The sad and hilarious tale of Dr. T and Big D

Robert Altman and screenwriter Anne Rapp talk about Dallas, sex, chivalry and their new movie, "Dr. T & the Women."

By Michael Sragow

Published October 12, 2000 5:02PM (EDT)

The special tickle Robert Altman got from "Dr. T & the Women" -- the uproarious tale of the fall of a noble Dallas gynecologist -- came from the casting. "Richard Gere was the first person I sent it to," the director explained to me in a recent phone interview. "I've known him for 18 years, and have talked with him from time to time. I just had an image of some woman with her feet in the stirrups, naked, and a nurse coming in and saying 'Oh, Dr. Parmesan had to be rushed to the hospital but you can see his associate, Dr. Travis. You'll really like him.'

"And the patient is thinking, I don't know. Then she looks between her knees and Richard Gere is standing there."

Anne Rapp wrote the movie for Altman, and found the experience as great a pleasure as she did the year before on the exquisite "Cookie's Fortune." She levels with interviewers this way: "You know what this movie is? It's the story of Job, from the Bible, but here he's a gynecologist. Dr. T's religion is women: not in a bad way, not in a sexual way, but in the way of being a complete savior of women. He takes care of them, he loves them, he understands them; he's a faithful servant to his wife, daughters and patients." Before the movie is 10 minutes old, Altman and Rapp come up with elegant tortures to try his faith.

When I talked with Rapp in a separate phone call, she said she feels that the film is as fractious and funny as it is because Dr. T, a dyed-in-the-cashmere romantic, both colludes and collides with the bold style and personal power of Dallas women.

"Women there love being bigger than life," she explained. "They're born that way and they expand. They love being noticed for it, and they also have a big sense of humor about it. That's why they fit so well into comedy. One of my favorite women in the film is the menopause patient, who says, loudly and proudly, 'I'm going to be the best menopause patient you ever had!' It's so big -- I love it."

"Dr. T & the Women" is as enjoyable and full of surprises as "Cookie's Fortune," albeit in a different comic mode. As befits the change in scene from down-home Mississippi to upper-crust Big D, it's brasher and more tumultuous, with a cast of hundreds bursting out of what the writer whimsically describes as a two-character movie: Dr. T and, as Rapp puts it, "this sea of women -- no, this Pacific Ocean of women." But thanks to Altman's and Rapp's gifts of observation and invention, you get to know a dozen women intimately.

"Dr. T" does not approach the scale of Altman's 1975 epic, "Nashville." But once again, he cracks open a socio-political piqata -- and has all the characters land in the most evocative and enlightening patterns.

You acquire an intense feel for their glittering milieu. Altman's work brings to mind the credo of the British literary critic William Hazlitt: "In art, in taste, in life, in speech, you decide from feeling and not from reason; that is, from the impression of a number of things on the mind, which impression is true and well-founded, though you may not be able to analyze or account for it in the several particulars. In a gesture you use, in a look you see, in a tone you hear, you judge of the expression, propriety and meaning from habit, from innumerable instances of like gestures, looks and tones, in innumerable other circumstances, variously modified, which are too many and too refined to be all distinctly recollected, but which do not therefore operate the less powerfully."

"Dr. T & the Women" sweeps us up in a tornado of gestures, looks and tones: Laura Dern's slapstick genius as Dr. T's tipsy sister-in-law, swigging champagne, and breaking champagne glasses, when not playing dress-up games with her three little girls; Kate Hudson's and Tara Reid's subtle competitiveness and deliberate clash of styles (cheerleader vs. conspiracy-theory bohemian) as our hero's daughters; the fragile hauteur of Janine Turner as she flashes her bare derriere in the examination room; Shelley Long's beautifully farcical blend of competence and goofiness as the chief nurse with a crush on her doctor.

It's a jolt to learn that Altman originally read this kaleidoscope of a script as an unpublished short story. It was the piece that made him want to put Anne Rapp under contract. "After we did 'Cookie's' and were working on a couple of things that didn't quite jell," he said, "I thought we should see what we could do if we expanded that story. It was about a gynecologist -- in the story, a much older guy -- who becomes overwhelmed with women. And it was about Dallas. Just imagining a guy in that position in a city like Dallas, full of rich dames who may not have enough to do, made the story grow like Topsy."

