Category Archives: movies

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.





Movies I love: Harold and Maude

I watched Harold and Maude for the first time last night. Netflix just added it to its classics list, and I thought I’d give it a try. What a weird, strange, funny, beautiful movie! I can’t get it out of my head.

In the film, Harold, who is barely in his 20s, meets Maude, a free-spirited woman who’s almost 80. They develop a relationship–and fall in love. Yet, despite this massive age difference, theirs is actually one of the most believable relationships I’ve ever seen on film. Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks so. The American Film Institute compiled a list of the 100 best love stories of all time. Harold and Maude made that list, coming in at number 69.

The film has a lot of humor, and most of it is very dark. That works for me, because I love dark humor. But it’s not for the masses, and if you have a mental illness, it could be triggering. Harold tries to kill himself several times–so much so that his attempts become a running joke. And here’s one of the things Harold and Maude have in common: they both love spending time at cemeteries (and even crashing funerals for people they don’t know.) If you find these notions troubling, avoid this film at all costs. But if you can find humor in very dark places, this film is one of the best.

Even though Harold and Maude is dark and strange, it’s also full of life. This scene is a great example. Among many beautiful scenes, it’s probably my favorite.

I may never look at a daisy the same way again. I’m so glad this film is on Netflix, because I may have to watch it again. And again.

The perfect Mother’s Day movie — for the rest of us

Each year, the Brattle Theater here in Cambridge recognizes Mother’s Day with a screening of what it considers the ultimate Mother’s Day movie. Terms of Endearment? Nope. Steel Magnolias? Not even close.

Thanks to the iconoclastic minds at the Brattle, the major Mother’s Day offering is–-Psycho.

Yes, that’s right. Psycho. Alfred Hitchcock’s classic tale of what can happen when a man who was WAY too close with his mother runs a motel with thick shower curtains. This was the third straight year that I attended the screening. As it was for the previous two years, the theater was crowded.

What kind of person sees Psycho on Mother’s Day? And why am I among them? I’ll answer the second question first. This was the 27th Mother’s Day I’ve marked since my mother died (not that I’m counting.) During my years with her, our relationship was, to put it diplomatically, complicated. These factors make me tend to want to forget about Mother’s Day. When I open my Facebook and see the infinite homages to mothers far and wide, I’m genuinely moved and happy for my friends. But then, there’s always that part of me that’s sad and angry.

In an odd way, watching Psycho helps me deal with that sadness and anger. I don’t think I’m alone. Among the audience, I noticed many people who came to the theater by themselves–as I did. Even among those who came with others, most of the conversations were not exactly out of a Hallmark card. In front of me, a young man wrapped his arms around his female companion and sweetly said, “There’s still time to call your mother today. It would be nice if you did that.” To which the young woman replied “It would also be nice if my mother wasn’t an insufferable bitch.” It was that kind of crowd.

But then the lights went down, the curtain parted, and Bernard Herman’s iconic score began. And for the next two hours, the only sounds coming from us were shrieks and laughter. Especially when you’ve seen the film over and over, you can’t help but laugh at lines like Norman Bates’ classic “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” When it was over, there was thunderous clapping, and even more laughter–like the kind you hear from people after they just got off a roller coaster. As for myself, I felt as though a weighty cloud had been lifted, and all was right with the world again.

As I often do when I re-watch classic films, I notice something different every time I watch Psycho. This year, I dug deeper into how the film handled mental illness. First there’s the famous conversation scene between Norman and Marion in Marion’s motel room. I’ve always loved this scene for its sharp dialogue and the terrific performances by Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh.

But this year, for the first time, I noticed how deeply mental illness factors into that scene. Norman and Marion are have a very nice conversation–until the issue of Norman’s mother comes up. Marion innocently suggests that it might be better if she was put “someplace.” Marion can’t bring herself to say the word “institution,” but Norman knows exactly what she means. Suddenly Norman’s entire demeanor changes, and it’s easy to understand why. Norman is his mother. He knows that any suggestion that his mother should be “sent away” means he should be “sent away.” If mental illness is misunderstood today, I can only imagine how difficult it was in 1960, when Psycho came out. This was a time when just the mention of any mental illness could indeed get someone put in an institution.

