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Madness at the Movies

27 May, 09 | by Steven Reid, Evidence-Based Mental Health

“Explaining madness is the most limiting and generally least convincing thing a movie can do.” That was the view of the critic Pauline Kael, and despite mental illness and its treatment remaining an ever-popular source for film-makers it is an opinion that I think still holds true. Psycho-killers, maniacs, hysterics, and the ubiquitous manipulative, deviant psychiatrist: stereotypes and clichés abound.

I recently watched Clint Eastwood’s film Changeling, a drama set in Depression-era Los Angeles ostensibly based on real events involving a missing child. A major theme is the role of psychiatry as a means for the social control of women. A subject worthy of exploration certainly, but we could do without the almost inevitable addition of the ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ scenes: the barbaric use of involuntary electroconvulsive therapy. ECT certainly makes for melodramatic viewing, but it was introduced as a treatment in 1936 and wasn’t being used in 1928 when the film is set.

Last month saw the US release of The Soloist, a film ‘based’ on a book telling the story of Nathaniel Ayers, a musician with schizophrenia. I can’t comment as it hasn’t reached the UK, but typically it has received contrasting reviews for its depiction of psychosis: a sentimental cheapening, or a triumph. Your views would be welcome on this or other films that you believe provide a persuasive and truthful account of living with mental illness.

Coincidentally one of The Soloist’s lead characters is played by Robert Downey Jr. – an actor who provoked outrage in the scabrous Tropic Thunder for satirizing Hollywood’s ham-fisted approach to mental illness and learning disabilities. If you want to win an Oscar: “Never go full retard. You don’t buy that? Ask Sean Penn, 2001, “I Am Sam.” Remember? Went full retard, went home empty handed…”

Offensive? Certainly, but as honest an appraisal of the portrayal of mental disorder in film as you’ll find anywhere.

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