The Drilling Fields
Try to name a movie in which a dentist is portrayed in a positive light. You can’t, can you? It’s okay. Neither could I. When I think of dentists in movies, the first two that come to mind are Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man and Steve Martin in Little Shop of Horrors. I’m willing to bet about 90% of you thought of the same two movies because Hollywood does not have the same fascination with dentists that it has with doctors, lawyers, architects, strippers, cops and prostitutes. In the July 1997 issue of Movieline magazine, Joe Queenan examined the history of cinematic dentists.
Several months back, a good friend phoned and said that I absolutely must rent a new video titled Captives, starring Julia Ormond as a dentist doing pro bono work on Tim Roth’s recidivist teeth in a London prison. As this sounded like exactly my kind of movie, I immediately repaired to my local video store and asked the proprietress, “Do you have that new film about a dentist?” to which she replied, with an equanimity so blithe I still find it disconcerting, “Which one?”
At that instant, I realized I was living through one of the most unique eras in all human history, that rare, precious and beautiful moment, perhaps never to be repeated, when better video stores everywhere would be offering not one, but two just-released films about dentists.With the virtually simultaneous appearance of Captives and The Dentist, the dental profession for the first time in decades, nay, perhaps in its history, had reached the point where the movie industry was finally sitting up and taking notice of its deceptive glamour.
True, dentists still did not find themselves in the same ballpark as the medical profession, about whose exploits films keep appearing in staggering profusion, nor even in the same league as architects, whose craft–for no good reason–was recently canonized in a half dozen films during one three-year period. Nevertheless, with the release of Captives and The Dentist, it could be safely argued that the dental profession was finally showing up on the cultural radar screen, after years of cruelly uncaring submersion.
And yet, despite the euphoria that dentists everywhere must have felt when word got out that such esteemed thespians as Julia Ormond and Corbin Bernsen would soon be appearing in dental roles, the release of the two films has not been an unqualified triumph for the profession. In Captives, Ormond commits the one unforgivable sin cited in the dental catechism–falling in love with a patient who has bad teeth–and ends up conspiring with her patient to smuggle contraband into the prison. And in The Dentist, Bernsen plays a sadistic general practitioner so obsessed with his wife’s infidelity that he subjects her to the most hideous oral-surgical torture ever filmed, mutilating her lovely face beyond recognition. And after this he kills two dental assistants and his pool man. Just for the record, he also tortures and mutilates an IRS auditor.
Thus, at the very instant that the dental profession seemed poised to enjoy its greatest cinematic triumph, victory was snatched away by the lurid and repellent elements in these two films. Just when dentists seemed ready to take their place in the sun, after too long an eclipse by heart surgeons, trauma specialists and even osteopaths, Hollywood saw fit to release not one, but two films, depicting dentists as dangerous sociopaths. And so, a profession unjustly perceived as being riddled by low self-esteem, chronic drug abuse and a terrifyingly high suicide rate once again found itself the butt of a cruel joke.
“I couldn’t sleep the night I saw The Dentist,” says Dr. Peter Zegarelli, who happens to be my dentist in Tarrytown, N.Y. “It was the most disgusting picture I’ve ever seen. Why do people make these things?”
As someone who has always had great respect for dentists, and most particularly for the unfailingly professional Dr. Zegarelli, I too was perplexed and infuriated by the unsavory portrayal of dentists in these two films. I too would have preferred something more upbeat, perhaps a dental version of Sling Blade or Shine—Forrest Gum, if you will. And yet, one need only glance at the profession’s long, unhappy celluloid history to see that this new case of cinematic abuse was simply par for the course.
Ask the average person to name a movie about doctors and he’ll probably cite something epic like Doctor Zhivago. Ask the average person to name a movie about dentists, and he’ll almost certainly cite Marathon Man, in which a completely over-the-top Laurence Olivier plays a fiendish Nazi who uses macabre dental techniques to extract information from bug-eyed Dustin Hoffman, the archetypal reluctant patient. Anyone who has seen the film will agree that Olivier’s hair-raising performance is not fair to dentists. It may not even be fair to Nazis.
The negative image of dentists in motion pictures did not begin with Marathon Man. Almost from the industry’s birth, the dental profession has been the object of derision and contempt, not to mention revulsion and fear. The legendary Erich von Stroheim kicked things off with his 1925 epic Greed, which focuses on a do-it-yourself dentist named McTeague whose life is destroyed by a miserly wife and meddlesome bureaucrats who strip him of his livelihood just because he never went to a recognized dental school. With its grim portrayal of Wild West dental techniques, coupled with a telling scene in which McTeague smooches his future wife while she is under anesthesia, Greed introduced two themes that would characterize dental films for the rest of the century. One, dentists are butchers. Two, dentists are always looking to cop a feel.
