Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Essays

Beautiful minds

Hollywood movies are all for healing hearts and minds. They just like to do it through a kind of occupational therapy that involves mistaken identities, rollercoaster action adventures, meeting cute or harrowing ordeals that demand extreme survival skills.

Bradley Cooper in ‘Silver Linings Playbook’

The movies have not always been so understanding in exploring actual mental illness and emotional damage, with so many portrayals of the afflicted as childlike innocents untarnished by society (we’re looking at you, “King of Hearts”) or psychopathic killers and murderous sociopaths (it’s not called “Psycho” for nothing). Real breakdowns are much messier, the fallout uncomfortable, and the treatment can be long and difficult. Not the usual formula for good times and happy endings.

“Silver Linings Playbook” tackles that other kind of therapy, the one recognized by the most respectable insurance companies. Bradley Cooper plays a bipolar man trying to steady himself as he returns to the world after a breakdown and a brief stay in a mental hospital. And, yes, there is romance and comedy between the counseling and the crises, but it also joins a very select tradition of films that treat mental and emotional problems with seriousness.

Here are some of the best films that have tried to plumb the depths of the human mind under assault, chart a course to recovery, and, in the process, offer some talented performers the kinds of roles that get noticed around Oscar season.

“Spellbound” (1945)

Subject: John Ballantyne (Gregory Peck)

Symptoms: Amnesia, paranoia, a crippling fear of parallel lines

Diagnosis: Guilt complex

Case history: Psychoanalysis was all the rage in Hollywood in the ’40s, when producer David O. Selznick approached Alfred Hitchcock with an idea: How about a film revolving around analysis? Hitch came back with a story of amnesia, haunted dreams and a romance bubbling up between doctor (Ingrid Bergman) and subject (Gregory Peck): “The talking cure” not only heals psychological scars; it helps solve a murder, clears an innocent man and paves the way for romance. This is dime-store Freud, to be sure, as ludicrous as it is intermittently stunning, but hand it to Hitchcock to turn the psychological thriller into a thriller about psychology and hide the clues in surreal dream sequences designed by Salvador Dali.

Prognosis: Psychology is all well and good, but in Hitchcock’s world, true love cures all.

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