Film & Television

Filming the Mind: Mental Illness in the Movies

77152-004-AB40389DJoanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve (1957), in which she played a woman suffering from multiple personality disorder (now called dissociative identity disorder). Courtesy of Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation

As we finish our countdown to Oscar Madness, it seemed logical to take a look at the way the movies have handled madness itself through the years. Overall, Hollywood has been uneven about its approach to mental illness, sometimes exploiting the subject for lurid B pictures, like The Snake Pit, (1948, an asylum, with Olivia de Havilland), some of which were pretty big hits, like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, (1962, pathological sisters, Joan Crawford, with a memorable assist from Bette Davis). Occasionally, despite the hyperbole and romanticizing of the pathology, as in Sunset Boulevard (1950, Gloria Swanson, as delusional former film star), the results are terrific.

A few films about mental illness have had a significant impact on the public. One was The 3 Faces of Eve (1957) which starred Joanne Woodward as a shy and unassuming housewife named Eve White. She suffers headaches and blackouts, and it is finally discovered by her psychiatrist (Lee J. Cobb) that Eve has an “alternate” personality, “Eve Black,” as well as a third completely distinct one, unknown to the other two. For most of the public, this was their first introduction to this rare form of mental illness, now known as dissociative identity disorder. It is always the result of extreme emotional and physical abuse suffered in childhood, a form of defense that can be understood as an exaggerated form of “denial”: this can’t be happening to me . . . this isn’t happening to me . . . I am not here . . . this is happening to someone else. Usually the victim creates at least one alternate who is a “protector”: a stronger, more aggressive self who stands up to others when he or she cannot.

Woodward went on to win the best actress Oscar for her extraordinary performance as Eve. Jumping so quickly between three different personalities, complete with subtle but distinct changes in voice, carriage, demeanor, etc., is an extraordinary feat for an actor, and it is an amazing thing to witness when a real person suffering from this illness does this before your eyes without even knowing it. Some have tried to emulate the symptoms, without success. Kenneth Bianchi, the notorious “Hillside Strangler,” who, with an accomplice, was responsible for 15 rape-murders in Los Angeles in the late 1970s pleaded guilty by reason of insanity and initially tried to use multiple personality disorder (as it used to be called) as a defense. But the prosecutor’s psychiatrists were able to trip him up.

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An excellent film partly inspired by that case, called Primal Fear (1996, starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney as opposing attorneys) brought the actor Edward Norton his first widespread recognition when he played a young man who used a similar defense. His portrayal of someone whose personality seemed to shift instantaneously back and forth from timid and self-effacing to angry and aggressive gained him stellar reviews and launched his career as a leading man.

Another landmark film about mental illness is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), which won five Oscars. Overall, it is probably the greatest film about this subject ever made. Jack Nicholson is at his absolute best as an iconoclast who has somehow wound up in a mental hospital, where he locks horns with a strict nurse when he riles up the fragile patients. Besides the artistry of the cast, script, and direction, it an indictment of the abuse of power over mental patients, perhaps the most disenfranchised of all our citizens. During my time as a psychologist in the State Mental Health system I encountered only one person (a psychiatrist) who came close to “Nurse Ratched’s” level of self-satisfied megalomania. What I encountered instead, perhaps more worrying, were many well-meaning people who were often oblivious to the power they held over their patients’ lives and the impact that even the smallest decisions they made would have on them. Read More »

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  • Mickey February 25, 2016 at 11:53 am

    As Good As It Gets? Anyone? Although it was funny in some ways, not funny in others. And the gay man. More mental illness caused by traumatic experiences. Lots of great movies to remember and some I would like to view. Thank you.

  • Carol Arrington February 25, 2016 at 10:46 am

    Great article. I wanted to make one comment because I believe Olivia deHavilland was the actress in Snake Pit.

  • Cecilia Ford February 25, 2016 at 9:53 am

    yes…anyone who hasn’t seen “Ordinary People” should give it a try. Mary Tyler Moore is amazing playing “against type” as a narcissistic mother and Elizabeth McGovern’s fresh, unselfconscious performance is also wonderful. Timothy Hutton won best supporting actor, Redford best director, and it also won best picture and screenplay. The novel, by Judith Guest, is also great.

  • Andrea February 25, 2016 at 7:49 am

    Ordinary people and infinitely polar bear are 2 amazing movies that address this issue so beautifully! Great article Cecilia!