Dentists fare no better in the controversial 1932 short The Dentist, starring W.C. Fields. As was the case in Greed, Fields qua dentist is a complete hatchet man, mouthing inanities like, “Hand me that 404 circular buzz saw, will you?” He is also a full-blown lecher. As he pulls a tooth from a female patient’s mouth, she gyrates so lasciviously–actually wrapping her legs around him–that she appears to be having an orgasm. The film caused a bit of a furor when it was released, due to outrage from dentists all across America who quite understandably objected to being portrayed as sex-crazed boobs. Alas, 64 years later, with the release of Captives, the only thing that’s changed is that the sex-crazed dentist has boobs.
In 1933, audiences were subjected to One Sunday Afternoon, in which Gary Cooper played a dentist tormented by the thought that he has married the wrong woman. The woman he thinks he really should have gotten, Fay Wray, has been stolen from him by a man who is not, needless to say, a dentist.
In his 1934 thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much, Alfred Hitchcock introduced a creepy, bespectacled dentist who is clearly in the employ of some malignant, fascist Central European government bent on crippling democracy. Working out of a run-down London suburb, in an office signposted by an illuminated set of choppers, the dentist first extracts a molar from a man whose tooth does not need to be extracted, then gets overpowered by his next patient, who gives him some of his own gas. The aggressive patient then poses as the dentist and manages to extract vital information from sinister visitor Peter Lorre. In creating the character of this dentist, Hitchcock clearly sought to devise a symbol for the parlous state of British dentistry in this century. That is, in a country where the local dentist is an incompetent sicko who hangs out with people like Peter Lorre, is it really all that surprising that the citizens are so reluctant to come in for regular checkups?
The ’40s were a Golden Age of Bad Dentist movies. In 1941 came The Strawberry Blonde, a remake of One Sunday Afternoon, starring James Cagney as a mail-order dentist who eventually goes to jail for fraud. The story, told in flashback, gradually builds up to the climactic moment when Cagney gets to avenge himself on the man who stole the woman he loves and railroaded him into a two-year stretch in the hoosegow.
Needless to say, his vengeance is spectacularly incisive in nature. One question that this amusing, but badly flawed, motion picture does not answer is why any individual in his right mind would agree to have his teeth worked on by a man who got his dental credentials through the mail while serving a prison sentence for a crime that the patient himself had committed. Particularly after he has stolen the girl the dentist loved. Not until 1996’s The Dentist, in which an IRS agent agrees not to prosecute Corbin Bernsen for tax fraud in exchange for free dental care, will the public again be exposed to a patient with such stupifyingly poor judgment.
The same year The Strawberry Blonde came out, Footsteps in the Dark, one of the strangest Errol Flynn movies ever made, was also released. Looking terribly out of character in a suit and tie, Flynn plays an investment banker who secretly writes mysteries under a pseudonym. Inadvertently embroiled in a murder case in which he is at one point the prime suspect, Flynn locks horns with Ralph Bellamy, a murderous dentist who has concocted a complex scam with a dithering showgirl he subsequently kills off. Notable for an unforgettable scene in which Bellamy and his patient Flynn exchange pleasantries while smoking cigarettes in the clinic, this film, like its predecessors, gives voice to the public’s deepest fears about the profession: these guys all seem to suffer from low self-esteem, are always on the prowl for fresh talent, and will do anything for a fast buck. Worse yet, they smoke.
In 1944, the famous director Preston Sturges made his one truly bad movie, The Great Moment, which chronicles the life and times of Dr. W.T.G. Morton, the man who invented dental anesthesia. With Joel McCrea badly miscast as a studious dental pioneer, the movie is replete with a botched operation, terrified patients, highly unethical dental practices and unbearable slapstick. Looking about as comfortable perusing his massive medical textbook as Keanu Reeves would look with the concordance to Moliere, McCrea is a tragic figure who ends his career in disgrace. Once again, low self-esteem runs rampant. In one scene, McCrea’s fiancee tearfully explains to her mother that her intended hopes to become a dentist. “Oh, and he seemed such a nice young man,” says the mother.
In 1948, the third–and only musical–version of One Sunday Afternoon was released. Here, the flatulent Dennis Morgan reprises the Cooper-Cagney role, and the music is very bad, as befits a profession whose operating theater ambience will eventually come to be intimately identified with Kenny G, Chuck Mangione and the appalling John Tesh. Thus, in one fell swoop, this remake achieved the unlikely hat trick of being both years behind and decades ahead of its time, while also sucking in the present.