Altman had also burrowed into Texas in "Brewster McCloud" (Houston) and "Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" (rural). But he begged off talking about this recurring location.

"Places are all the same," he says. "It's just a question of which one you want to slice down the middle to see what's inside." Still, he warms to the idea that Texas has as many strata as the entire United States -- mostly because he's worried that the state's latest political offering may send our whole country down the tubes. "We've got this presidential candidate that's probably the most serious problem this nation has ever faced. If this guy gets elected we're all in trouble."

"Dr. T" is hardly a paradigm of the healthcare crisis. Part of the reason Dr. T's office overflows with women is that some of them need too much coddling. But why should any fearful, confused patient not get tender loving care? Altman acknowledges that the medical backdrop of an overcrowded waiting room and one besieged medic might "strike a nerve."

Altman initially dubbed the film the story of "a pussy-whipped gynecologist"; now he chimes in with Rapp on calling Dr. T a latter-day Job. "Someone decided to test him. And he's not properly prepared," he said drily. "He's been looking at women from the wrong end all his life."

Altman can't resist that kind of gag, though the film's singular mixture of tenderness and jocularity about everything from moneyed ditziness to menopause has unsettled some of the female interviewers he's talked to. "They don't know what 'position' they should take; they're worried about whether they're the butt of the joke," Altman confided. "But if you want to look at whom we're making fun of in this movie, look at the guys in these silly duck-hunting outfits trying to shoot at ducks, turkeys, golf balls, whatever. That's where the complaints should come from."

Of course, Altman has been accused of misogyny as far back as "MASH." But women have been central to his best films, from "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and "Nashville" to "Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean." "I like women and I feel comfortable with women," Altman says. "Most of the film stories that get made are hero-oriented and women don't take part in them except as mothers and whores. I believe they deserve a little better than that."

Women in the business obviously believe he's giving it to them. Altman feels no qualms about casting Farrah Fawcett as Dr. T's mentally regressing wife: "She's a great trouper, and she's had a bad shake. I think she's very shy and too many people like to beat up on her. She wanted to play the part and worked hard to get it; the only thing we had was a scheduling problem because she was doing something else in Nova Scotia. To do some small scenes in Houston she chartered her own small plane and flew down and back. The trip probably cost her more than we paid her."

To Altman, "Laura Dern is the cat's pajamas," Shelley Long (his own casting idea) lived up to his dreams and he lucked out when he discovered that Janine Turner -- whose film career sputtered after her TV hit in "Northern Exposure" -- lives in Dallas and wanted to do this movie.

Now Altman is busy assembling the same sort of cast for his next film, "Gosford Park." (Rapp isn't writing this one: "I decided to get out of the South for a while," Altman explains.) Set in London and based on a script by British actor-writer Julian Fellowes, it will be a rare overseas production for this quintessentially American director. Altman conceptualizes the project as a murder mystery with hints of profundity, a mix of Jean Renoir and Agatha Christie: "'Rules of the Game' meets 'Ten Little Indians.'" He is convinced that he has rounded up every talented British actress for this movie. "Who's your favorite British actress?" he asks. There are too many to name, I protest. "I know, and I've got most of them." Cate Blanchett? "Well, she's Australian, but she can pass, and I've got her." Vanessa Redgrave? "Got her. And Emily Watson, Judi Dench -- there are so many."

It's not surprising Rapp won't be doing a British picture: "I don't really have any interest in writing stories that can take place just anywhere," she says. "The place itself should be a character in a film." And so far, her scripts have depended on firsthand knowledge, whether of small-town Mississippi in "Cookie's Fortune" or Dallas in "Dr. T & the Women." Although her roots are in the cotton-lands of the Texas Panhandle, she lived in Dallas from 1978 to '86, working on films ranging from "Lone Wolf McQuade" to "Places in the Heart." She'll do her next two scripts for producer-director Sydney Pollack; back in '93, she supervised the script on Pollack's hit "The Firm."

"I find Dallas completely endearing," she now says. "There's nothing really eye-catching about it geographically -- there's nothing dramatic about the terrain, and it's not the prettiest part of Texas. It evolved as a city of commerce for all those cowboy oil companies. My theory is that it was essentially so mundane and boring that Dallasites felt they had to make a splash, be outrageous.