The sad thing about Norman is that, by this time, he had already become a murderer. As we find out at the end of the film, Norman had years ago killed both his mother and a man she was sleeping with. He dealt with that by becoming his mother in his own mind. And, for good measure, keeping her corpse at the motel.

That leads me to the second revelation I had when I watched the film again tonight. It was the calm, matter-of-fact tone that the prison psychiatrist uses in explaining Norman’s history and his mindset after he was (inevitably) caught. Schizophrenia and transvestism are brought up (and boy, how loaded must THOSE topics have been in 1960.) But, instead of talking about Norman as though he was a pariah, the psychiatrist simply explains what he thinks was going on in Norman’s mind, and why he would think of himself as his mother. I’m not sure, but Psycho might have been one of the first films to offer an informed explanation of mental illness. Hitchcock goes even father by giving the final words of the film to Norman, who is, by this time fully in the mind of his mother.

In the end, Norman Bates becomes one of the most identifiable — and even likable — villans in movie history. I hate to admit it, but there are parts of Norman that I identify with, especially his loneliness, his hatred of being treated like an outcast, and his efforts to love a mother who treated him so badly (probably due to mental health issues of her own.)

Maybe the reason Psycho always puts I smile on my face is that I get to think that things could be a lot worse for me. I could have been like Norman Bates, living in a time when hardly anyone understood mental illness. I do have fond memories of my mother. But, unlike Norman Bates, I’ve spent my life doing as much as possible to avoid “becoming” her.

Sure, I think of my mom on Mother’s Day. I remember the good times. And there were good times. But when Norman Bates says that “a boy’s best friend is his mother,” I laugh more than most. I laugh because I know better. I’m glad that, every Mother’s Day, Norman Bates is around to remind me of that.

What “Silver Linings Playbook” taught me about goal setting

People who know me know this: Silver Linings Playbook is the best movie I’ve ever seen about mental illness.

I own it. I’ve watched it a zillion times. And every time I watch it, I get something new out of it.

Why do I connect with this film so much? I think it’s because, unlike most mental illness films, Silver Linings Playbook doesn’t concern itself so much with mental illness treatment, or the circumstances that get people into treatment. Silver Linings Playbook is much more about what it’s like to live with mental illness, and trying to make a life for yourself in a world that often doesn’t understand you.

The film is about a lot of things, but the main focus is the budding relationship between Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence.) There’s a lot of sexual tension. How could there not be, with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence? But there’s more than that. I love the way Pat and Tiffany negotiate the yings and yangs of their frayed social skills. They can easily drive each other crazy. But they’re both smart enough to realize that they need each other.

One of the things Tiffany needs is a dance partner. For no discernible reason except just to do it, she’s always wanted to enter a big Philadelphia dance competition. But she needs a partner, or she can’t get in. Begrudgingly, Pat becomes her partner, and much of the second half of the film focuses on their getting ready for the competition.

Some criticized the film for going “too Hollywood” with this scenario. But every mental illness specialist that I know of will tell you how important it is to set goals as a method of dealing with the illness. Tiffany had that goal. The dance sequences were metaphors for her recovery, and for Pat’s.

Here’s what Pat and Tiffany looked like when they first started practicing:

And here’s what they performed at the competition:

They still have their mental illnesses to deal with. But they also have the satisfaction of knowing that they accomplished what they set out to do.

Last year, I had a big goal–finishing my master’s degree program at Harvard. I did that. And now I’m working on some new goals. Every time I think of a new goal, I think of Pat and Tiffany and Silver Linings Playbook.

