“We place our faith in their skill. We lay our lives in their hands. But sooner or later we realize they are only human…and we hope that they notice we are too.”
I recall so well this tagline to Randa Haines’ The Doctor (1991), quietly believing the truth in its sentiment. I didn’t have a particularly good doctor myself back then, you see. But I was relatively grateful in the complacent way we all are when good health persists that prevented me from seeing him as often as I cared to. In more recent times, as someone who has desperately needed compassionate care, only to discover it in very short supply from practicing physicians in my own home town, I find Haines’ movie and its precepts frankly illuminating.
Personally, I think The Doctor ought to be required viewing for every medical student currently studying to become the next Albert Schweitzer. And if I may, before segueing into my review of the film, I should like to offer a bit of my own advice to the doctors of the world who have misappropriated their training with a feeling of smug superiority that has completely obscured the purpose for their practice.
Dear doctors: your degrees should do something more for humanity than simply afford you a comfortable lifestyle. The craft of medicine is undoubtedly scientific. But the art of practicing it should never supersede the understanding that those who come to you do so out of necessity and quite often anxious desperation, for which you are required to do more than simply nod and scribble down something that no one other than a pharmacist can read on a prescription pad.
Ever since I first saw it I have admired The Doctor for the valuable lessons learned the hard way by its protagonist, Dr. Jack MacKee; a self-appointed mandarin of the medical profession who dismisses, and even more unconscionably frowns upon the legitimate concerns his patients have until he too is forced to face a life-threatening illness from the inside of his lab coat. It wasn’t until I lost a beloved aunt to cancer that the film’s more meaningful message; reassessing the importance of one’s own time and being sincere and kind toward others in spite of our more critical nature to be judgmental, suddenly became the truly invaluably and enriching message I gleaned from the movie.
Based on Dr. Edward Rosenbaum’s 1988 novel, ‘A Taste of My Own Medicine’, The Doctor is the story of Jack MacKee (played to perfection by William Hurt). A successful surgeon whose thriving L.A. practice affords him a comfortable lifestyle with wife, Anne (Christine Lahti) and young son, Nicky (Charlie Korsmo), Jack lacks an essential ingredient to be truly great in his profession: an understanding heart. When a patient recovering from open heart surgery confides to him that her husband is not intimate with her since the operation, Jack cruelly quips that she is just like a Playboy centerfold – and has the staples right down her middle to prove it.
Jack’s partner, Dr. Murray Kaplan (Mandy Patinkin) is an equally devil-may-care sort. But his comeuppance arrives early on when former patient, Mr. Richards (Richard McKenzie) files a lawsuit, having suffered a debilitating stroke as a result of his operation. Kaplan is understandably unnerved. After all, his livelihood and privileges at the hospital are at stake. But Jack confidently assures Murray that he will testify at the formal inquest on his behalf, despite not knowing any of the particulars of Mr. Richard’s case.
On the home front Jack and Anne seem happy – or perhaps ‘happily distracted’ is a better word for it. Each is busy with their career, viewing home and family as something merely fitted between the hours committed to work. While returning from a dinner party that has gone off particularly well, Jack develops a coughing fit. Anne is alarmed when Jack expels more than a few specks of blood onto his clothes, as well as her own and in her hair. The next day Jack makes an appointment with oncologist, Dr. Leslie Abbott (Wendy Crewson); a rather clinically disinterested sort who treats her patients more as specimens than people with legitimate concerns. After a cursorily examination, Dr. Abbott asserts that Jack has a growth in his throat requiring a biopsy. The news is hardly calming, more so when the results come back positive. Jack has throat cancer.
Forced to endure the same round of evasive tests and endless barrage of paperwork, Jack is scheduled for radiation therapy to shrink his tumor. But he still sees himself as apart from the other patients, his intolerance toward waiting his turn, delays and missteps made by the medical support personnel grating on his nerves, but also incurring the displeasure of fellow patient, June Ellis (Elizabeth Perkins) who is being treated with aggressive chemotherapy for an inoperable brain tumor.
The initial meeting between Jack and June is anything but cordial. She lays it on the line for him and he, believing she just needs to get over herself, condescendingly tells June that she will fully recover from her condition, just as a former patient of his father’s did. This news, wholly fabricated, gives June the necessary hope to continue her treatments. Ironically, her grace and empathy towards the other patients slowly begins to rub off on Jack. He befriends June and the two share stories about their lives – with Jack omitting the fact that he is a doctor.
