Friday, November 17, 2017

A Word to the "Wives"

You know, the TV network Bravo has built a whole industry out of their Real Housewives programs (and even had a show called Married to Medicine), but not any of those ladies (which many of them are NOT if using the term descriptively) can hold a candle to the shenanigans of the wives featured in today's movie. Doctors' Wives, from 1971, centers on five females who dabble in a variety of vices from alcohol to morphine to indulgences of the flesh. Their primary bond being that each one is married to a successful physician at a prominent clinic.

Based upon a 1967 book by Frank G. Slaughter, the movie rights were snatched up by Columbia Pictures before it was even published. The studio clearly understood the potential for steamy soap opera, though it took them a few years to get the property adapted for the big screen. Slaughter's book often concerned the medical field and new technology, but many of them also concerned people found in The Bible. So this particular (trashy) tome was a bit of a departure. (Though it did concern itself with a couple of risky, cutting-edge operations and, of course, plenty of sin!)

I waited an eternity to see Doctors' Wives and wondered if I ever would in fact see it. The paperback tie-in beckoned to me, giving me a peculiar sense of ownership because the sensationalistic cover blurb (which clearly Columbia Pictures delighted in) sprang from my own hometown newspaper The Cincinnati Enquirer! It reads: "Makes Mary McCarthy's Group look like a Victorian Sunday school class." When I finally saw the movie, I had the strangest feeling I'd seen it before, but I hadn't. I had just projected the film's performers from the tie-in cover into my mind as I read it and the screenplay stuck reasonably close to the source.

That first viewing left me feeling VERY disappointed, though, for a couple of reasons. One was that top-billed Dyan Cannon, who is terrific in it, has a staggeringly abbreviated role. Turns out that the billing was alphabetical and no one else's name came before hers! The other reason was that I have a very low tolerance for anything graphically medical. I have never seen even one episode of St. Elsewhere, Chicago Hope or Grey's Anatomy and my sole experience with E/R was an episode that focused on George Clooney outside the hospital (rescuing a young boy trapped in storm drain during heavy rain.) And... Doctor's Wives has a lengthy, extremely graphic depiction of open heart surgery.
Knowing about the aforementioned made it a bit easier for me to revisit the movie a second time recently and I came away able to appreciate its tawdry, unintentionally amusing virtues a bit better than before. It's not a good movie to be certain, but it's got a fascinating cast and some interesting goings on here and there.

We first meet the title figures at a smoky, boozy, group poker night ("You poker, you brought 'er" as my late friend David used to say!) The wives (Cara Williams, Marian McCargo, Rachel Roberts, Dyan Cannon and Janice Rule) are in one section of a large, well-appointed country club while the men are segregated on the other side of a glass-enclosed atrium where they carry on their own conversations.
The men George Gaynes, Gene Hackman, John Colicos,  Carroll O' Connor and Richard Crenna talk shop about the clinic which they head, discussing whether or not to computerize the place. Gaynes remarks that the women are likely discussing "the servant problem." It's really quite difficult to figure out who is wed to whom from the way this scene begins and devoting mental energy to that task can cause one to miss out on some of the dialogue.

It's rather hard to miss, however, Cannon fingering her cards and announcing to the table how horny she is! She declares that she really needs to do it right away. For shock value, she even begins to proposition a couple of the other ladies at her table, including Rule, who matter of factly puts her in her place.

Next she asserts that the women in her circle are sexually deprived and that someone (i.e.- herself) should help figure out what's wrong by bedding down with each one of their husbands and reporting back to them how to fix it!  Next, she flicks down a full house, announces that she's already 50% of the way done and struts out the door.

Afterwards, we see that Rule is the wife of Crenna. She tries to delve into his possible relationship with Cannon on the slightly testy ride home. Cannon is the wife of Colicos and they obviously share a very free-spirited, frolicsome relationship (though she's already announced that he is strictly a "Saturday night man" as far as sex is concerned.)
As it turns out O'Connor and Williams are divorced and, thus, she isn't technically his wife anymore, but they remain entwined in one another's lives for one reason or another. She clearly has a bit of a drinking problem and O'Connor asks the bartender to see that she gets home when she rejects his own offer of a ride.

