The entertainment industry rarely delivers a kindly portrayal of dentists and dentistry. Whether in movies, in TV series or in print, their representations are centered on the assumption that people don’t like going to the dentist. Read Pi Dental Center’s blog about Dentists in the Media.
Dentists in movies are often characterized as evil, vengeful, malicious, naïve, morally bankrupt, or just plain boring. Portrayals of dentists in a realistic or a positive light are a much smaller body of work by far.
Dr. Thomas Giacobbi, editorial director of Dentaltown Magazine, states that dentistry is rarely depicted in a positive light.
Lisa Newburger, writing in Dental Products Report says, “Dentists and hygienists get a bad rap! It’s just a fact that certain procedures cause pain. While nobody [goes] into this profession to cause pain (although, have you seen The Little Shop of Horrors?), it’s sometimes an inevitable part of dental work. Pain changes people. It makes the sweet, old lady a little nasty. This can get projected onto the dental professional.”
This negative representation of dentistry compromises good dental health by contributing to people’s fear of dentists, making the general public less willing to seek much needed dental care.
Orin Schrivello is arguably one of the most well-known deranged dentists on screen or on stage. In the 1986 musical, Little Shop of Horrors, Steve Martin plays the sadistic dentist who likes to inflict pain on his patients and his girlfriend. Until he becomes dinner for the man-eating Audrey II plant from outer space.
In the 1976 suspense-thriller film, Marathon Man, adapted by William Goldman from his 1974 novel, Dustin Hoffman is tortured by Nazi war-criminal dentist, Dr. Christian Szell (Sir Laurence Olivier). Szell is in the United States to sell a large cache of diamonds stolen from Jews killed at Auschwitz.
Corbin Bernsen stars as Dr. Alan Feinstone in the 1996 horror film, The Dentist. When Feinstone discovers his wife’s infidelity, his life spirals out of control and he goes on a murderous rampage driven by jealousy and an obsessive-compulsive disorder. One reviewer of this film said, “Fear and pain are the main reasons people don’t like going to the dentist, so that’s why this is the perfect setting for a horror movie.”
In Horrible Bosses, Julia Harris DDS (Jennifer Aniston), is a manipulative, aggressive boss who regularly sexually harasses her subordinate, Dale, whom she blackmails with compromising photos that she took while he was unconscious.
BUMBLING, INCOMPETENT DENTISTS
The Dentist’s Office aired on the Abbott and Costello Show on December 12, 1952. When Lou Costello’s toothache becomes unbearable, Bud Abbott takes him to see a near-sighted dentist. When the dentist, asks Costello, “You don’t mind if there’s a patient before you?” he replies, “I wouldn’t mind if there were 340 patients before me.”
On the Bob Newhart Show, Dr. Bob Hartley (Bob Newhart), a psychologist, shares his office and his secretary with Dr. Jerry Robinson (Peter Bonerz), a bumbling, eccentric, 70s swinging-single, orthodontist. When Jerry comes into money, he gives up his practice to do nothing but whittle and watch the sun come up. Bonerz appeared as Dr. Robinson on the Bob Newhart Show in 139 episodes from 1972-1978.
In The Whole Nine Yards, Matthew Perry plays Nicholas “Oz” Oseransky, an incompetent dentist who is on the run from the mob, has a wife and mother-in-law who hate him, is laden with debt after his father-in-law (now deceased) embezzled from the practice, and almost kills a patient with nitrous oxide.
Bob Hope stars in, The Paleface, a 1948 comedy loosely based on real life dentist, “Painless” Edgar Rudolph Randolph Parker, portrayed in the film as a inept, cowardly dentist in the Wild West.
MORALLY BANKRUPT DENTISTS
Cactus Flower, set in the 1960’s, features Walter Matthau as Julian Winston DDS, a bachelor dentist who deceives his hippy, ditsy girlfriend that he has a wife and three kids to ensure that she will not expect a proposal.
Novacaine stars Steve Martin, humdrum dentist Dr. Frank Sangster, whose quiet life is derailed when he’s seduced by Susan Ivey (Helena Bonham Carter), and ends up stealing all the narcotics in his office. One small lie and everything unravels into crazy mixed up situations in this 2001 black comedy.
In Robert Altman’s 1970 film, M*A*S*H, the camp dentist, Captain Walter Koskiusko “Painless Pole” Waldowski (John Schuck), begins questioning his sexuality after suffering a “lack of performance” with a visiting nurse. Believing he is impotent due to latent homosexual tendencies, Painless tells Hawkeye he wants to commit suicide rather than disappoint the three girls he is engaged to back home.
In the 2003 Disney animated film, Finding Nemo, hapless Australian dentist, Dr. Phillip Sherman, captures Nemo and places him into an office aquarium. Clueless as to the needs and value of fish, Sherman allows his rambunctious, destructive niece, Darla, to abuse Nemo and the other fish.
Alan Arkin played Shelly Kornpett, in The In-Laws. Arkin portrays a humdrum, mild-mannered New York City dentist preparing for his daughter’s wedding. The groom’s father, Vince, is a hyper fellow who pulls Sheldon into one misadventure after another.
DENTISTRY IN A POSITIVE LIGHT
Hermey the Misfit Elf, one of Santa Claus’ helpers in the 1964 television special, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, doesn’t enjoy making toys like other elves. Instead, he proclaims, “Someday, I want to be a dentist! It’s fascinating ¾ molars, incisors and bicuspids,” making him a target of elfin ridicule, much like Rudolph with his glowing red nose. He returns in the 2001 computer-animated sequel, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys, as Hermey the Elf, DDS, with a “Toothmobile” and a crush on the Tooth Fairy.
Snow Dogs, a 2002 Walt Disney Pictures comedy with lots of corny humor, features a Miami dentist, Dr. Ted Brooks (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), whose life is changed when he inherits a team of sled dogs in Alaska.
Dentists in the Media:
Some other films that feature main characters who are dentists: The Man Who Knew Too Much, Inherent Vice, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Ghost Town, Thumbsucker, Eversmile, Secret Lives of Dentists
The role of mass media was examined in an article written in 2016 in Odontoestomatología, Patients’ Perceptions About Dentists: A Literature Review. “Nowadays, mass media influences the way people think and behave to a great extent. Mass media have had a key role in the development of dental fear and anxiety, both in children and adults. Dentists have been portrayed in cinema, television and commercial advertising media, sometimes negatively, which has affected people’s fears and has distorted people’s general perception of what dentists are really like. It is well known that dental treatment can be uncomfortable: this image is extensively exploited by the mass media and has resulted in the creation of an imaginary and popular idea of what a dentist is, associated with fear and pain, which in turn has stigmatized dentistry.”*
Mass media help to make the general public fearful of dental treatment and consequently contributes to people’s unwillingness to seek needed dental treatment. Therefore it follows that mass media bears some responsibility for the public’s poor dental health.
* Patients’ perceptions about dentists A literature review Henríquez-Tejo, Rocío Belén*, Cartes-Velásquez, Ricardo Andrés Odontoestomatología / Vol. XVIII No 27 / May 2016
By Chris Raines