The Vagina Dialogues

Women trouble: Dr. Sully Travis (Richard Gere) with his chief nurse (Shelley Long) in Dr. T & the Women.Photo: Zade Rosenthal

Richard Gere plays a gynecologist in Robert Altman’s Dr. T & the Women, and it’s such a funny high-low concept that at the outset you wonder if the film will be able to do it justice. Gere has been playing self-infatuated studs in such a self-infatuated way for so long that I came prepared for a star turn of truly embarrassing proportions. It’s to his credit, and most certainly to Altman’s, as well as to his screenwriter Anne Rapp’s (Cookie’s Fortune), that what comes through is something no one could have predicted: As Dr. Sullivan (“Sully”) Travis, who ministers to Dallas’s high-society ladies of leisure, Gere is the most relaxed and self-deprecating he’s ever been. It’s as if he had suddenly been made moonstruck. Dr. T, who is married with two daughters, believes that women are saints. “They’re sacred and should be treated that way,” he says, and he truly means it. The joke here is that Dr. T is a bona fide innocent, while the women who buzz about him and crowd his office all have designs on him. He’s like a pampered prince presiding over a planet of screwball females. But it’s a benevolent dictatorship. All he wants is for everybody to be happy.

Virtually all of the women in the movie are blonde (with one significant exception: a wedding wrecker played by Liv Tyler), and they have a tinseled glow. These ladies are haloed by their own privileges. Altman uses Dr. T’s waiting room as a kind of command post from which to reveal a cross section of Dallas damselry. The jabber level is high, and the overlapping dialogue creates a wall of sound of gossip and backbiting. Altman seems to take an almost anthropological delight in situating himself inside this colony, and no doubt there will be those who object to the airheadedness of it all. I suppose you could argue that this is an old man’s movie (Altman is 75) and therefore he should be excused for portraying society women as kooks for whom feminism never happened; but I doubt Altman, who has always had his subversively mischievous side, would have made a much different film if he had shot it 30 years ago.

There’s no malice in this film’s depiction of the country-club set; it’s more like a wide-eyed awe at the pageantry of gender. The movie is not only about the extravagances of women but also about the ways in which men are flummoxed by those extravagances. No excuses need be made for Altman. Dr. T & the Women isn’t just a comic escapade; it’s a comic vision that, in its own frothy way, harks back to Altman’s more emotionally complex movies such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Dr. T is a bit like Warren Beatty’s McCabe, who also had a core of innocence and was ultimately demolished by it. (In this, he also resembles the hairdresser Beatty played in Shampoo.) The Mrs. Miller of this movie, the one woman who sees things without sentimentality, is Helen Hunt’s Bree, the new golf pro in town who sizes up the doctor’s unhappy marriage in a flash and moves in on him with practiced ease. She’s not enthralled by his pure heart, and her coolness toward him, the ways in which the traditional sex roles appear to be reversed between them, turns him into a kind of soap-opera Job.

The men in Dr. T & the Women, when we see them at all, are just as gender-typed as the ladies. Dr. T’s hunting buddies (Robert Hays, Andy Richter, Matt Malloy) are flush with male chumminess. It is a point of pride that these guys do not understand the women in their orbit. Dr. T doesn’t understand them, either, except in a gynecological sense, but his reverence counts for him as a higher understanding. That’s why he can’t fathom the breakup of his marriage, when his wife (Farrah Fawcett), at the outset of the movie, suddenly takes leave of her senses and retreats into childhood. Her condition is clinically diagnosed as Hestia complex, which apparently affects only upper-class women who are loved too much and have everything they need. (The complex is satiric, but it’s not so far-fetched.) He also can’t fathom the waywardness of his eldest daughter, Kate Hudson’s Dee Dee, on the eve of her wedding; Dee Dee is a cheerleader who turns out to be rallying a different game altogether. (Hudson gives the role a precocious confidence.) Dr. T’s frazzled, predatory chief nurse, Carolyn (Shelley Long), and his boozy sister-in-law, Peggy (Laura Dern), who seems to like hearing the echo of her voice from the bottom of a wineglass, are among the other luminaries put on earth to test Dr. T’s contention that all women are in a state of grace.

Most movies about men who love women focus on the hypocrisy behind the love. The men end up exposed as cads. Altman and Anne Rapp are after something gentler. Behind Dr. T’s ministrations isn’t ill will but rather a kind of deluded tenderness. In the end, he is undone by his own sweet sympathies for how things should be. This is not a man you can hate, and Altman gives him a hearty, cosmic send-off that ranks as one of the director’s most lyrically loony passages. The gale force of women is rendered quite literally, and it gusts our hero right into a grand epiphany.

The Vagina Dialogues