Hackman is wed to Roberts (a truly unlikely and almost mind-blowing combination of actors.) She crisply informs him that if he's involved with Cannon, he needs to end it, tacking on how dangerous and destructive a person she is.

That leaves Gaynes and McCargo. He's a highly conventional husband and she's a rather inhibited and mousy type. When pressed about it, he admits that Cannon is sexy, but he doesn't exactly discount his own wife's charms.

The following day, we meet Kristina Holland, a student at the clinic who is doing a clinical analysis of everything around her, transferring it all onto cassette tapes. She sits in front of the clinic reading the organization's motto into her machine. Holland serves as comic relief in the film (which, considering some of the unintentional comedy that comes from the others, wasn't necessarily required!)

We also meet resident Lothario Anthony Costello, who is something of a sex addict (I was trying to avoid the term "pussy hound," but that also applies!) He gets it on as much as four times a day with whichever lady, young or older, who's willing to give him a toss, sharing his experiences with fellow intern Mark Jenkins.

That morning, shock-waves are felt across the neighbor- hood when it's announced that a shooting has occurred, committed by Colicos. One of the poker club husbands is involved and, in an A Letter to Three Wives sort of scenario, neither we the viewer, nor any of the gals in the film, is certain which one has caught a bullet! Williams, aside the country club pool is on the phone with Rule when the news breaks. (I'm so used to it now that it didn't sink in immediately just how rare and exclusive it would have been in 1970, when this was filmed, for a person to have a car phone as Rule does!)

Also helping to populate this movie is Diana Sands as a surgical nurse. She is on hand at the hospital when the shooting victim arrives and is pronounced D.O.A.! But, as he's only been dead for a handful of minutes - and no other doctor seems to be available to assist with the situation - she makes the decision to administer adrenaline and begins to bring the afflicted man back around!

None of the fretful wives can even manage to achieve an I.D. on the victim as they stew in the clinic's waiting room. In one of those magical moments that can only happen in studio era cinema, Williams' ensemble is not only color-coordinated with the room's floral arrangement, but also to the back of the magazine she's nervously thumbing through!! And this isn't even a Ross Hunter picture...!

Williams and Roberts see O'Connor and Hackman finally enter the scene, alleviating their distress, but it takes a beat longer for Crenna to come forth, much to Rule's overwhelming relief. Though none of these couples is what anyone would call happy, the ladies are at least happy to know that their loved ones are okay.
Meanwhile, Colicos is relaying his story to assistant district attorney Duke Hobbie and police sergeant Scott Brady. Cool as a cucumber, he doesn't hesitate to take full responsibility for his crime and immediately signs a confession.

The crowded landscape next springs forth Richard Anderson as the prosecutor.
Rule, who was already beginning to develop a migraine prior to the day's stressful events, goes looking for some pain reliever in her husband's medical bag at home. She looks over the prescription pills until spying some ampules of morphine which, after some brief consideration, she injects into her arm!

Meanwhile, the fallout from the shooting is discussed between Hackman and Roberts. Dig the wildly-patterned duster she's sporting in this sequence. Roberts is a burgeoning golf aficionado and has allowed her devotion to that sport to overrule some of her availability to Hackman.
Crenna comes home (following the aforementioned heart surgery, which I didn't provide photos for and which is long, grueling and very visceral) and finds his wife Rule in a, shall we say, very relaxed state. She's grooving to the morphine in her Pucci lounging pajamas and ready to corral her rather estranged spouse back into bed...
...or perhaps onto the floor! The two make love on Crenna's bedroom floor and canoodle under a fur throw.
Hackman, meanwhile, has decided that the key to renewed happiness with Roberts is another child (all the children, except Sands' son, are off-screen during this movie, reportedly at summer camp!) This is no small request considering she's in her mid-forties! As he attempts to convince her of their need be more intimate, a large phallic carrot hangs on the kitchen wall...

Now Colicos has put forth a bit of blackmail to Crenna and the other primary doctors of the clinic. Knowing he's doomed to be sentenced to prison, he wants to sell his interest in the clinic for $100,000. If Crenna and company don't come forth with the dough, he will publicly announce all the sexual dirt he has on each one of them!

