In the summer of 2000 two TV series premiered to huge audiences, Survivor and Big Brother. How popular were these two reality-based shows? Well, they’re both still on TV and major rating grabbers. That’s how popular they were. They were also the most recorded series that year. For 30 million people watching castaways on some tropical island or strangers argue inside a fake TV house took viewers away from their reality for a few hours a week.
America went gaga over those very first Survivor contestants in much the way Betty Sizemore (Renee Zellweger) does over her TV obsession, actor George McCord (Greg Kinnear) in Neil Labute’s 2000 dark comedy Nurse Betty (written by John C. Richards and James Flamberg) which opened in theaters just as Survivor was ending its first season. George plays heartthrob Dr. David Ravell on the daytime soap A Reason to Love and Betty lives for that one hour at the end of her day when she can lose herself in her favorite show.
Betty works as a waitress in a local Kansas diner and during her day shift, she tries to catch moments of her show on the diner TV without any distractions. She even mastered the art of pouring coffee without turning away from the TV—a skill which greatly impresses a diner customer who goes by the name Charlie (Morgan Freeman). Not so impressed with Betty is Charlie’s companion Wesley (Chris Rock) who we learn is a fan of A Reason to Love as well. His show crush isn’t Dr. Ravell, it’s nurse Jasmine (Sung-Hi Lee) and Wesley is later dismayed to learn that Jasmine is a lesbian and engaging in an affair with Chloe Jensen (Elizabeth Mitchell).
When Betty’s co-workers gift her with a life-size cut-out of Dr. Ravell for her birthday, she leaves the diner and heads home to her husband, Del (Aaron Eckhart) a mulleted car salesman who spends a good deal of his time at his dealership sleeping with his assistant Joyce (Sheila Kelley) on a busted ratty office couch. Yes, Del will sleep with Joyce—even on Betty’s birthday.
Del has a side hustle as a drug dealer, and with most sad sacks such as Del, sloppiness catches up to them as Del is visited by two hitmen to settle a score for a deal gone wrong. The hitmen turn out to be Charlie and Wesley who have no idea that the waitress from earlier that day is Del’s wife and is there in the house. Betty, however, sits oblivious in her bedroom and gets lost in that day’s events of A Reason to Love which her neighbor recorded for her.
LaBute does a remarkable thing with the hitmen sequence; until then, his movie plays like a light comedy with a leading character as sweet as a puppy dog earning the viewer’s empathy. This sequence turns all that on its head (pardon the pun if you know what I’m referring to) and we observe an act of violence so uniquely shocking and gross one would think they’re watching a deleted scene from Casino.
Eckhart was years away from his star-making role as Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight and up until this point, he was known for playing scheming, selfish cads in small films such as In The Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, and the violent caper Thursday. His role here is small, but Eckhart makes tremendous work of it. Watching the selfish lout squirm as Charlie and Wesley have him at gunpoint is a treat, especially when the talents of Freeman, Rock, and Eckhart are on full display.
Our sweet Betty who is pining away for Dr. Ravell in her bedroom hears some commotion and looks out her door just as a very grisly thing is occurring to Del. It’s not something one sees in their kitchen very often. We can imagine Betty never having seen such a sight before. This triggers a severe mental and traumatic emotional reaction within Betty’s fragile state where she’s then unable to determine reality from fantasy. What happens within Betty in that horrifying moment is that Del not only died, but her memory of him and her current life did as well. Betty comes out of her trauma believing she’s the ex-fiance of George Ravell’s and with that, Betty packs up and heads to California to reunite with him.
Charlie and Wesley are unaware of Betty’s presence in the house—that is until they read about her sudden disappearance in the paper. A strange thing then happens with Charlie. He feels a connection to Betty, possibly to protect her from Wesley who wants to find her and make sure she winds up like Del.
While Betty is driving across the country in an obsessive aim to be with George, Charlie drives across the country to find Betty with a similar obsession. Of course George the actor has no idea Betty exists and is on her way to find him while at the same time she has no memory of Dell’s killers who are on their way to find her—got that?
What’s remarkable in this story is how similar Betty and Charlie are in their determination. Betty has long been in love with Dr. Ravell’s perfect smile, blue eyes, and dedication to saving lives on A Reason To Love and Charlie is just as captivated by Betty’s kind smile, blue eyes, and gentle nature just from that newspaper photo.
