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Ghost Town, a romantic comedy featuring Ricky Gervais as a dentist and leading man, is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray and can be purchased at amazon.com. For more information on the movie itself, visit ghosttownmovie.com. Photo: DreamWorks SKG
From Steve Martin as the Elvis-inspired sadistic dentist in 1986’s film version of the Broadway hit “Little Shop of Horrors” to the 2008 comedy starring Ricky Gervais as a ho-hum dentist who dies and is brought back to life only to see ghosts that need his help, actors throughout the decades have stepped up without hesitation to portray dentists on screen. Movies that feature dentists spread across a multitude of genres such as action, drama, horror and most often comedy. Some films, including “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad World” (1963, Sid Caesar) and “Cactus Flower” (1969, Walter Matthau), even captured Acadamy Awards and critical acclaim.1
Although dentists may not always be portrayed in the best light, often symbols of pain, fear or incompetence, there has been a cultural shift with prevention and esthetics replacing drilling and extraction in the public’s perception of the dental practice. No longer seen exclusively as sadists, dentists are now more likely to be portrayed as solid citizens, romantic figures and realistic human beings.2
Dentists as romantic figures
Ricky Gervais plays Dr. Bertram Pincus a dentist whose social abilities leave much to be desired in “Ghost Town” Often dismissive and rude, Pincus picks up the devastatingly annoying habit to see and speak to ghosts after he is miraculously revived following a brief seven minute death. Even worse, they all want something from him, especially Frank Herilhy, played be Greg Kinnear, who pesters him into breaking up the approaching marriage of his widow Gwen (Tea Leoni). That puts Pincus directly in the middle of a romantic/spirited triangle in which he becomes the unlikely romantic hero. Through dry and witty banter between Kinnear and Gervais and the disastrously comedic escapades used to impress Pincus’ crush, Gwen, “Ghost Town” offers a fun and lighthearted insight to the dental world. Not to mention a great opening sequence of handpieces, molds and delivery systems.
In addition to the comedian, dentists often act as metaphors for stability and normalcy. For example, the distressed girlfriend of Tom Hanks’s “Cast Away” character eventually marries an Endodontist as a means to regain security and the plot of 2007’s “Reign Over Me” starring Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle depends on a solid-citizen dentist to take in the unhinged Adam Sandler character. 3
Breaking the stereotype
The story of “Reign Over Me” begins with the chance meeting of Dr. Alan Johnson, played by Cheadle, and his old college roommate Dr. Charlie Fineman, played by Sandler. Dr. Fineman, once a successful dentist, is mourning the loss of his family in the September 11th attacks by alienating himself and resorting to an almost childlike existence of listening to music, playing video games and drum playing. Outwardly successful, Dr. Johnson finds himself overwhelmed by his family and career responsibilities, but still manages to help his old friend and thus, restore faith in his own life.4 “Reign Over Me” is a very human story about tragedy and friendship, that also breaks the race barrier by escaping Hollywood’s stereotypical portrayal of dentists as white males.
Also breaking the mold, is the 2002 film “The Secret Lives of Dentists.” Although the film didn’t receive much press or box office support, it does represent one of the first examples of a female dental professional. Hope Davis plays Dr. Dana Hurst who shares a dental practice with her husband. A story of infidelity and the disillusions of marriage, “The Secret Lives of Dentists” shies away from the recurring beautiful and blonde dental hygienist stereotype that is usually present in dental films and portrays the woman as a professional who is equal to her male counterpart. 1
Not all movies break the mold
Unfortunately, not all modern day dental films shy away from stereotypical portrayals of dentists. Take for instance Steve Martin’s role in the 2001 film “Novocaine.” Martin plays Dr. Frank Sangster, a dutiful, stable, yet boring dentist who’s only goal in life is to do a good day’s work alongside his blonde hygienist and fiancée, Jean Nobel (Laura Dern). Unable to say no to the pleading eyes and yearning body of patient Susan Ivey (Helena Bonham Carter), Dr. Sangster finds himself implicated in charges involving drugs, lies and murder. Although dark in its humor, “Novocaine,” delivers a comedic storyline about a dentist who is thrown unwillingly into turmoil as his dull and ordinary life is taken over by the antics of a spontaneous drug addict. 5
The 2005 film, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” starring Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka is an example of a contemporary film that reinforces the dentist as a pain inducer. The tormented son of an obsessed, fiendish dentist, played by Christopher Lee, Willy Wonka attributes his bizarre idiosyncrasies to a horrifying childhood of braces, headgear and candy deprivation. Not to mention the 1996 horror film “The Dentist,” where Corbin Bernsen plays Dr. Alan Feinstone a dentist with a successful career and beautiful wife. After discovering that his wife has been having an affair, he goes insane and inflicts cruel dental torture on all of his patients. The film was so successful it resulted in the release of the 1998 sequel “The Dentist 2.”6 Portraying dentists as pain-inflicting maniacs may not be as common as their comedic counterparts, but these films could be partially to blame for instilling the fear of going to the dentist for many in the audience.1
Regardless of how dentists are portrayed on the big screen, it is safe to say that dental films hold a big piece of popular culture. Through the growth of preventive and cosmetic dentistry, dentists on film are breaking away from their villainous or idiotic stereotypes and are starting to be portrayed as romantic, diverse and very human characters. Seeming to be commonly used as metaphors for stability and normalcy, it will be interesting to see how dentists and the dental culture will be captured on screen in the years to come.
1 Thibodeau E., Mentasti L. E. Who stole Nemo? JADA May 1, 2007; 138(5): 656-660
2 Mandel ID. The image of dentistry in contemporary culture. JADA 1998;129(5):607–13
3 Curtis, Eric K. Dentistry at the movies. JADA, 2007. Vol 138, No 9, 1190-1191
4 IMDb.com. Reign over me. 2007. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0490204/
5 Ebert, Robert. “Novocaine” November,16 2001. Roger Ebert.com
6 IMDb.com. The Dentist. 1996. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0116075/