Altman on Women; The Broken Hearts Club Is a Generous View of Gay Life; Two Family House, a Small, Fine Achievement

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.



Suggestively
titled after The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T., Robert Altman’s Dr.
T & the Women
will probably provoke controversy. Stupid people can be
expected to cry foul at the love for women that naughtily bounces all over the
film’s screen space, simply because it is jokey rather than sentimental.
(For sentiment jump on the bandwagon for Girlfight, not nearly so good
as Wesley Snipes’ Streets of Gold or even the recent Price of
Glory
but calculated to sucker-punch doctrinaire feminists.) To the perceptive
eye and open mind, it should be clear that Altman presents women from his own
comic perspective: they’re all blonde and foofy–formalized in expensive
clothes and big hats like the white middle class of Altman’s origins. But
Altman’s comic fantasies have emotional abundance–he riffs on what
women are as people, erotic objects, nuisances, workers, mothers, wives, victims,
vixens, lunatics, lovers, lesbians.


Hollywood history–if
not the history of what academics call "the heterosexual gaze"–makes
us comfortable with certain female sexual stereotypes (thus even feminist critics
have applauded Lars von Trier’s Golden Heart trilogy of degraded women).
Yet Dr. T & the Women insists that viewers enjoy women’s presence
as unconditionally as does its lead character, a male gynecologist (Dr. Travis,
played by Richard Gere) whose Dallas office and home are abuzz with female chatter
and entreaties. Dr. T’s wife (Farrah Fawcett) retires from marital pressure;
his sister-in-law (Laura Dern) moves in with her three daughters; and there
are his own daughters, the eldest a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader (Kate Hudson)
who plans a wrongheaded wedding, his youngest a conspiracy-obsessed tour guide
at the Texas Schoolbook Depository Museum (Tara Reid) who jockeys to be noticed.


Dr. T’s
not a ringleader (his male buddies are a typically clueless bunch) and this
female circus spins out of his control–especially when he meets Bree (Helen
Hunt), a double for his own egocentric rationality, whom he mistakes for his
soulmate. Here’s where Altman diverges from the influence of the celebrated
harem sequence in Fellini’s 8 1/2; his extended gyno joke uses healthy-raunchy
humor to celebrate how men and women are less at each other’s service than
in splendid, crazy symbiosis. Traditional notions (men-as-hunters, woman-as-nesters)
get played out, but the movie’s charm comes from its topsy-turvydom–Altman’s
willingness to upend sexual convention. Dr. T has romantic theories: "Women
are by nature saints and their sacredness should be treated as such." "Women
aren’t bad luck, men make them that way." "Every woman I ever
met has something special about her." Through this bedside manner Altman
transforms general male-filmmaker p.o.v.–Ingmar Bergman’s Persona-like
fascination becomes humanistic farce. Altman had tried this previously in 1977’s
3 Women (which was profound on the subject of individual social development
rather than female psychology). This time Altman doesn’t have to say he
dreamed the movie; Dr. T & the Women plays like a wide-awake dream.
It’s an Altman fable like Pret-a-Porter, Health, Brewster
McCloud
, O.C. and Stiggs–the quirkiest yet least understood
of his movies.


From its bold
in-the-stirrups opening to its Robinson Crusoe finale, Dr. T &
the Women
must be understood as a satire of sexual customs and gender expectations.
Altman never displays only a single aspect of any character. His actors (and
actresses) expose their frailties and needs as characters, and these
(sometimes embarrassingly recognizable) portraits become priceless: Liv Tyler
as a mysterious maid of honor; Shelley Long as a overly devoted employee. Consider
any of the roles here, but particularly Farrah Fawcett’s: her emotional
problem is explained as "The Hestia Complex." (Attorney Lee Grant
holds forth on Hestia as "The Greek goddess of hearth and home, guardian
of family life. She came to despise love and so rejected it and became goddess
of virginal modesty… We don’t know why, there are any number of guesses
but [the complex] seems to attack upper-class women.") It’s a spiritual
and sociological surmise as remarkable as what Altman essayed in the great Kansas
City
. In so many movies (Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy
Dean, Jimmy Dean
, Images, Nashville, The Gingerbread Man,
M*A*S*H
) Altman has sympathized noncondescendingly with female crises, yet
few people recognize the depth of his compassion.


