Saturday, February 17, 2007

Shrinks on Film (in both senses of the term)

The New Yorker has an
essay about the portrayal of psychotherapists in films. Or, an essay about the way psychotherapists think about the way they are portrayed in films.

Glen O. Gabbard, as they say, wrote the book. Gabbard, a psychoanalyst and a professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, is the author of Psychiatry and the Cinema, a study of Hollywood’s transference issues. Gabbard’s book offers a catalogue of pompous quacks (“Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”), swingers with Prince Valiant hairdos (“What’s New Pussycat?”), sadistic enforcers of social conformity (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”), love-starved lady doctors (“The Prince of Tides”), and serial killers who eat their patients (“Silence of the Lambs”)."

Gabard moderated a symposium on this subject at a recent conference, where the discussion focused on "The Treament," coming out this spring. I saw the film last year at the Tribeca Film Festival, and enjoyed it very much.
Rhona Engels, a psychotherapist, wondered why movies seem to offer three-dimensional portraits of patients but not of therapists. “I think it might have something to do with the power of what we do,” she said. “It can only be portrayed through projection—a kind of cutting down to size.”

Gabbard said simply, “If they ever showed an actual hour of therapy, it would be so boring that people would demand their money back.”

Afterward, Gabbard joined the panelists for dinner. At one point, someone suggested coming up with a list of movies that portray psychiatrists in a favorable light. Rudavsky named “Suddenly Last Summer,” in which Montgomery Clift plays a psychiatrist who saves Elizabeth Taylor from having a lobotomy. “Yes,” Gabbard said with a sigh. “That was from the golden age of psychiatry in the cinema.”


Gabbard’s own list included “Ordinary People,” but, he noted, “It’s the Hollywood version of therapy, which usually involves a dramatic, cathartic cure, brought about by a de-repressed memory of a traumatic childhood event, followed by tears and hugging.” He also cited the 1997 film “Good Will Hunting.” “It’s over the top, and the therapist uses methods that are unconventional and even outrageous,” he said. “But a na├»ve audience member could see it and come away with the impression that sometimes therapy actually helps people.”

I think the movies have done a better job portraying therapists than they have portraying mentally ill people, who are always either cute ("Benny and Joon," "King of Hearts"), less crazy than the "sane" people, or maniacal (horror/slasher movies of all kinds). In that same category of kind, caring, all-knowing psychotherapists who evoke great moments of breakthrough for their patients, I'd put Lee J. Cobb in "The Three Faces of Eve," Gregory Peck in "Dr. Newman, M.D.," and Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock's "Spellbound."

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