Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Doctor: A Tale of Transformation

William Hurt as Dr. Jack McKee.
Jack McKee (William Hurt) is a highly-skilled surgeon with a loving family, an expensive home, and a Mercedes convertible. He jokes with his buddies at the hospital and keep his patients at a distance because “you need to be detached to be a good surgeon.” His bedside manner certainly needs improvement; when a female patient fears her husband will find her surgery scars unattractive, McKee responds flippantly: “You’ll look like a Playboy centerfold and have the staples to prove it.”

But his world gets turned upside down when an irritating itch in his throat turns out to be a malignant laryngeal tumor. Suddenly, the cavalier doctor has been transformed into a patient—and he doesn’t like it. He gets frustrated with the countless forms he’s required to fill out. His appointments are cancelled at the last minute. He’s placed in a semi-private room, not the private one he expected. He is even administered an enema by mistake. Worst of all, none of the hospital staff seem to care that Jack is a surgeon at the hospital. 

Based on Ed Rosenbaum’s book A Taste of My Own Medicine, The Doctor (1991) reunites William Hurt with his Children of a Lesser God director Randa Haines. Like that earlier film, The Doctor offers a thoughtful, introspective story that unfolds slowly, but effectively. 

Elizabeth Perkins as a fellow patient.
Jack McKee gradually learns that the hardest part of being a cancer patient is coping with the uncertainly of one’s future. This feeling of vulnerability is new to a self-centered man who has internalized his emotions. There is no doubt that Jack loves his wife (Christine Lahti), but he ignores her and turns to a fellow cancer patient (Elizabeth Perkins) for support during his treatment. (This breakdown in communication between the married couple leads to a climatic scene that reminded me very much of Children of a Lesser God.)

Christine Lahti and Hurt.
In the lead role, William Hurt evolves effortlessly from confident surgeon to baffled patient to a man with a new outlook on his career and life. His character's journey may seem a little too measured at times (e.g., we don't see the physical impacts of his treatment). Yet, The Doctor is still a powerful tale of how positive change and hope can be forged from a life-threatening disease.

Elizabeth Perkins and Christine Lahti are the standouts in the the supporting cast, though it's fun to see Mandy Patinkin and Adam Arkin play hospital surgeons three years before their TV series Chicago Hope.

The Doctor garnered good reviews and made a decent profit on its initial release. However, unlike Children of a Lesser God, it was forgotten at awards time and faded quickly into obscurity. It's one of those movies, though, that has always stuck with me. So, I was eager to see it again when recently given the opportunity after a 25-year gap. I'm glad to say that it still resonates and may have improved with age.


  1. Someone on your Facebook page said this was great viewing for college classes. I assume medical classes and agree.

  2. A dividing wall goes up between the patients and professionals. On one side is fear and hope, and on the other the overwhelming relentlessness of the job. I think I would find this movie very interesting.

  3. I remember this one quite well, saw it only once, liked it quite a bit (Elizabeth Perkins I thought was really good), but anyway, the morning after seeing it I woke up with a sore throat. I thought - No way am I that suggestible, but what a weird coincidence. After 4 weeks finally went to see a doctor, turned out to be some infection that wouldn't leave, some antibiotics took care of it. The timing was pretty odd. This really has disappeared though as you say. Deserves to be better known.

  4. This film has always stuck with me as well. It has a powerful message, and ought to be more well known. I loved William Hurt's and Elizabeth Perkins' performances.

  5. This is a very thought-provoking film. It is interesting to experience something wearing a different hat from the one you are used to. I really liked William Hurt in this and “Accidental Tourist”.