10/10
Exquisite sleaze
14 December 2006
1971's "Doctors' Wives" is a piece of vintage garbage I've waited decades to see, and it's every bit as splendidly awful as I've long anticipated. This is a sterling example of big budget Hollywood trying to keep up with the hippy era sex revolution, while appealing to suburban Squaresville tastes, and the results are as unappetising as walking in on your parents in the backroom at a leather bar. In other words, it's a vulgar abomination, and required viewing.

"God, am I horny!" announces Dyan Cannon, providing the film's tasteful opening line. She's the resident nympho of the wives in question, and they're playing bridge at their country club. She tells her neurotic rich cronies that, as a public service, she's going to sleep with every last one of their husbands, and report back to them exactly what they're doing wrong in bed. Hours later she's shot dead, while caught in the act with the first of her conquests. The conquest survives, and we're treated to endless and nauseating footage of real life open heart surgery, as the character has the bullet graphically dug out of him. This, of course, was shocking stuff for an early 70s mainstream movie, and its blatantly exploitational marketing gimmick. The rest of the film is exactly the kind of glossy soap opera that starred the likes of Lana Turner a decade earlier, but overlaid with grimy layer of smut. Not much genuine sex and nudity, mind, but an all star cast of middle aged imbeciles debasing themselves with humiliating sexual revelations.

The murder, you see, has come as a wake-up call to the various wives, who decide it's about time to "get with the times" and spice up their marriages. One WASPy iceberg has a fling with a studly intern, while another pumps herself up with an aphrodisiac cocktail of morphine and champagne. This makes her thrash around on the carpet like a cat in heat, as she seduces her bored surgeon husband fetish style, with hopes of winning back his affections. He, meanwhile, has been having an affair with his head nurse, a noble single mother of a sick little boy -- but their love dare not speak its name because she's (gasp!) black. Another of the wives, meanwhile, is an out-of-control drunk whose husband saves her from suicide by drowning, which lures him back to bed for a sympathy lay. The funniest of the lot is a frigid shrew who confesses to a lesbian fling with the murdered harlot ("It was a hot night and I was wearing no bra, under a see-through blouse…") Her husband, played by Gene Hackman, reacts by swatting her repeatedly with a rolled-up newspaper.

What's actually refreshing about this numbing lunacy is how curiously free it is of cheap moralizing. With the exception of the victim and her killer, everyone screws around and are all but congratulated for doing so, as they arrive at better understandings of one another, and the ending suggests that their sordid privileged lives will be more of the same. It plays like a battle cry for the short-lived suburban wife-swapping fad of the sleazy 70s, and worse, it takes itself dead serious. Only in its intentional comedy relief, for instance, is there any mention of STDs. This involves a pretty young med student seducing as many hospital staffers as she can, and tape recording the details of intercourse while performing it, as a Kinsey style master's thesis. It turns out she's spreading the clap like wild fire. This subplot, needless to add, is the only part of the film that isn't hilarious.

As a narrative, "Doctors' Wives" really is a whole lot of absolute nothing -- dirty as a cesspool without even softcore sex; full of shrieking conflict with no dramatic involvement or resolve; and worst of all, it's perfectly set up to be a murder mystery. This, stupidly, is quickly solved and cast aside, in favour of some strange hybrid of degrading chick flick and clueless social document, with gratuitous bits of gore porn, but no suspense or violence. In other words, it's one of those true rarities that manages to miss the broad side of a barn, in terms of any sort of target audience.

That is to say, any audience of its day, since it's now a fascinating freak of unspeakably wretched period cinema, way more fun and thought-provoking for what it gets wrong, than what the same year's highly regarded, and similarly set, "The Hospital" once seemed to get right. That one, from the over-rated Paddy Chayefsky, was a deliberate satire of medical professionals that now seems smug and obvious. The accidental parody of its intellectually challenged contemporary, "Doctors' Wives", covers the same turf with a time capsule crassness that's certainly a lot less boring.

Oh, and did I mention the Carpenters-style theme song, sung by Mama Cass Elliot, about the world being a masquerade ball that goes on and on? Now there's a bit of deep and cool irony to frame the profundity that follows exactly right.
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