Altman tests
our fellow feeling when Fawcett’s character absentmindedly wanders into
a shopping mall fountain and disrobes. She recalls both Lady Godiva and Anita
Ekberg in the fountain in La Dolce Vita–a test of society’s
female empathy and of the sexual gaze. Not even that playboy/Platonist Henry
Jaglom has embraced female experience with such edgy splendor. When Fawcett’s
hospitalization disorients Dr. T’s own self-image as husband-lover-brother,
it evokes the troubles men and women share–a far more profound study than
Girl, Interrupted. This takes us a lot further than the jejune Girlfight
or The Contender with its insulting epigraph "For Our Daughters."
Dr. T & the Women doesn’t announce its humane purpose, but for
anyone who’s ever really known a woman, it doesn’t have to.


It isn’t
within the realm of criticism to indulge gossip, and it is with wonderful gallantry
that Altman lets art renounce defamatory rumor. In Dr. T & the Women
Altman’s devious largesse forces viewers to confront what they think they
know about identity by challenging what they presume to know about celebrities.
Along with Fawcett’s resuscitation, Altman presents a mellow Richard Gere,
well cast against gossip, to idealize courtly grace. In the midst of uproar
Gere’s reserve is serene; complicated yet no longer narcissistic. Pairing
Gere with Helen Hunt also holds special, chivalrous insight. These actors trust
Altman, at his most prankish and pixilated, to defend their characters’
difficult, baffling humanity. The lesson: love can surprise us all.



 


The Broken
Hearts Club
directed
by Greg Berlanti



Altman loves
women’s variety the way Greg Berlanti loves the variety of men in The
Broken Hearts Club.
Berlanti’s approval of male gay life, set among
young professionals in West Hollywood, gives it a distinct lingo and verve:
"Dumb, gorgeous people should not be able to use literature in the pick-up
pool, it’s like bald people with hats." "We ended up getting
our hearts stepped on like a Twister game." "If Larry Kramer saw us
he’d defect." "There’s not a person in this store who wouldn’t
pick you off the homo tree." Berlanti’s dialogue isn’t just campy;
he has written characters and directed actors who can carry off gay life with
esprit. What Altman’s film is to MGM’s 1939 The Women, The
Broken Hearts Club
is to 1970’s The Boys in the Band–an
alternate take on usually hysterical, melodramatic stereotypes. Both directors
reveal a generous, contemporary view of select class neuroses.


Dennis (Timothy
Olyphant), a photographer, says, "I can’t remember when I first realized
I was gay, only the first time I knew it was okay. It was when I met these guys–my
friends." Gathered for Dennis’ birthday party, they all deal with
heartbreak–a condition as constant for gay bachelors as The Search. Berlanti
hints at the depth of their search when Dennis sighs, "I’m 28 years
old and the only thing I’m good at is being gay." That’s quite
a progression, from Mart Crowley’s macabre sense of desperation to Berlanti’s
lighthearted self-rebuke. It’s the result of 40 years of social changes–and
social support. While following the stereotypes of gay culture–good-looking
boys everywhere–Berlanti doesn’t make the typical gay movie mistake
of thinking up situations (setting up agendas) before conceiving characters.
It’s esprit that allows him to achieve this film’s casual triumph
of Hollywood (and self-) acceptance.


A precarious
sense of friendship propels the movie (without pressing the extended-family
button too hard), keeping its glamorous milieu credible as it also keeps central
smart-aleck Dennis from being a bitch even when he behaves callously. These
friendships are constantly, humorously negotiated. The opening montage debriefing
each friend’s heartache is far better than the smug Love! Valour! Compassion!
It intimates the guys’ inner lives and individuality. Shot widescreen (although
it’s no Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train), The Broken Hearts
Club
is tv-glib–with smoothed-out emotional textures. Berlanti doesn’t
pull off the miracle of the British series Queer as Folk (shown locally
on C1-TV), one of the finest series in tv history, which aces the idea of honestly
putting gay experience in pop comic/dramatic form. Queer as Folk stays
sex-conscious but with ever-deepening social nuance (a Brit specialty; it’s
what you don’t get on HBO’s vicariously gay soap comedy Sex and
the City
). While Queer as Folk moves into remarkable demonstrations
of lust, jealousy, parental relations, even teenage orientation (all worth detailing
later), Berlanti can’t help revealing his shallow American tv roots (Dawson’s
Creek
) by giving such primal gay issues a mere gloss. Still, The Broken
Hearts Club
acceptably advances the struggle toward gay pop realization
by keeping it entertaining. (Joel Schumacher’s upcoming American cable
version of Queer as Folk won’t likely even match Berlanti’s
work.)