That very same year, Bob Hope appeared as a hapless dentist in the oater comedy The Paleface. Early in the film Hope is seen using a hammer on his patient while reading dentistry technique from a manual. When his patient tries to explain that he is treating the wrong tooth, Hope snaps: “Please, no clues, you’ll spoil all the fun.” As with virtually every other movie in the genre, Hope’s character, “Painless” Potter, is clearly a lecherous individual plagued by crippling self-revulsion, though the film is enlivened by a great scene where Jane Russell guns down a couple of ornery varmints with pistols strapped around her undies.
For whatever reason, the 1950’s were a dental-deficient era in motion pictures, but as soon as 1960 arrived, there was Bells Are Ringing, in which Dean Martin plays an aspiring playwright who falls in love with the woman who runs his answering service, and becomes involved with a singing dentist who secretly dreams of writing musicals. As is only to be expected, Dr. Joe Kitchell, played by Bernie West, is an absolutely terrible dentist with horrendous taste in music. Once again, the same dominant themes take center stage: bad dentistry, low self-esteem, horrible music.
The 1960’s continued lugubriously with Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors, featuring a sadistic dentist and his masochistic patient, Jack Nicholson. Dentists fared no better in such offerings as Dentist in the Chair (wacky crime-fighting dental students), Get On With It (wacky dentist inventors), The Secret Partner (blackmailing dentist), The Shakiest Gun in the West (wacky Don Knotts in a horrid remake of The Paleface) and Cactus Flower (Goldie Hawn-loving dentist Walter Matthau).
The next time the public would be exposed to dental expertise of any note was in John Schlesinger’s watershed film Marathon Man, released in 1976. What makes Marathon Man so fascinating is that it is one of the few films in the entire canon of dental cinema in which the dentist does not suffer from low self-esteem. Yes, Laurence Olivier plays a sadistic Nazi hiding out in South America. Yes, he is a fiendish killer. And yes, he’s a practitioner of some of the most aggressive dental procedures imaginable. But nothing in Olivier’s performance suggests that he suffers from any doubts about his own worth as a person or a dentist. That’s one thing you have to give the Third Reich: they really knew how to make their employees feel good about themselves.
Perhaps owing to the dark shadow cast over the profession by Olivier’s nauseating antics, dentistry did not resurface in any meaningful way until 1985, when Joe Mantegna played a mobbed-up dentist in Compromising Positions. This intermittently entertaining film, starring Susan Sarandon as a nosy housewife/reporter investigating the dentist’s murder, opens with some fascinating shots inside her mouth, with Mantegna asking if she’s been using unwaxed dental floss and the Water Pik. This is, as far as I can determine, the first time that flossing is ever mentioned in a film about dentists. And doesn’t that say a lot about Hollywood’s idiot culture?
Compromising Positions has many fine touches, including impressive diagnostics and several highly realistic patient-doctor exchanges. We learn, however, that the murdered Bruce Fleckstein was not just a competent dentist with enough self-loathing to get messed up with the mob, but also, according to Sarandon, “the Don Juan of dentists.” In other words, once again, we find ourselves face-to-face with an ass bandit cursed by low self-esteem. Edward Herrmann, playing Sarandon’s husband, frames the whole self-esteem question nicely when he says, “God, I’d love to kill a dentist.” Hey, who wouldn’t?
Though dentists appear in supporting roles in movies as varied as Brazil; Houseguest; Serial Mom; Reuben, Reuben; the Rick Moranis musical remake of Little Shop of Horrors; and Pedro Almodovar’s What Have I Done to Deserve This? (which features a pedophile dentist who wants to adopt the female lead’s teenaged boy), none of those films need concern us here. In this study, we are primarily interested in films that deal with dentistry in some substantive way, not as an incidental plot point. And films of this nature, where dentists draw in the audience’s attention, do not surface again in any memorable way until 1996, when both Captives and The Dentist appear.
But, as previously noted, what at first seemed like a cause for jubilation among dentists has now proven to be a crushing disappointment. The very fact that the fetching Julia Ormond would even consider having an affair with a convicted murderer with bad teeth demonstrates, once again, the chronically low self-esteem that seems to bedevil the profession. And even though Captives contains an edifying amount of dental footage, with Ormond clearly having diligently prepared for the role, the film cannot be considered an unqualified artistic success.