At one point on her journey, Betty stops in at a bar in Arizona where she strikes up a conversation with the owner, Ellen, (Harriet Sansom Harris). As one does when meeting those traveling on the road, Ellen asks Betty where she’s headed and Betty reveals she’s on her to meet her “ex-fiance” who’s a handsome doctor at a hospital in LA named David Ravell. As a watcher of A Reason To Love herself, Ellen for a few moments, doesn’t quite know what to make of Betty’s story. But one look into that face, she realizes Betty believes 100% in why she’s heading across the country. Instead of setting Betty straight with reality or calling her a deranged, crazy person, Ellen smiles and wishes Betty the best of luck.
Charlie doesn’t have that encouraging support from Wesley who needles him repeatedly about his Betty infatuation. Charlie knows that if Wesley finds her, he’s going to kill her. Wesley wants to put Betty in the hospital but what neither of them knows is that a hospital is precisely where Betty is headed. Once Betty arrives in LA she goes in search of Dr. Ravell but instead she finds actual patients with real injuries—one she manages to save just by being at the right place at the right time. The person she saves has a sister named Rosa (Tia Texada) who offers Betty a place to stay while the hospital recognizing her skills, offers her a job in their pharmacy. Within 24 hours of her arrival, Betty has made a friend, found a place to live, and landed a job.
Eventually, Rosa learns what led Betty to LA, and let’s just say she’s not as understanding or supportive as Ellen. Rosa, who has connections in the entertainment world (it is LA after all) invites Betty to one of those celebrity charity events that are popular to go face-to-face with Dr. Ravell/George himself. When Betty approaches the object of her affection, she pours her heart out to him as A Reason To Love’s writers look on—first in amusement—then in awe. Betty’s sincerity as a fan of the show has won them over and the next thing Betty is asked to tag along with the group as they head to another function. Betty has then charmed her way onto the set of A Reason To Love where she’s given her own featured role.
Remember how I began this article by noting Nurse Betty opened just as Survivor mania swept the nation? It’s because that summer the office water cooler talk wasn’t about Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts. It was about “the naked guy on Survivor.” That naked guy was named Richard Hatch, and he became a celebrity that summer. Late-night hosts were discussing him, and it could be argued he was the 2000s first reality show celebrity. Richard Hatch and Betty Sizemore were ordinary people but wound up stars by appearing on TV.
Betty charmed the soap opera viewing public just as effortlessly as she charmed Charlie, who is still determined to find her. If Charlie had just turned on his TV any afternoon, he would have found her. The movie’s confrontation where Charlie and Wesley burst into Rosa and Betty’s house has the same uneasy sense of graphic violence that the Del sequence conveyed. Most of Nurse Betty plays like a light, comedic (but dark) fable and this final act feels like something out of Tony Scott’s delirious and glorious True Romance.
Amidst the bullets and blood in this scene, Charlie has finally found his Betty—the wounded soul who has been haunting his thoughts all this time in much the same way as Betty found her George Ravell. In a heartfelt exchange, Charlie explains that he sought her ought because she represented goodness in a long life defined by violence dealing with lowlifes like Del throughout.
Nurse Betty ends on a whimsical, feel-good moment as Betty (like Survivor’s Richard Hatch) is now a famous TV star and enjoying a life she could previously have only dreamed of. The gentle, kind, and friendly people of the world have won, and the bad guys did not. It’s certainly quite a contrast from LaBute’s debut picture In the Company of Men where the kind and innocent are hurt the most, and the monsters of our society get by just fine. I want to take a look at In the Company of Men for this series, but that’s for another time. Maybe when the world isn’t quite so sour as it is right at this moment.
I’m not usually one for sentimental mush in my entertainment but sometimes our soul needs it. Perhaps this is why LaBute after Men and Your Friends and Neighbors made Nurse Betty. The ending may be sentimental, it may be hokey but it works because of LaBute’s steadfast belief that Betty deserves her happy ending. Zellweger’s charm, vulnerability and sincerity, and Rolfe Kent’s wonderfully dreamy Nino Rota inspired score help us surrender to Nurse Betty the movie, which just like its title character is a little goodness within a world currently overrun by violence and people like Charlie. We’ll hold onto any goodness which may grace our path.