I haven't mentioned it yet, but the costumer for this film is Moss Mabry, a mainstay at Columbia Pictures for quite a while. He did some really striking work in his career with the Dean Martin/Matt Helm films coming to mind. He also costumed The Love Machine and put Dyan Cannon in some seriously crazy shit in that one.

Thus, this film wouldn't be complete without at least one zany, out-there get-up and in this instance it falls upon Rule. As head of the ladies' auxiliary board, she commences the meeting with this jaw-dropping patent leather hat! This insane headgear is presented utterly without irony as she holds court with what looks like something that would turn Yosemite Sam green with envy.

Back at Holland's groovy bachelorette pad, she has hooked up with stud about town Costello. He is bemused by the fact that she has not only been recording information about the clinic, but has also been conducting some sexual experiments of her own and recording herself as she's being made love to! He is to be subject number 31!
Their interlude provides only real moment of male nudity in the film. She forgets to bring her tape recorder to bed and sends him darting out to the living room to retrieve it so that she can continue with her "clinical trial!" Meanwhile, the primary doctors of Westin Clinic meet to discuss Colicos' blackmail proposal and determine that it's something they're going to have to try to meet.
After the meeting, O'Connor drives by his old home and sees that the front door is lying open and all the lights are on. He darts into the house, cannot find his ex-wife Williams and then eventually spies her bobbing underwater in the family pool!

He manages to save her life, though she maintains that she was fine all along. After some chit-chat, she informs him that if he wishes to he can stay for an hour (in her bedroom...!) Thus, two of the couples seem to be headed for greener pastures between them.

Sands, whose young son is battling a serious illness, is shown at home - braless in a flimsy robe - with some wide-set hooters and her headlights turned on.

Colicos is released from prison, under police escort, to attend a funeral and there he is informed by Crenna that the doctors have conferred and are now agreed in meeting his payment demands.

During the service, we're treated to each wife's interior monologue. By the time it got to McCargo, she was simply reciting a prayer with no other external thoughts. This reminded me of the series finale for The Golden Girls, in which each of the four stars' thought were done in voice-over during Dorothy's wedding and when it got to Rose, she was singing "The Farmer in the Dell!"

Sands' son has now taken a significant turn for the worst and it's determined that he needs immediate surgery for a brain aneurysm.
At the city building, Colicos has now opted to also blackmail his father-in law Ralph Bellamy, an extremely wealthy man. He wants money from him in order to give up his claim to his two children and allow Bellamy to be rid of him. No clue as to whether these suggestively-designed lamp covers were intentional on behalf of the art director, but considering the big-hangin' carrot in Hackman's kitchen, it's certainly possible!
Things get worse for Sands when the only doctor qualified and available to perform her son's surgery is Colicos! He tells Crenna and Bellamy that if they get Anderson to release him, he'll perform the delicate brain operation. But they have to pay him the combined $350K that he wants of them and... they have to aid him in mounting an escape!! Crenna convinces Anderson to agree to the release.
Hackman and Roberts have a discussion that turns ugly. Before it's over, he begins whalloping the hell out of her with a folded up newspaper like she's the family dog who's just had an accident on the cream colored carpet! Still, they end up like the other couples in a better place than they began.

And, though they've gotten short shrift here, Gayne and McCargo also wind up in a happier marital state than they initially enjoyed. She even gives her rather drab old self a surprising mini-makeover, which gets his ol' heart pumping again as well as it ever did.

The one wife who doesn't get to enjoy extra closeness with her husband than what was there before is the adventurous and outrageous Cannon. If you cannot tell, I did try to avoid spoiling too many of the movie's plot twists because even under my microscopic examination, I don't like to prevent those who haven't ever seen a film from enjoying its various attributes.

The director of Doctors' Wives was George Schaefer, a man who principally produced for the stage and worked on much television, most notably as the steward of a series of TV renditions of popular Broadway plays such as The Corn is Green, The Little Foxes, Johnny Belinda and Kiss Me Kate. Most of his TV output was highly literate, which makes him an unusual choice for this inherently soapy and sometimes sordid tale. His career ended, true to form, with a 1996 version of Harvey, which starred Harry Anderson. He died in 1997 at age seventy-six.

