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Mental Illness in the Movies
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Mental Illness in the Movies - 3/5 & 3/6


Mental health, sometimes overlooked or stigmatized in our society, has been the subject of countless movies over the decades. Some of these films treat the condition of mental illness in a sympathetic and understanding manner, while others sensationalize the subject. Over two nights, TCM presents films offering a variety of reflections on the topic.

All of the movies in Part I were nominated for or won Oscars®. The Snake Pit (1948) is a compassionate yet harrowing look at a woman who suffers from schizophrenia and is confined to an asylum where she undergoes various modes of therapy, including electroshock treatment and hypnotherapy. Based on a semi-autobiographical novel, the movie won a total of six Oscar® nominations, including one for Olivia de Havilland as Best Actress. The title refers to a room in the hospital, where patients who are considered beyond hope are left in a padded cell. The movie had real-life consequences according to its producing studio, 20th Century-Fox, which claimed that it was instrumental in reforming legislation that passed in 26 states regarding mental institutions.

The Three Faces of Eve (1957) deals with dissociative identity disorder, focusing on a young woman (Joanne Woodward) who displays three distinct personalities that, with the help of a psychiatrist (Lee J. Cobb), are reconciled into one stable identity. A real-life case was the inspiration for the book that inspired this film, which brought Woodward a Best Actress Oscar®.

The acclaimed Swedish film Through a Glass Darkly (1961) is Ingmar Bergman's study of the conflicts that arise when a woman who suffers from schizophrenia (Harriet Andersson) is released from a mental institution to be with her family. Critic Bosley Crowther described Andersson as being "beautifully expressive of the haunting awareness, the agony of madness, that move the girl." The movie won an Oscar® for Best Foreign Language Film.

David and Lisa (1962) tells the story of two students at a private school for youngsters with mental issues, and how they benefit from opening up emotionally to each other. David (Keir Dullea) cannot stand to be touched, while Lisa (Janet Margolin) suffers from dissociative identity disorder. This much-loved movie, noted for its understated and fragile charm, won nominations for its screenplay (Eleanor Perry) and direction (Frank Perry).

The Caretakers (1963), tells the story of a mental hospital torn apart by conflicts over how patients should be treated. The film has a touch of camp to it, especially in Joan Crawford's over-the-top portrayal of a stern head nurse who believes in old-style methods. Robert Stack is the more reasonably-minded psychiatrist and Polly Bergen a distraught patient. Lucien Ballard's black-and-white cinematography earned an Oscar® nomination.

Part II of the series includes the Val Lewton horror film Bedlam (1946), set in 1761 and featuring a fictionalized version of London's infamous Bethlem Royal Hospital, which was known at one time for its sadistic and inhumane treatment of mental patients. (It has since developed into a modern and respectable psychiatric hospital.) Boris Karloff stars as the evil head of the asylum, and Anna Lee as the nurse who tries to investigate and is confined as an inmate.

The Cobweb (1955), an all-star drama directed by Vincente Minnelli, focuses on infighting and romantic conflicts among the staff at a psychiatric facility, with Charles Boyer as the traditional medical director and Richard Widmark as the more progressive doctor newly in charge. Among the women in their lives are Gloria Grahame, Lauren Bacall and Lillian Gish.

Shock Corridor (1963) smacks of exploitation with its storyline of a journalist (Peter Breck) who commits himself into a mental hospital to solve a murder - then begins to actually lose his mind. Director Samuel Fuller creates a film of such cinematic style and underlying commentary on American society that it has emerged as a cult classic.

Lilith (1964), adapted by director Robert Rossen from the novel by J.R. Salamanca, concerns an occupational therapist (Warren Beatty) who suffers his own emotional trauma after becoming infatuated with a beautiful schizophrenic (Jean Seberg). The movie is set at Chestnut Lodge, a real-life psychiatric institution in Maryland.

The Prince of Tides (1991), directed by Barbra Streisand, is the film version of the popular novel by Pat Conroy. Streisand also stars as a psychiatrist who is treating a suicidal patient (Melinda Dillon) and becomes romantically involved with the patient's brother (Nick Nolte), who also suffers from family trauma. Although the movie earned seven Oscar® nominations including one for Best Picture, Streisand was conspicuously missing among Best Director nominees.

by Roger Fristoe

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