Helen Hunt and Farrah Fawcett, to lend the film a degree of improvisational and performative depth. In so doing, the film also draws upon actors who are somewhat defined by a particular television role they have played (and which it might be somewhat difficult to see them outside). This is despite each of these characters somewhat contrastive relationship with the actor’s more established ‘self’.
Other than its awful title – an uninspired amalgamation of Cukor’s film and Dr. Seuss’ The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953), perhaps – it is the ending of the film that is the most difficult element to forgive or justify. Altman uses his customary device of a catalysing event such as a concert, storm, earthquake, or in this case tornado, to whisk away his protagonist and dump him, magic-realist style, somewhere over the Mexican border. At this point Dr T and Gere’s implacable world has fallen apart – his daughter, Kate Hudson, has called-off her marriage to escape with her lesbian lover; his wife, Farrah Fawcett, has retreated into a fictional condition called the Hestia complex in which women withdraw back into early adolescence as a result of being loved too much and too well; his new lover (Hunt) has revealed that she is going away with one of his male friends, one of a group of male cronies who seemed to worship at Dr T’s knee; and his house is occupied by female relatives. All the while his gynecological practice seems to be getting busier, crazier and more demanding (as the more ‘aberrant’ his own relationships with women become, the more he is presented with a parade of women to be examined). Thus, the film relies upon a none-too-convincing plot device, a deux-ex-machina, to make us question the ‘reality’ status of what we are shown in this final sequence. Just like Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz (1939), Dr T is uncertain about the reality of both the world he has been inhabiting and that he has crash-landed into. Despite his occupation as a gynecologist, we have never seen Dr T perform an operation, deliver a baby or seemingly do much other than to soothe the vanity and hypochondria of his patients. He has also been surrounded by women throughout the film, except in those fleeting moments when he and his ‘buddies’ entertain their stereotypical masculinity and go out shooting (though they all seem to be husbands of his patients, so even in these moments he cannot properly leave his other world). On regathering his senses, Dr T is summoned into a rustic dwelling inside which a woman is giving birth. Stripped of the trappings of ‘society’ and his comfortable world (like Job) he is returned to the primal functions and roles that define his profession and gender. Of course, Dr T delivers the child – in a mise en scène much more visceral than at any other point in the film – and there are no prizes for guessing what sex the child turns out to be. We’re definitely not in Dallas anymore.