It’s bon-homo-mie
that distinguishes The Broken Hearts Club. Picking out a "Mo"
(the gay one) from a group of strangers or reminiscing about "Ed Bradley
circa 1980," Berlanti’s crew teases and grouses recognizably rather
than appealing to in-group secret knowledge. Dennis gets a kiss in the kitchen
at his party that seems culturally serendipitous–a personal fantasy moment
that coincides with the work of previous generations’ struggles and politics.
(John Mahoney, as Dennis’ aging mentor, delivers the choice lines: "I
love you. Don’t worry, little kids and senior citizens don’t say it
for you to say it back.")


Righter than
anything in Almost Famous, which boasts an inauthentic appreciation of
pop culture (plus a silly outing joke), or Chuck & Buck, which claims
gayness as part of its makers’ own depravity, The Broken Hearts Club
is at ease with the humanity of gay life. (It’s even amusing that the single
black friend, Billy Porter, runs just like Cicely Tyson in the homecoming scene
of Sounder.) Berlanti challenges American masculinity with his guys’
baseball game, and Dean Cain de-sentimentalizes that analogy as Cole (the group’s
Adonis and dog), who makes a bold, funny pick-up while at bat. Each man wants
to be Cole, a studly ideal who struts around life’s bases. But when Cole
finally "makes it" in the movies, Berlanti pricks the stud fantasy–levels
it–without destroying Cole’s charm.



 


Two Family
House
directed
by Raymond DeFelitta



So much casual
bigotry gets vented in the first 20 minutes of Two Family House–about
Buddy (Michael Rispoli), a Staten Island prole caught in the crossfire of Italian,
Irish, African-American enmity–that the jokes, at first, insufficiently
account for the real-life cruelty inflicted upon ethnic groups and women by
racist clans. It’s a jolt to realize that Raymond DeFelitta’s 1950s-set
sitcom actually exposes and answers American racism. DeFelitta’s feel-good
construction insists on humanity in defiance of mean racist history. (It’s
a Honeymooners episode that looks square at anxiety.) The narrator isn’t
Buddy, the Perry Como-loving sad sack, but an unseen biracial adult explaining
how "The circumstances of my birth disappear into the haze of folklore."


Folklore is
DeFelitta’s affecting subject–how people live and regenerate it through
work habits, family customs, neighborhood prejudices, thwarted dreams and making
do. Buddy, who’s never succeeded in anything, buys a two-story shack in
an Irish slum, planning to open a bar, to the embarrassment of Estelle (Katherine
Narducci), his Italian shrewish/princessy wife. He winds up the guardian of
a pregnant Irish girl (Kelly Macdonald) and acquires a sad understanding about
the culture he was born into. Since the narrator of this all-American whopper
is the unjaded product of class mixing and interracial reality, Two Family
House
looks gently at each person’s miseries. Presenting the first
illicit kiss and dance of his biological mother and spiritual father, the narrator
blesses their pain through respectful recall. That’s how folklore works;
DeFelitta ingeniously shows how we all, naturally, are both its subject and
repositors.


Rispoli, Narducci
and Macdonald convey human qualities lampooned by the pseudo-serious The
Sopranos
. Nothing in that pandering series is as delicate and precise as
Buddy’s cry, "I just want to talk with someone!" or Macdonald’s
own quiet anguish. Identifying with her oppression, Buddy realizes his own need
to break out of custom. These feelings are played evocatively: amidst her shamrock-pattern
curtains while it rains, among buddies working with their hands. Two Family
House
is a small achievement, but it richly compounds contrasting experiences.
An unforgettable moment: Buddy’s dread awakening ("He never thought
of the people he’d known all his life as his jailers"). Buddy is shown
walking lonesome, toward self-discovery, while everyone he knows pities him
behind a diner’s blinds.


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