As Pat says in the film, “You have to do everything you can, you have to work your hardest, and if you do, you have a shot at a silver lining.”

This is something I need to hear frequently. I’m so glad that I have Bradley Cooper, and this film, to remind me.

Film about suicide hotline for veterans wins an Oscar nomination

The Oscar nominations were announced this morning, and one of the nice surprises was in a category that usually doesn’t get much press: Best Documentary Short Subjects. One of the nominees is Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1.

It’s a riveting film about an uncomfortable fact: because of the sheer number of veterans who attempt suicide every year, veterans have their own division within the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (hence, the Press 1 part of the title.)

I’m not a veteran myself, but I know several veterans within my support groups. It’s great that they’re starting to talk more and reach out more as far as mental illness is concerned. At the same time, the hoops and red tape that they often have to go through, just to get treatment, are mind-boggling. Our veterans deserve better.

I’m glad that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has recognized this film, and this subject. The film is available on Amazon, and you can check out the trailer below.

Why I love “It’s A Wonderful Life”

In the past few years, my cousins and I have taken to a new tradition. Like so many, we watch It’s A Wonderful Life. But we watch it as it was meant to be seen–in a movie theater, on a huge screen. The Brattle Theater in Cambridge plays it every year, and no matter how cold or snowy it may be, there’s always a big line outside before showtime.

A lot has been written It’s A Wonderful Life, and its place in many a movie lover’s hearts. Here’s why it resonates with me. It’s one of the few holiday films that focuses as much on sorrow as it does on cheer. Yes, it’s a Christmas movie–but one where the lead character, George Bailey, spends a good deal of time contemplating suicide. It’s a movie that dares to show that not everyone is full of cheer during the holidays. Here’s the scene that gets me every time: Jimmy Stewart, as George, slouched in a bar, praying to God, “show me the way.”

Whenever I see this, I think, “I’ve been there.” And I cry. I myself have attempted suicide. I know so damn well how George Bailey feels. I also know how he feels when he gets to see what life would be like without him. Especially when depression has me in its grip, it’s hard for me to see the impact I make on those who know me. But whenever I watch It’s A Wonderful Life, I think about the differences I’ve made in people’s lives. I know that if I ever made a successful suicide attempt, many people would be deeply hurt. I don’t want to hurt them. That’s one of the things that keeps me fighting.

So, as over-the-top as it is, I love the film’s finale, too. To me, the holiday cheer is so genuine here. It’s earned, and not forced. Above all, it’s a validation of a fact that is often hard for those of us with depression to understand. As painful as it is, sorrow eventually lifts. And true joy is possible.

On top of that, isn’t it nice to know that even a bumbling angel can get his wings? How cool is that?

My new addiction: binge TV

I have an addictive personality. It took me a long time to figure that out, mainly because I am not addicted to drugs or alcohol.

But one can be addicted to a lot of things, and even good things can be bad for you without moderation. My latest addiction: binge TV. I can’t decide whether it’s the best or worst decision I’ve made. I blame “Orange is the New Black.” I saw a few episodes at a friend’s house, and I got instantly hooked. So I had to get Netfilx. And to watch all two ONTB seasons without stopping. (Okay, I did eat and go to the bathroom. But that’s it.)

I didn’t stop there. Not with so many modern and classic movies that I can now watch at the touch of a button. And so many other shows that I can watch from the beginning. I was a latecomer to “Scandal” on TV. Now, I can see every which way Olivia Pope handles things. The problem is, I don’t want to stop watching Olivia Pope handle things.

And now there’s “Transparent.” So many of my friends were talking about it. I got sent a link to watch the pilot episode for free. You know where this goes. I quickly signed up for Amazon Prime so I could watch all the episodes. I’m still not finished watching them. I guess the good news is that I stopped to take a break.

But I will go back to them. I can’t help it. I’m addicted. And yes, I already know that this is too much of a good thing. But why do these shows have to be SO DAMN GOOD!?!

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