My top 5 movies about mental illness

As we get ready for the Oscars this Sunday, a lot of us are thinking about movies. I spend lots of time thinking about or watching movies. Between Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube, I don’t even have to go to the theater to watch many of them.

Like any human being, I love seeing aspects of myself when I see a movie. As someone with chronic depression and anxiety, it’s especially interesting to me when movies feature characters dealing with mental health challenges. With that in mind, if they ever create the Mentally Ill Oscars, these would be my nominees. It just so happens that they’ve all been at least nominated for real Oscars. In the words of Jack Nicholson, accepting Best Actor award for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, “I guess this proves there are as many nuts in the academy as anywhere else.”

Silver Linings Playbook

Oscar Nominations: 8

Oscar wins: 1 (Best Actress for Jennifer Lawrence) 

I’ve said this before; this, to me, is the gold standard for mental illness movies. I’ve watched it countless times, and every time I see it, it feels fresh to me. I love so many things about this film, but one of the things I love most is the way it explores how some “crazy” behaviors are accepted in our society, while others are not. Bradley Cooper plays Pat Solitano, a man with bipolar disorder who is living with his parents after spending six months in a mental hospital. Robert De Niro plays Pat’s father, a Philadelphia Eagles fanatic and a compulsive gambler. But gambling and sports fanaticism are accepted in our society. Bipolar disorder isn’t. This terrific father-son scene brings that difference — and all the guilt and shame that go with it — into poignant focus.

Rachel Getting Married

Oscar nominations: 1 (Best Actress nomination for Anne Hathaway)

Oscar wins: 0

Facing the family; it’s something that just about everyone dealing with mental health challenges dreads. Few films have explored this almost universal awkwardness as well as this one. Anne Hathaway plays Kym, a drug addict with bipolar tendencies who’s been released from rehab so she could attend her sister Rachel’s wedding. No one in the family really knows how to deal with Kym, and Kym knows this. Cue the voluminous eggshells walked on by nearly everyone.

Ordinary People

Oscar nominations: 6

Oscar wins: 4 (including Best Picture) 

I was a teenager when this film came out, and when I saw it, I was moved in a way that I’d never been moved by a film before. Secretly, I related to Conrad Jarrett, the troubled teen trying desperately to come to grips with the accidental death of his brother. Conrad was at the scene of his brother’s death, and his enormous survivor’s guilt leads him to attempt suicide. I’m an only child, and no relative of mine has ever died in a freak accident, but Timothy Hutton gave such a heartfelt, wrenching performance that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The guilt, the shame, the not being able to understand the world or your place in it; I related to all of that. And, like few films before it, Ordinary People showed that wealth does not ease the pain of mental illness. On the outside, the  Jarretts have “everything.” But look inside, and you’ll see a family coming apart at the seams. Even an ordinary family photo is anything but ordinary.

Girl, Interrupted

Oscar nominations: 1 

Oscar wins: 1 (Best Supporting Actress for Angelina Jolie) 

I must say this one’s on my list more out of familiarity than anything else. As a young woman, Susanna Kaysen was a patient at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts. Girl, Interrupted was a book about her experiences at McLean, and the book became a movie. I’ve been a patient at McLean, and even though the hospital’s actual name wasn’t used in the film, I can say out of sheer certainty that I recognize the hospital grounds in the film instantly. The film has a terrific cast: Winona Ryder (as Susanna), Whoopi Goldberg, Vanessa Redgrave, a very young pre-Mad Men Elisabeth Moss and, in an Oscar-winning performance, Angelina Jolie as a rebellious nymphomaniac. Leave it to Angelina to make mental illness seem kind of sexy.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Oscar nominations: 9

Oscar wins: 5 (including Best Picture)

There are those who say that this film has contributed to the many negative stereotypes surrounding mental illness. They have a point — up to a point. It’s easy to forget that Cuckoo’s Nest is a period film. It takes place in the 1960s, when treatment for mental illness was primitive at best, and barbaric at worst. It’s unfortunate that so many people still think of this film first when they think of psychiatric hospitals. But Cuckoo’s Nest was one of the first films that dealt with mentally ill characters in a fully dimensional way. And then there’s Nurse Ratched. You could say she’s evil incarnate. But she’s also a brilliant metaphor for the rigid societal norms that were being questioned in the 1960s — and still are today. And the film has so many timeless human aspects. Then and now, when a man wants to watch baseball, he wants to watch baseball.

If I expanded my nominee list further, I could include The Hours, Rain Man, Bridesmaids (yes, that one. Kristen Wiig has big-time depression in that film), The Apartment and A Streetcar Named Desire. But, just as I hate it when the Oscars go on and on, I also hate it when lists go on and on.

So there you have it: my official nominees for the Mentally Ill Oscars. What films would you add? Feel free to comment below. Then, pass the popcorn.






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