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Five Movies About Mental Illness

Even with all of our accumulated medical and scientific knowledge, we’ve still got a lot to learn about mental illness. And the perception of mental illness varies wildly from person to person. Some consider it to be a throwaway excuse, a con, a misunderstood problem, a disease with a physiological or chemical basis, a lack of morals or self-control, a public health epidemic, or something else altogether.

Much of the disagreement and misunderstanding flows from the fact that it’s not so easy to determine, or even define, when something’s wrong with a person’s mental or emotional state. When it comes to disease or injury to a part of the body other than the brain, it’s easier tell that something’s wrong, like when you see a bleeding wound or a body temperature of 103 degrees. The challenges of recognition make it difficult for those with mental illness to get proper treatment.


Love and Mercy (2014)

This Brian Wilson biopic bounces back and forth between the 1960’s and the 1980’s, showing the backbone of the Beach Boys as he struggles with mental illness at the height of his creative genius (1960’s Wilson played by Paul Dano), as well as later under the influence of his unscrupulous doctor (1980’s Wilson played by John Cusack). The two narratives bookend the years in which Brian Wilson’s mental illness was apparently most acute, which is a good thing; the darkest years aren’t necessarily something we need to see.

The real meat of the two stories is seeing the different reflections of mental illness in the people around Wilson. Some people look to help, some people look to exploit, and some just ignore the problems altogether and hope that the good times can just continue on.

The most powerful scenes were those in which we watch young Wilson as he creates the groundbreaking Good Vibrations. They’re uncomfortable because we know and love and appreciate the final creation, but at the same time we wonder how much the musical genius overlaps the mental illness. Would we have gotten that song if he had gotten help sooner? Should we feel guilty for loving that creation?


A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Another mental illness biopic… this time with a mathematician instead of a musician (and one with a looser adherence to the facts). A Beautiful Mind tracks the rise, fall and resurrection of Nobel and Abel Prize winning John Nash. We first meet him as a new Princeton student, and immediately see that his genius is matched only by his social awkwardness.

He rises through the ranks of academia, authoring and formalizing new concepts of game theory, and eventually gets a security clearance to crack codes for the U.S. government. His life begins to fall apart as he has to cope with incresingly severe paranoid schizophrenia.

But even with its less-than-accurate retelling of Nash’s story, it’s not the narrative that’s makes the movie worth watching. The power of A Beautiful Mind is Russell Crowe’s portrayal of Nash, and Ron Howard’s direction in depicting Nash’s mental illness. Instead of just seeing the effects of a person’s paranoid schizophrenia, we actually feel like maybe we’re able to understand a tiny little bit what it’s like to suffer from it.


What About Bob? (1991)

Who knew mental illness could be so funny? Well, actually, it’s not. I have to go against the grain here a bit and say that — despite this movie often showing up on various “funniest movies” lists — it’s not not particularly entertaining, despite the talent involved.

Bill Murray plays Bob, a mentally ill man seeking treatment, and Richard Dreyfuss plays Dr. Marvin, the self-centered therapist who has an initial session with Bob and then goes on vacation. Bob wants to continue treatment, so he follows Dr. Marvin to New Hampshire. Actually, the term “follows” isn’t quite right; it’s more like “stalks.”

I know I was supposed to be laughing, but I felt like I was watching this movie instead:


Don’t get me wrong; I am a big fan of black comedy. I even liked Very Bad Things (1998) and Death to Smoochy (2002). But there’s a difference between finding humor in bad behavior and finding humor in mental illness.


The Three Faces of Eve (1957)

The Three Faces of Eve is perhaps the first movie to take approach multiple personality disorder (dissociative personality disorder) from a clinical and sympathetic perspective. Eve White (Joanne Woodward) visits a psychiatrist for help with blackouts and debilitating headaches. It’s discovered that she has a second personality — the wild and crazy “Eve Black.” Later a third personality shows herself.

In today’s world The Three Faces of Eve plays like an uninspired melodrama, but it’s still worth watching because of an exemplary and star-making acting performance by Joanne Woodward. She’s not the only talented actor in the film, but the power and conviction she brings to her three characters almost makes you forget that there are other people on the screen with her.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

A list of movies about mental illness HAS to have at least one set in a mental institution. The gold standard, above all others, is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. (Yes, Girl, Interrupted has some solid performances, but its impact on the viewer isn’t anywhere near as significant.)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest follows Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) as he cons his way from a hard labor prison farm into a psychiatric hospital, which he thinks will be an easier way to serve his time. He quickly learns that the authoritarian, dehumanized and oppressive environment he was hoping to escape is much worse under psychiatric care.

There have been other films that depict the horrors of mental institutions (Shock Corridor (1963) and Shock Treatment (1964) are both solid films), I don’t think there’s any other with such a sense of foreboding and dread. Everything inside the institution is off kilter, and there’s an inescapable sense that things aren’t going to end well for McMurphy.

About Me

In 1976 I went to see The Sting with my father and sister.

Unfortunately, we arrived at the theater an hour after the show started. We went in anyway, and watched the last half of the movie. After the movie was over we stayed until the next showing, so I eventually got to watch the first half of the film (already knowing how it was going to end).

I was struck by the magic of the movies, and how we could be tricked by the actors (and by our own assumptions of what's happening on the screen), and how this was a wonderful thing.