Film & Television

Filming the Mind: Mental Illness in the Movies

Another Oscar winner (four in all), highly recommended to all is Ordinary People (1980), which was Robert Redford’s first effort at direction and Timothy Hutton’s debut as an actor. Dealing with the aftermath of their son’s (Hutton) suicide attempt, Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland play bewildered parents struggling to cope with understanding him and dealing with the impact of their elder son’s death in a sailing accident. Judd Hirsch plays the therapist who tries to help Hutton with his depression and guilt that he has survived the accident that his brother did not. Adding to the impressive cast is a teenage Elizabeth McGovern in her first role. The film is remarkable, especially, because the therapist is portrayed as friendly, warm, and helpful.

Mental health professionals do come in for a particularly hard time in the movies, from Nurse Ratched all the way to the analyst in There’s Something About Mary, who sleeps through sessions and wakes up only occasionally to make interpretations about latent homosexuality. One classic film that may not rate high in artistry but is a persistent favorite with women is  “Now Voyager” (1942). In this film Claude Rains plays the brilliant Dr. Jacwith, who  is brought to visit Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis), at her elegant Boston home by her sister-in law.  Seeing that she lives an isolated life as a companion to her elderly, impossibly stuffy and rich mother, Dr. Jacwith recognizes that the repressed and suppressed young woman must be whisked off to his clinic in Vermont at once and she emerges a few months later a glamorous, self-confident woman ready for an ocean voyage (hence the title). Romance ensues, though Dr. Jacwith continues to be helpful later on, because, as is often the case, things are not always neatly sewn up in the second act!

RELATED: Can Brain Scans Diagnose Mental Illness

No one has brought more interest to the understanding of emotional and mental states in films than Alfred Hitchcock. Almost every one of his movies deals with psychological themes, and many of them have mental illness as the main agenda. The most obvious, of course, is Psycho (1960), in which Anthony Perkins play a demented young man who is running an off-the-highway motel by himself, living in an old Victorian house next door with his mother. Without really learning why, we discover there is significant “pathology” in that relationship . . .  (spoilers ahead for the three people who have not seen this film or its remake) . . .  in any case, here Hitchcock deals with a case of delusional identification: Norman Bates, unable to mourn his mother, becomes her, and embodies her attitudes, e.g. that he should not experience desire for women. 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!