Top 10 Portrayals of Mental Disorders

The performing arts has long been interesting in studying mental illness in depth. It has been depicted in almost every genre of film from horror (Shutter Island) to romantic comedy (50 First Dates) to dramatic (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape). Sometimes these depictions are good and sometimes they are too controversial… Once in a while we also get a film that you want to just trash because it so appalling. And we as an audience are so fascinated with mental illness.  Nonetheless, we are here to explore ten best portrayals of mental disorders:

10. Black Swan

Mental Illness: OCD

Actor:  Natalie Portman

Black Swan is one ghastly story about the dangers of perfectionism and distorted body images. The character Nina tries to evade her dual role as the white swan and the black swan. This struggle is embodied with her conflict and appeal to her double Lily. She also struggles with issues of sexual harassment from the director. She continues to be overwhelmed by upsetting delusions, including an imagined sexual encounter with her nemesis Lily. She also imagines she is turning into the black swan. Her world continues to go downhill as the movie winds down at the climax. It is strange that so many apparently missed that Nina suffers from a mental disorder. She is clearly troubled by perfectionism and sexual issues. She prohibits herself from any kind of freedom. A fact only reinforced by her bossy mother.

Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a score of 87% based on reviews from 273 critics, and reported a rating average of 8.2 out of 10.According to the website, the film’s critical consensus is, “Bracingly intense, passionate, and wildly melodramatic, Black Swan glides on Darren Aronofsky’s bold direction—and a bravura performance from Natalie Portman.”

9. Psycho

Mental Illness: Dissociative Identity Disorder

Actor: Anthony Perkins

For many viewers, Psycho was the first time in which such a psychological situation was portrayed in mainstream film. Of course, horror fans wince the moment you mention Norman Bates’ problem, and the last act mea culpa lecture by Simon Oakland about what such a “split” looks like. No matter the wrap-up, Hopkins does a critically acclaimed job in keeping Norman and “Mother” separate. The moment when he/she attacks Vera Miles we all knew what Anthony Perkins’ character was suffering from.

In 1992, the US Library of Congress deemed the movie as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and chose to preserve it in the National Film Registry. The movie also set a new level of acceptability for violence, deviant behavior and sexuality in American films. After Hitchcock’s passed away in 1980, Universal Studios began producing follow-ups: three sequels, a remake, a television movie spin-off, and a TV series. But, none were as good as this epic film.

8. Matchstick Men

Mental Illness: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (among many)

Actor: Nicolas Cage

As Good As It Gets gets all the recognition when it comes to a portray of Obsessive Compulsive Disorders. But I beg to differ here because I believe that the Matchstick Men resonates more with fans than any other dramatic movies about this mental disorders. Ridley Scott put Cage through his con man paces, highlighting a screenplay that features a mentally unbalanced man with a teenage daughter who he didn’t know existed until now.  Unlike Jack Nicholson is As Good as it Gets, Cage didn’t get the recognition that he really deserved here for his portrayal. Sad, because he definitely deserved it.

7. Shine

Mental Illness: Schizoaffective Disorder

Actor: Geoffrey Rush

Movie Critics argue that that more and more actors like portraying “crazy”people because the result is typically an Academy Award. Such was the case for this then-unknown Australian actor who blew onto the scene and swept the awards ceremonies that year. Granted, the first half of the film offered as amazing if not more performance from young Noah Taylor. However, it was Geoffrey Rush who provided the proper perspective that touched the fans the most. He took home the gold statue that year, and has never winced even once for taking on this amazing role.

The film revolves around a teenage pianist David (Taylor) who has all the usual problems and then some unique qualities. His father, a Polish-Jewish immigrant in working-class Perth, Australia, places such a big burden on his son that he will not let him leave the family nest, and insists on his working towards ‘The Rach 3′ – Rachmaninov’s bone-crunching 3rd Piano Concerto – whether he’s ready for such a super-virtuoso piece or not. With a scholarship to London’s Royal College of Music there for the taking, the future is tough, answered by a nervous collapse of cataclysmic proportions, years of psychological damage, and a painful recovery sprung from the most unlikely surroundings – requests for the popular classics in a Perth wine bar.

The film is based on a true story of David Helfgott, whose finger work we hear on the soundtrack. Stage actor Geoffrey Rush had a total command of the mature artist’s chattering eccentricities and with striking on-screen keyboard skills created a characterization so minutely observed you expect him to stride naked off the screen.

6. 12 Monkeys

Mental Illness: Schizophrenia

Actor: Brad Pitt & Bruce Willis

The first of two films on this top ten list to include Brad Pitt. Hot off the tracks in Thelma and Louise, Pitt made a radical turn, costarring with Bruce Willis in this epic film by Terry Gilliam. His character, who may or may not be the cause of humanity’s end, is full of false prophesies and physical tics.

For Pitt, the film remains some of his best onscreen acting ever. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and won a Golden Globe for his performance. The film also won and got nominated for several categories at the Saturn Awards.

