Physicians add a dose of authenticity

March 21, 1994|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Writer

Even doctors don't expect total medical verite when they go to the movies. But, by serving as medical consultants to filmmakers, they can prescribe a dose of fact to an otherwise fictional account.

Directors occasionally will ask doctors to review scripts for comment -- leaving open the option of ignoring it, of course -- and invite them on the set for any questions that may arise as the cameras roll.

"We agreed to disagree on some scenes. I would say it doesn't happen that way, they would listen, but not change it," says Dr. Julian Falutz, an AIDS specialist who advised the makers of "Philadelphia." "I thought the finished product was absolutely wonderful. It was not entirely accurate from a medical standpoint, but it got the message across to a mass audience. How many more people will know about AIDS now from seeing this movie?"

Dr. Falutz, a director of the AIDS clinic at Montreal General Hospital, was on sabbatical from a visiting professorship at the University of California, Los Angeles, when the "Philadelphia" team contacted him to review the script and meet with the producer, makeup artist and leading actor, Tom Hanks. He introduced them to one of his patients, now deceased, and the two of them on a lark tried to sneak into the background of one of the scenes, a costume party. (They didn't get in.)

"It was a great experience," he says. "I was very impressed with the people working on the movie, their honesty and dedication."

Dr. Falutz's work took place before filming began. In Philadelphia, Dr. Katalin Roth, an internist referred to the moviemakers by a local advocacy group, Action AIDS, took over advising duties.

"I thought it was a worthwhile project. I've had friends and patients who were discriminated against because of HIV," she says. "I was a film buff when I was younger. And I got to put bandages on Tom Hanks."

She helped set up IVs and otherwise make the medical scenes look more like those she confronts on a daily basis.

"I stuffed his doctor's coat pockets," Dr. Roth says of how she suggested that performance artist Karen Finley, who played Mr. Hanks' physician, look more real by having message slips and prescription pads packed into her white lab jacket.

And, when director Jonathan Demme asked whether, for the final scene, Mr. Hanks could be fitted with a sort of head-brace -- perhaps for a halo effect -- Dr. Roth advised him that an AIDS patient wouldn't need something like that.

"I thought it was a reasonably accurate portrayal," Dr. Roth says of the finished product. "It's always a question as to how much clinical information you want to impart in a film."

She is proud to be associated with the movie, and she's also glad that her city came off looking so good.

"I think it was a very fair and appreciating portrait of Philadelphia. It's not all 'Rocky,' " she says. "It made it look hip and kind of neat."

While doctors may be consulted on technical issues, they don't usually get to make their own characters look better. And so there have been movies over the years that portray them as less than heroic -- "Dead Ringers" (1988) featured Jeremy Irons as twin gynecologists gone bad, for example.

"Movies mirror how society looks at doctors," says Dr. Peter E. Dans, an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins who reviews films for The Pharos, the journal of the medical honor society, Alpha Omega Alpha. "If you look back at old movies, the medical profession was treated as a little more mythic than it is today."

He looks back, fondly, to a movie such as "Arrowsmith" (1931), based on the Sinclair Lewis novel and starring Ronald Colman as a selfless medical researcher.

As a sort of "Dr. Siskel-Ebert" -- Dr. Dans' columns are titled "The physician at the movies" -- he does have a nomination for best portrayal of a doctor in a movie this past year.

" 'The Fugitive,' " he says. "He's on the run, but he still takes the time to stop and take care of people along the way."

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