Mental Illness and the Movies


Just a brief post from me as I’m on my way to Nashville to, among other things, meet up with the maestro for a screening of recent cult film ‘The Room’ at the glorious Belcourt Theatre. Meantime, I’d like to recommend the gutsy article at the Huffington Post from Glenn Close on the cinematic portrayal of mental illness. It’s a significant moment when anyone is prepared to criticise their own work, especially when that work is among the most successful and iconic they’ve done, but Close all but disassociates herself from ‘Fatal Attraction’ because the way it turned a human being with a personality disorder who needed help into a monster whom the audience was supposed to consider worthy only of being spectacularly murdered.

There are, as Close writes, notable exceptions (such as ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, above) to the superficiality or demonising portrayals of mental illness; but for the most part, the contours of the mind in the movies are subject to the same kind of over-simplification or plain ignorance that shows up every time the term ‘schizophrenic’ is used to describe ‘split personality’ (an entirely different condition) or, more disturbing, when ‘psychotic’ is used interchangeably with the accurate term given to the extremely rare phenomenon of ‘psychopathy’. According to the Native American scholar Joe Gone, 48% of US Americans have a diagnosable mental illness, and so Close’s points about ignorance not helping any of us are just the tip of the iceberg.  I’m not an expert in any of this, although like most of us, have not been untouched by mental illness in my friends, my family, myself; I’d love to have a conversation here about the portrayal of psychological conditions in cinema – any particularly good examples of accuracy, or bad examples of egregious misunderstanding?  If mental illness is frequently rooted in conflicted desire and expectation, and if cinema is about desire, is it possible that the movies might actually have the power to make us sick?  Or to heal us?


2 responses to “Mental Illness and the Movies

  1. One of my favourite films is Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, in which a shock jock tries to find “salvation” helping a mentally ill man fit back into ordinary life (he is directly responsible though for Perry’s illness in the first place.) A modern NY fable steeped in medieval myth and based loosely on an Arthurian tale. In fact, Robin William’s Perry reminds me a little of a schizophrenic friend of mine, whose illness is a exists with a deep and romantic persona. A superb film about healing and guilt, and the female characters are just as brilliant. I hope Gilliam’s forthcoming Imaginarium is at least half as good.

  2. The Savages does a good job of portraying the emotions a family might go through while their father suffers from dimentia. Based on a true story, that I think is autobiographical