When the movie, “A Beautiful Mind”—the story of Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash’s victories over schizophrenia—captured so many hearts and Academy Awards, I hoped that some of that awareness and passion about mental illness/brain disorders would convert into some real changes. Changes in attitudes, in stigma and maybe even legislative changes, especially in laws dealing with simple equality and parity in insurance coverage. It didn’t happen.
It’s not the movie’s fault, though. As someone who has both personally struggled with mental illness and who has worked in the arts, I need to remind myself that we’ve been here before—that many movies have moved us and given us opportunities for looking at mental illness:
In 1932, Fredric March won the Academy Award for Best Actor in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”—in my mind, a dark fairy tale in part about bipolar disorder, something Stevenson personally struggled with.
In ‘44, Ingrid Bergman won Best Actress for the traumatized girl being “gaslighted” (where the term for “being made to feel that you’re crazy” came from) in “Gaslight.”
In 1948, it was Best Actor Laurence Olivier in “Hamlet,” only one of William Shakespeare’s many dramas where MI is a key factor. “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.”
In ‘51, Vivien Leigh won Best Actress for the tormented Blanche DuBois in Tennessee William’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.” To the psychiatrist escorting her off to the insane asylum: “Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
In 1957, Best Actress Joanne Woodward won exploring multiple personality disorder in “The Three Faces of Eve.”
The 1960 Best Picture, Best Director Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” brought Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, two lonely and despairing people, together in love and hope.
Best Actress of ‘66, Elizabeth Taylor, won as Edward Albee’s savage Martha (who in some ways makes Hannibal Lector look like Mister Rogers) in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
In 1975, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” swept all of the important awards, led by Best Director Milos Forman and especially Jack Nicholson’s Best Actor award as the ultimate MI antihero, R. P. McMurphy.
The Best Actor award of ‘76 went to Peter Finch in “Network,” for his sane-to-the-point-of-insanity TV news anchor: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
In 1980, Best Director Robert Redford and his Best Picture “Ordinary People,” focused on a middle class family dealing with the loss of a son—and the guilt, grief and depression suffered by the survivors.
In ‘84, Best Director Milos Forman again swept many of the Oscars with “Amadeus,” letting us look at bipolar composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—and the price that genius and success, or the lack thereof, takes on artists.
In 1990, Kathy Bates won Best Actress in “Misery,” as a psychotic killer: “Oh Paul, I’m your number one fan!”
In ‘91, “The Silence of the Lambs” swept everything, mainly because of Best Actor Anthony Hopkins’ chilling portrayal of psychotic killer, Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lector.
And there was Best Actor of 1992, Al Pacino, winning for his blind, suicidal army officer in “Scent of a Woman”; Best Actress Jessica Lange, winning in 1994 for her personality-switching army officer’s wife in “Blue Sky”; Nicolas Cage, Best Actor of 1995, winning for his suicidal alcoholic, slowly drinking himself to death in “Leaving Las Vegas”; and Best Actor, 1996, Geoffrey Rush, winning for his mentally ill concert pianist in “Shine.”
Last but not least: in 1997, Jack Nicholson won Best Actor again, this time as an obsessive-compulsive novelist in “As Good As it Gets.” In one of the classic movie scenes of all time, a discouraged Jack steps out of his shrink’s office, looks at the other anxious patients waiting for their appointments and asks them the question that all people with MI have asked themselves a thousand times: “What if this is as good as it gets?”
This only scratches the surface of movies, and I haven’t even started on MI connections with the Tony, Emmy or Grammy awards. As a former actor, I learned early that eccentric characters are the lifeblood of theater, but always remembering: we’re not crazy, we’re colorful!
The arts do open our hearts and let us spend a few moments looking at the world through others’ eyes. But still, especially for people with mental illness and their families, attitude and legislative change has come with glacier-like slowness. Like the movies, it’s not our politicians who are to blame. Politicians on a whole never take one step beyond what their constituents expect or demand—unfortunately “leadership” and “politics” are usually not connected. It’s “We the People” that have to make the changes; we that have to prod our politicians to come into the 21st century. If we waited for politicians to do the right thing, people would still sit at the back of the bus, would still be denied the right to vote, would still work 80 hours a week and would still be buried in the backyards of state institutions without even their names over their graves.
Having wonderful movies made, winning Academy Awards, even having millions of people’s hearts touched, isn’t enough. Not when so many being denied medical care for a medical condition still wonder if, even in America, this truly is as good as it gets. Our hearts may be moved, but it’s our feet and voices that then have to get moving, get mad as hell to get out of the house and push the changes that are needed. The times we live in are out of joint, are unkind and unfair—and like it or not, want to or not, ordinary people like you and me are the ones that have to set it right. And it’s heroic struggles like these that people make movies about.