Inevitably, June learns the truth – that he is – and furthermore that the patient Jack described to her was made up to make her feel better. Jack begins to understand cancer from a patient’s perspective – something he never before considered. A bond develops between June and Jack that is mutually rewarding. In the meantime, Jack’s relationship with Anne has begun to deteriorate. Believing that she has no concept of what he is going through, Jack gravitates to June platonically for moral support. After a mix up of hospital records results in Jack being given a barium enema after his second biopsy – which yields the disastrous result that not only has Jack’s tumor not shrunk with radiation, but has actually grown since the treatments, Jack slowly comes to believe that perhaps Leslie Abbott is not the right doctor to perform his operation.
Confronting Abbott in her office with his concerns, Jack is treated to a litany of excuses and even more frigid disdain for his questioning. In response, Abbott flings Jack’s file at him and storms off. Jack decides to have Dr. Eli Blumfield (Adam Arkin) perform his surgery instead. In the past, Jack has been critical, to downright condescending toward Eli – whom he has nicknamed ‘the rabbi’ to remain popular with his own fair-weather friends – but whose ethics, integrity and bedside manner he has long admired from afar.
Jack applies his own newfound compassion to his latest patient, Mr. Maris (William Marquez) who is fearful of his own pending heart replacement surgery. Mrs. Maris (Lillian Hurst) tells her husband that she believes true compassion is a quality of the heart, and after seeing the way Jack is in calming her husband’s anxieties she believes that he is the surgeon for the job. As Murray’s inquest nears Jack decides to investigate Mr. Richard’s case with an unbiased eye, particularly after he witnesses Mr. Richard lock his keys in his car. Unable to articulate his distress because of the aftereffects of his stroke, Mr. Richard is grateful when Jack steps in. Promising to have Mr. Richard’s keys left for him at the front desk by the time his deposition is over, Jack investigates Mr. Richards’ file privately, learning that a simple test would have alerted Dr. Kaplan to the dangers of proceeding with the operation. In response to this discovery Jack informs Murray that he cannot stand behind his decision at the deposition – a move that effectively severs their lifelong friendship.
Determined to do something nice for June, Jack learns that she has long desired to see a concert given by an American Indian performing arts ensemble. The group is currently performing in Arizona. On a whim and a spree Jack rents a car and calls his secretary to order tickets ahead. Whisking June off with all speed, an ecstatic June suddenly becomes unnerved. She tells Jack that the concert is not as important to her now. At her request, Jack parks the car off to the side of the road and the two share intimate stories as they watch the sun set against the mesa.
As the date for Jack’s operation approaches he confides in June that he is terrified about what the future will bring; a fear she tries to, but cannot entirely quell for him. Afterward Jack goes home and June begins to write him a letter. Several days pass and Jack receives a page informing him that June has slipped into a coma. He rushes to her bedside, tenderly holds her hand and talks to her until she quietly dies. The next day Jack submits to his own surgery – and although entirely successful, Eli informs Anne that there may be some irreversible damage to Jack’s vocal chords. For a few days after his surgery Jack uses a whistle and an erasable clap board to communicate with Anne. Having been wounded by his lack of faith in her these many weeks, Anne is skeptical. But Jack rallies to her side and in a spontaneous moment utters that he loves her, proving that his vocal chords will eventually recover from the surgery.
Jack has been transformed for the better by these experiences. In response to his becoming a better doctor he institutes a plan of action to convince his interns that they must be more engaged human beings in order to become better doctors. Assigning each intern a particular illness, Jack prescribes the necessary round of tests that each intern will one day prescribe for their patients. Only by going through the process themselves will they truly share in the experience. Returning to his office, Jack is astonished to find that someone has forwarded June’s letter to him.
He rushes to the rooftop where June first bared her soul to him and reads the letter to himself; a parable about a farmer who successfully managed to scare off all the animals from his crops, then realized that he desperately missed their company. So he went into the fields and stretched out his arms to welcome them back. But the animals never returned, fearful of the farmer’s ‘new scarecrow’. The letter concludes with June’s own commentary. “Dear Jack,” she reasons, “Let down your arms and we’ll all come home.” Realizing the wisdom in this parable, Jack smiles and tilts his head toward the sky with the understanding that the friendship he shared with June will always be a part of him.
The Doctor is likely to be an emotional viewing experience for just about anyone who has suffered through the regimented dictates of a profession that frequently treats its clientele as mere billing numbers on a page. William Hurt and Elizabeth Perkins strike just the right chord; genuine, heartfelt and thoroughly nurturing throughout. Perkins in particular delivers an extraordinary performance. Not knowing her as an actress back in 1991 I recall thoroughly buying into her understated portrait of a woman facing down her own mortality alone, with grace, dignity and consideration towards others. Hurt’s turn as the callous professional transformed into compassionate caregiver is quite simply poetic. For obvious and very personal reasons I cannot recommend this film enough. It should – and must – be seen.