Because it is set in a London prison, and is therefore teeming with riffraff cursed with very bad teeth, it is almost impossible to understand any of the dialogue that does not pertain to good hygiene. What’s more, the plot is a bit farfetched. No dentist, no matter how self-loathing, is going to voluntarily stick her tongue inside Tim Roth’s mouth. It’s not just a question of hygiene. It’s not even a question of sex. It’s a question of dental aesthetics. You might stick your fingers inside Tim Roth’s mouth, or even your nipples. But your own tongue? I can’t think of any dentist who would do that.
This brings us to The Dentist, one of the most uncompromisingly revolting motion pictures I have ever seen. As the film opens, suburban dentist Corbin Bernsen is clearly coming apart at the seams, fatally wounded by his wife’s affair with the pool man. He now sets out on a barbaric spree, gleefully drilling into his patients’ gums, strangling his assistant with pantyhose stripped from a sedated female, murdering his colleague, using a weird quasi-medieval torture instrument to mutilate a hapless IRS agent, and finally extracting all of his wife’s teeth before literally cutting her tongue out.
“You don’t know what it’s like–the discipline, the long hours, and the lack of respect in a world that goes on ignoring dental hygiene,” Bernsen declares in one of his numerous jeremiads against the American public. He has a point; we don’t, and for this he has earned our compassion. But when he spares the life of a young girl after she promises to brush three times a day and never eat candy, he steps across the line and becomes the stuff of our collective worst nightmare: the dentist who takes his work way too seriously.
As the foregoing makes clear, dentists have never fared well on the silver screen. In fact, in a recently released movie called Good Luck, Hollywood’s contempt extends even further down into the orally hygienic undergrowth with Gregory Hines playing a paraplegic dental technician who sets out to win a white-water raft race with a blind football player as his partner. Needless to say, the film is irredeemably stupid, and casts the entire world of dentistry in an even more frivolous light.
All in all, I was feeling pretty bad about the subject of dentistry by the time I’d finished watching all these films. As a lifetime proponent of the theory that motion pictures address the American public’s deepest fears, giving cinematic expression to our darkest, most hidden neuroses, it troubled me that virtually every movie dealing with dentists should portray them as buffoons, sadists, sex addicts or outright charlatans.
Then, one afternoon when I was visiting Piermont Pictures Video in suburban New York, I had a tremendously uplifting experience. Ric Pantale, the proprietor of the best video store I have ever been in, told me that Daniel-Day Lewis had once appeared in a little-known film called Eversmile New Jersey, which actually portrayed dentists in a positive light. And, as is always the case with this amazing little store, he had it in stock.
I rushed home to watch it, and can truly say that the next hour and a half was a revelation. Eversmile New Jersey deals with an evangelical Irish dentist who travels around the world on a motorcycle spreading the word of dental consciousness. Filmed on location in South America, this dental-hygienic Easy Rider follows Dr. Fergus O’Connell as he rides around the Argentinian countryside, encouraging peasants to avail themselves of his expertise. “Cavities have no mercy on cowards” and “There can be no pity for bacteria and their accomplices,” he declares.
Inevitably, his unconventional dental approach brings him into conflict with the reactionary forces of the Argentinian dental establishment, who naturally denigrate nomadic dentists, and may–the movie is not clear on this point–reserve special scorn for practitioners from New Jersey. This leads to the confiscation of O’Connell’s passport and a sort of nervous breakdown. But at the end of this movie, as opposed to almost every other dental film I know, the dentist emerges triumphant, with his dignity intact. What’s more, he gets the girl.
I am not going to argue that Eversmile New Jersey is a great motion picture. It has far too much pennywhistle music, a bit too much talk about bacterial growth, a few too many arty scenes of gas station attendants dressed like angels. Yet, in its respect for the practice of dentistry itself, and in its portrayal of a dentist who does not suffer from low self-esteem, it goes a long way toward redressing the imbalance caused by the leering dentalphobia of most other films in this genre.
Tragically, only those people who live close to a store with 19,000 videos in stock are ever likely to see this film. Everyone in the hinterland is doomed to go on seeing bad dentist movies forever. That’s the main reason I don’t live in the hinterland. If the American Dental Association had any sense, it would make millions of copies of this exceptional film and distribute them in dentists’ offices all across America. But no, Bible Belters would probably start complaining about the sex in the shower and the melon-breasted widow who likes to seduce roving dentists by luring them to her own private oral surgery. So just forget I suggested it. If dentists want to improve their public standing, they can’t expect Hollywood to do it for them. And they certainly shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for help from me. All things considered, I think articles like this just make things worse.
Joe Queenan interviewed Spike Lee for the October ’96 issue of Movieline.