Desson Thomson of The Washington Post  said… “Willis and Pitts’s performances, Gilliam’s atmospherics and an exhilarating momentum easily outweigh such trifling flaws in the script”, Thomson reasoned. Peter Travers from Rolling Stone magazine argued that the film was successful because of Gilliam’s direction and Willis’ performance.

5. Spider

Mental Illness: Schizophrenia

Actor: Ralph Fiennes

“Spider” is a tear-jerking story of a man who,  as a result of his mental illness, must go through life unable to organize and comprehend broken images and memories.

Ralph Fiennes did an astounding job portraying a man-child who suffers from schizophrenia. Fiennes captures the profound anguish and torment of the disease through the subtlest movements. From his unkempt appearance  and rust-colored fingers to his psychotic mumbling conversations with himself and vaguely with others, Fiennes wears the role of Spider like simply another layer of skin. Fiennes’ performance brings a strange dignity to this ragged man.

The film introduces us to the nickname Spider, given to him because of his obsession with spiderwebs. While the other passengers hurry about to do their own thing, Spider’s movements are easy going and plodding. His final destination is a halfway house where men who suffer similar illnesses are cared for by a taskmaster named Mrs. Wilkenson (Lynn Redgrave).

Unfortunately for Spider’s fragile mental health, the halfway house to which he’s been assigned is in the same neighborhood as his childhood home, and a floodgate of memories is released as he visits his childhood haunts. His already tenuous hold on reality is further loosened by distorted memories stirred by walking through his childhood neighborhood.

4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Mental Illness: Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Actor: Jack Nicholson

After earning nods for Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces,The Last Detail, and Chinatown, Jack Nicholson finally won the Oscar for his portrayal of Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It remains a total tour de force, a near hurricane like performance that wipes out almost everything, including his equally adept co-stars in its path. In a career full of movie milestones, this is one of Nicholson’s most magnificent and stunning films to date.

Both the script and direction managed to mix humour, pathos, tension, sociology, and even  religion to a certain degree! It had an excellent base material by Ken Kesey, but it was brilliantly brought to life and perhaps even clarified for a select few.  The producers of the film were on potentially dangerous ground given the context and the content of the film – they could easily have fallen into sentimentality or might have created a “cold” film about treatment of the mentally ill. As it is, our emotions were fully engaged without drifting into sentimentality, and we felt great sympathy and pathos for the characters.

3. Fight Club

Mental Illness: Dissociative Identity Disorder

Actor: Edward Norton/Brad Pitt

The 1999 movie Fight Club is based on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel of the same name. It was coined as the most controversial films of the year, and has since gained a strong popularity. The movie places strong emphasis on the hardships of modern consumerism, and adopts a “fight the system” attitude throughout the entire film. The main character, who remains unnamed for the entirety of the film, inhabit a city that seems dark and run down. All in all, the film attempts to make a statement on the effects of society norms and “the system” on an individual’s pursuit of happiness; at its center, it useds dissociative identity disorder to make a point.

2. Clean, Shaven

Mental Illness: Schizophrenia

Actor: Peter Greene

Very few have seen this penetrating, yet difficult-to-watch film, which attempts to take a less convulsive look at the trials and tribulations of a schizophrenic.Those who have seen the film confuse it for a horror movie, but it’s really not.  The actor, Peter Greene, perhaps best known as the hillbilly rapist Zed from Pulp Fiction, did some amazing work shooting this film. It’s almost impossible to see him afterward and not think of his performance on Clean, Shaven.

The character of Peter Winter is really fascinating to watch because the only back story we get about him is the photographs his mother shows the detectivey. Peter’s mother shows photos from when he was a baby up until the movie’s  start. The pictures act as a timeline and you see Peter go from a happy child to a depressed adult…

The movie is significant to this top 10 list of portrayals of mental disorders because it challenges our own expectations of what we normally see from movies involving people with neurological disorders. They are usually portrayed as psychopaths and predators, and as such they are in reality (and this film) the victims of violence by law enforcement due to horrible misunderstanding.

1. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

Mental Disorder: Autism

Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is a sentimental film of tenderness, compassion and self-awareness that is set among the fictional working class town, Endora. The film revolves around Bonnie Grape and her four children: Ellen, Amy, Arnie and Gilbert. The family is trying to survive on minimum wage jobs and strives to coexist in the absence of a father figure, low wage work and seventeen-year-old Arnie’s severe mental condition that has left him with a mind set of a 5 year old. It is in this awkward and extremely one sided affair that Gilbert has to constantly look after his younger brother Arnie and become a father figure to him when no one else can.

Throughout the film, Gilbert is often seen contemplating life and his prospects in Endora and is also depressed about where his life is taking him. That is until the free spirit of Becky arrives in town, and with her grandmother are stranded for the week while waiting for parts for their vehicle. This realization unties new feelings, new thoughts and new hope for the put upon Gilbert, something new is eating Gilbert Grape.

In addition to DiCaprio’s first Academy Award nomination in this film, he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award. He also won the Best Supporting Actor Award from the National Board of Review. The film was nominated for the prestigious Grand Prix of the Belgian Syndicate of Cinema Critics.