Inexplicably, Mill Creek Media has decided to release The Doctor with another Touchstone catalogue title, John Erman’s Stella (1990); the painfully bad remake of 1939’s Stella Dallas costarring Bette Midler and Trini Alvarado. I won’t go into Stella’s plot in quite so much detail – for the simple fact that Mill Creek has rather unceremoniously dumped the film on the market as a toss away with a thoroughly substandard 720p transfer bumped to a 1080p signal.
But in this remake, Stella Claire (Bette Midler) is an unfashionable, often crude and thoroughly determined Boston gal whose heavy partying leads her into the arms of medical student, Stephen Dallas (Stephen Collins). The two become lovers and Stephen makes plans to marry Stella and begin their life together. One problem: Stella quickly realizes that she is outclassed by her lover’s ambitions and his family.
She can never belong to his world – not really – and after getting pregnant with his child elects to break up with Stephen in favor of raising their daughter, Jenny (effectively played by Ashley Peldon age 3, Alisan Porter age 8 and Trini Alvarado as a teen/early twenty-something) by herself. Of course, Stephen helps out when he can. He also moves on with his own life and marries Janise Morrison (Marsha Mason) – a cultured jetsetter who proceeds to embrace Jenny as her own and help shape her future in promising ways.
Stella becomes resentful of this maternal intervention. Meanwhile Jenny is emotionally hurt after a romantic weekend with Boston blue blood, Pat Robbins (William Macnamara) goes nowhere, and briefly rebels by hooking up with reprobate, Jim Uptegrove (Ben Stiller) instead. Stella breaks them apart, thereafter moving heaven and earth to see that Jenny and Pat are reunited. But she abstains from her daughter’s penultimate moment of happiness, Jenny’s marriage to Pat – realizing that in order to preserve Jenny’s joy she must set aside her own.
The self-sacrificing Barbara Stanwyck did in the 1939 original was both heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. Stanwyck’s Stella was a low class dame with high ideals, but with the guts and good sense to carry it off. Midler’s Stella is merely a bumpkin outclassed by virtually anyone who circulates outside her own limited circle of friends. Contemporizing the story also robs it of its quaint melodramatic appeal. Midler and Alvarado have some good onscreen chemistry, but the story as reconstituted for the contemporary audience is undernourished by a pedestrian screenplay from Robert Getchell.
The narrative waffles away from its central theme of maternal martyrdom to include some silly vignettes that are meant to lighten the overall mood of the piece, which frankly, is quite abysmal and heavy-handed. Midler’s performance is problematic at best – struggling to find her character between bipolar moods of motherly charm and excruciating crass behavior. It doesn’t work and neither does the truncated way Getchell quickly rushes through the finale, with Midler unable to resurrect anything but the memory of Stanwyck’s tear-stained matron affectionately staring through a rain soaked window at her daughter’s ultimate moment.
Now, for some good news. The Doctor is a tru-HD 1080p upgrade. This becomes quite evident from the moment the movie begins to play. The image is crisp without being artificially enhanced. Grain is evident and accurately represented. Colors exhibit a characteristically dated quality – not faded – with flesh tones slightly pinkish at times. Age related damage has been cleaned up for a very clean visual presentation. As such The Doctor looks fairly close to the way I remember it theatrically. Contrast is good and fine detail is evident, particularly during close ups. This isn’t a perfect transfer to be sure, but it commits forgivable sins.
Stella is an entirely different matter. From the first to last moment the print used is hopelessly marred by an excessive amount of age related damage – dirt, scratches, nicks and chips that belie the movie only being thirty two years old. Worse, there’s been some digital manipulation, evident in some minor edge effects and a liberal application of DNR that obliterates fine detail. Colors are pasty pale, with flesh tones appearing piggy pink. Yuck! The image looks a shay better than an average tube broadcast with rabbit ears.
The DTS audio is 5.1 on both titles but seems more refined on The Doctor with unusually solid bass and good spatiality between dialogue, music and effects. Stella sounds like a TV broadcast or rechanneled stereo rather than true stereo; odd, since I remember a more aggressive sonic experience even from my old DVD.
I’m not entirely certain how Mill Creek became the custodians of these Touchstone catalogue titles but there it is. In The Doctor’s case I have to say this transfer gets a pass with honors. In Stella’s case it’s a complete disaster, begging the question why Mill Creek would even waste their time compressing two feature length movies onto a single Blu-ray disc. I could have easily done without this one.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
The Doctor 4
The Doctor 3.5