Featured in an instrumental version over the opening credits (which also feature a female behind frosted glass disrobing for her doctor for an examination, then kissing him!) is the song "The Costume Ball." Later, the song is heard sung by Mama Cass Elliot, then it appears again (on the radio during Rule's morphine addled-seduction routine and when O'Connor is searching Williams' house.) Elliot would be dead of a heart attack in 1974 at only age thirty-two.

The closing credits for Doctors' Wives are in the style I love above any other! The actors are depicted along with their name and character. In this instance, slides of their faces shift across the screen which is displaying a chest x-ray. Cannon had divorced Cary Grant in 1968 and then enjoyed the smash hit Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice the following year. 1971 was a banner year which saw her in four other movies besides this one: The Love Machine, The Anderson Tapes, The Burglars and Such Good Friends.

She's smashingly sexy and frank in Wives, though as I said her screen time is limited. (The role was reportedly intended for Stella Stevens at one point!)  She remained a hot property in movies through the early-1980s until receding somewhat as the 1990s dawned. Still with us (albeit unrecognizable) at age eighty, she's been off-screen since about 2010.

Crenna was known to TV viewers for light series such as Our Miss Brooks (with Eve Arden) and The Real McCoys (with Walter Brennan) until graduating to the big screen in movies like The Sand Pebbles and Star! He segued between the two mediums with a last minute hiring on First Blood (with Sylvester Stallone) in 1982 for a departing Kirk Douglas becoming his signature role. He appeared in the next two Rambo movies as well. He died of heart failure in 2003 at age seventy-six.
Hackman had begun to win Oscar attention with Bonnie and Clyde and I Never Sang for My Father. After this movie, he did the Oscar-winning The French Connection and, with The Poseidon Adventure contributing to a one-two box office punch, emerged as a major 1970s leading man. He continued with great roles afterwards until 2004 when he retired from acting, but turned to writing novels instead. He is now eighty-seven.
After having toiled in supporting roles for a dozen or so years, O'Connor had already filmed (as of then unseen) pilots for All in the Family, which would premiere this same year to sensational acclaim. He played cantankerous Archie Bunker until the mid-1980s, then turned around a couple of seasons later and played the southern sheriff on In the Heat of the Night for eight seasons. He passed away from a heart attack in 2001 at age seventy-six, though it must be noted that his heart had been broken by the drug-related suicide of his son and only child six years prior. O'Connor lobbied for laws against drug dealers in the wake of this which have been adopted in several states.

Roberts, an acclaimed Welsh actress who made a mark in the ealry-1960s with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Sporting Life, battled alcoholism and a very turbulent love-life, much of it involving Rex Harrison who divorced her in 1971. She went on to Murder on the Orient Express, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Yanks, but in 1980 too her own life by swallowing a caustic substance. She was fifty-two.

Rule was born in the very Ohio subdivision in which I reside and then worked on Broadway before she was twenty. Though she worked steadily on stage and screen, she somehow missed becoming an important star (one ding came when she felt she had to turn down Eva Marie Saint's Oscar-winning role in On the Waterfront because she was working in Picnic on Broadway.) At first, Barbara Eden was announced for this role, but it didn't happen. Rule was wed to Ben Gazzara for twenty years and soon after Wives began pursuing a Ph.D. in Psychology, which she earned a decade later. A cerebral hemorrhage claimed her in 2003 at age seventy-two.
 
Sands was a prized stage actress of the 1960s who was able to repeat one of her successes on film with A Raisin in the Sun. (Another, The Owl and the Pussycat, was bleached and given to Barbra Streisand!) A couple of years after this movie, Sands was set to star in Claudine, but was too ill to proceed due to leiomyosarcoma. She died in 1973 at only age thirty-nine. She had enlisted friend Diahann Carroll to take the role of Claudine in her place and it netted the actress an Oscar nomination.

Williams had been working in movies since the early-1940s and in the 1950s was the first wife of John Drew Barrymore, who later produced Drew with his third spouse. (Williams own son with John Drew, John Blyth Barrymore, was an actor, too.) Williams' chief success was an Oscar nominated role in The Defiant Ones, though she also enjoyed a level of TV success. Remarkably, Miss Williams is still with us today at age ninety-two!