"I think it all started with Belle Starr riding up and down those dusty streets all dressed up with a plumed hat and feathers, really pretty and turning everyone's head. Yet she had six-guns on and she was going to saloons to drink with men and she would speak their language and cuss and she was always skipping the law here and there and getting away with it. Because people loved her. She was bold and dressed up and exaggerated her femaleness in a way that said she was proud of it."

Even cowgirls get the blues. For example, Dr. T's wife falls prey to a syndrome of Rapp's own coinage called "the Hestia Complex," named for the Greek virgin goddess of the hearth -- the protector of domestic virtue. With her daughters all grown up and her husband's love unaltered, she retreats into a sexless, childish state. In her seemingly perfect existence, it's the only route she can take to regain the mystery of life.

"But here's what I tried to do with Farrah Fawcett's character and the Hestia Complex," Rapp explained. "It's a parody, but what it takes off on is that book 'Women Who Love Too Much.' I feel like those kinds of books, and women who then go on 'Oprah' saying, 'Oh, I love too much' -- those kinds of things weaken women. I thought I would do the opposite: Women Who Are Loved Too Much.

"When you look at that Farrah character, what you see on the outside is this fragile kind of sadness that she is a lost soul and longs to return to childhood. But you also see Farrah become happier and happier -- in some odd, twisted way she's empowered herself. She has made this choice, like the goddess Hestia. It looks like one thing but then if you really think about it, it's not."

To help fill out the script, Rapp conducted anecdotal research. "Of course I have my own gynecologist and have had two or three all my life, all of whom are men, and I talked to several. And one of the things I asked them, and got the exact same answer from all of them, was: Have you ever had a patient who comes in all the time? There's really nothing wrong with her but she keeps coming back? I was curious because there's nothing pleasant about going to the gynecologist -- it's a lot like going to the dentist. You wouldn't keep going back to that office for fun.

"And every one of these doctors said, to a man, 'I had one patient who did that. It was always someone who was real insecure about herself and the way she looked.' It was generally an older woman, maybe someone who'd lost a husband or something, but Bob opted to go down a bit, to Janine Turner's age.

"I asked my gynecologist in L.A. what he did about those repeat visits. And he said, 'There's really nothing you could do about it; but every time that woman walks in the door, everyone from the nurse to the receptionist and me spend a lot of time telling her how good she looks, because that's the root of the problem there.' In the movie, when Dr. T asks Janine if anyone has told her lately how great she looks, she lists everyone in his office, and adds, 'They tell me that every time I come in'.

"But when Dr. T, in a hunting scene, tells her husband how good she looks, the husband is like, 'Huh?' I don't know if audiences connect all those dots. This is a movie about Dr. T, and Janine was part of the grand plan to show you that he's so aware and sensitive to the real needs in women. The reason Janine comes in all the time is that she has problems with self-confidence and the way she looks. And Dr. T picks that out immediately."

Myth and fable are everywhere in "Dr. T & the Women," and not in any thoughtless or inorganic way. The saga of Job isn't, to Rapp, merely an offhand analogy. "If you remember," Rapp points out, "the Devil comes to God and bets that Job wouldn't be a faithful servant if he didn't have a perfect life. And God actually makes a deal with the Devil to test Job's faith by taking everything away with him. And that's how Dr. T is tested" -- although Dr. T, unlike Job, does have fun with Satan's forces along the way.

Gere is remarkable at showing the confusion, even the naiveté of a noble fellow whose code of protecting women needs to be updated -- he can't believe that some women want to take care of themselves. He can't go beyond the limits of his faith. You could say that, at the highest level, he misunderstands women in a better way than his buddies do.

As Rapp continues on her Job riff: "In the story in the Bible, there are three guys who are like Dr. T's hunting buddies. Once Job has lost everything and someone has killed his family and someone has killed his livestock and stolen all his property and he gets sores all over his body and is crawling around over the desert, asking 'Why me, God?,' Job's buddies come to advise him, constantly, and always give him the wrong advice. They care about him and try to help him answer the questions, but they don't know the answers either. Finally, at the end of the story, Job is crawling around at his wit's end, when a voice comes to him in a whirlwind, and it says, 'Life is not a puzzle to be solved; it's a riddle to be pondered.' And when he stops asking 'why?' and accepts that, his good life is restored."

Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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