As a tall, lean young man, Anderson appeared in many movies of the 1950s, but he really didn't become particularly memorable until he started working on TV in the '60s in countless guest roles and then portraying Oscar Goldman on both The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. Those who were young in the mid-1970s could never forget his presence on those adventure series. He continued to act through the mid-1990s and lived until just this past August when he passed away from natural causes at age ninety-one.

Bellamy worked during Hollywood's golden years and was memorable as a comic foil for Cary Grant in both The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday. He worked steadily on stage and screen, developing a reputation for his portrayal of Franklin Roosevelt which he did in several projects. Having been given a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1987, his last movie was Pretty Woman in 1990. A lung ailment claimed him one year later when he was eighty-seven.

Canadian actor Colicos had been appearing in films during the 1950s, but began to make a bigger impression on 1960s television with guest roles on Star Trek and Mission: Impossible. He also appeared in Anne of the Thousand Days, Red Sky at Morning, Scorpio and Drum. Like Anderson, he is memorable to those of a certain age for playing the villainous Count Baltar on Battlestar Galactica. In 2000, Colicos passed away after a series of heart attacks at age seventy-one.

Gaynes, a native of Finland, had a colorful naval career during WWII followed by the opportunity to work on Broadway in 1946, which led to his becoming a U.S. citizen. After much stage work, he began to appear on TV and in films like The Group, Marooned and The Way We Were. Undoubtedly, he is recognizable as the exasperated commandant in Police Academy and its many sequels, though he also costarred on Punky Brewster for several seasons. His remarkably enduring marriage to actress Allyn Ann McLerie lasted from 1953 until his death in 2016 at age ninety-eight. (McLerie is still alive today at age ninety.)

Former tennis champion McCargo worked on 1960s TV and then in movies such as Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell and The Undefeated (as Rock Hudson's sister.) Her first marriage produced four sons, two of who went on to act themselves: Rick Moses and Billy Moses (of Falcon Crest, on which she later guest-starred six times.) Having married a U.S. Congressman in 1970, her work slowed thereafter and the two remained happily wed until she was claimed by pancreatic cancer in 2004 at age seventy-two. Her spouse died weeks later of pneumonia (and presumably a broken heart.)

Brady was a tough guy in westerns and policemen in crime dramas through the 1950s and '60s, enjoying his own syndicated western Shotgun Slade during the transition of those decades. Interestingly, he had just turned down the role of Archie Bunker on All in the Family that would soon make his Wives costar O'Connor a household name. Fittingly, his last role was as a sheriff in Gremlins in 1984, with pulmonary fibrosis claiming him the next year at only age sixty. He was the brother of actor Lawrence Tierney.

Holland was at this time playing Bill Bixby's secretary on The Courtship of Eddie's Father, though this racy part was a far cry from that one. Possessing a very distinctive voice, she provided many character voices in addition to her on-screen acting career (which drew to a close in the mid-'70s) including the animated series Wait Till Your Father Gets Home. Like Rule, she later pursued a Ph.D. in psychology and switched career gears in that direction. She is currently seventy-three.

Costello began acting on TV as a young man in shows like Bonanza and The Outer Limits, eventually winning roles in films like Will Penny and The Molly Maguires. He continued to act on television and in movies (such as Hackman's Night Moves) until the early-1980s when he became one of many men to be claimed by the AIDS epidemic. He was thirty-eight.

And lastly (!), Jenkins was a young actor who went from low-budget movies to roles on TV series such as The High Chaparral, The F.B.I. and Medical Center. The same year as Wives, he worked in The Andromeda Strain and then, continuing his trend towards the medical, starred on Young Doctor Kildare, a failed update of the Richard Chamberlain hit, with Gary Merrill as his mentor. Afterwards, he worked sporadically through the 1990s, eventually turning to theatre education. He is seventy-two now.
And with that, I leave you with one last look at that cray-cray hat that the esteemed Moss Mabry assigned to Miss Rule. If you wore this in a movie and survived it, you might turn to psychology as an avocation, too!