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Celluloid Psychology Won't Cure You

Written by David Finkelman, Professor of Psychology

Psychologists have often been the focus of Hollywood’s attention, and film depictions of psychologists – and their professional kin – can be found all the way back to the silent era. But unless you believe that “all publicity is good publicity,” this is not necessarily a good thing. Screen portrayals of psychologists abound in caricatures, stereotypes, and clichés, with the result that they are often seen in a highly unfl attering light. And even when the images are more favorable, they are often inaccurate.

In some ways, of course, it is unfair to blame Hollywood for this. The primary purpose of the movies, after all, is to entertain, not to present an accurate and balanced picture of psychology or any other profession. Psychologists are surely not the only professionals who have seen themselves and their work distorted in an attempt to provide compelling drama, or just to get a laugh.

Before looking in detail at how psychologists have been depicted in the movies, we should identify a couple of inaccuracies about the profession that are widespread, both in the movies and the culture at large. The first is the belief that all psychologists are therapists. In fact, psychologists have a great diversity of roles – as researchers, consultants, and teachers, for example. But these other roles are rarely the subject of fi lm, especially popular film.

The second, in some ways the mirror image of the first, stems from overlooking or ignoring the distinctions between the professions that provide therapy, thus treating psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals as more or less interchangeable. In what follows, I myself will succumb to this inaccuracy by discussing cinematic images of all of the mental health professions, as long as they appear in the role of therapist or counselor.

So how have psychologists been depicted? Below, I discuss four popular themes or “images of psychologists”  as they have been portrayed in the movies. While this by no means exhausts the stock of cinematic images, it gives a sense of the ways in which psychologists have frequently been viewed.

The first image is that of “psychologist as oracle.” It is frequently set in a Freudian context, because psychoanalytic concepts lend themselves to this view. This vision includes the critical importance of childhood experiences, and the idea that memories of some of these experiences are repressed because they are too painful but must be brought to consciousness in order for a patient to be cured. These early memories are retrieved with the patient lying on a couch, and a critical part of the process involves interpreting the patient’s dreams. When the process is complete, the patient – as if by magic! – is cured.

Spellbound (copyright MovieMarket.com)A notable example that contains these elements is Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound.” The fi lm is historically important because it was one of the first Hollywood movies (it was released in 1945) to make Freudian themes a centerpiece of the plot. Psychiatrist Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman) is treating a patient played by Gregory Peck who has lost his memory and is impersonating a psychiatrist who was murdered. The patient becomes convinced that he himself is the murderer. Through analysis they discover the critical childhood early traumatic event: the death of the patient’s brother. This was an apparent accident but Peck blames himself. An elaborate dream sequence, with sets by Salvador Dali, contains symbols that provide additional clues that later serve to identify the real killer.

While this fi rst image is a caricature, it does have the virtue (at least from the point of view of the profession) of being a mainly positive one. The other images are, to varying degrees, less flattering.

The second image is that of the psychologist as incompetent buffoon whose own psychological problems are more serious than those of the patients he is attempting to treat. We might call this the “physician, heal thyself” theme. Perhaps the best-known recent example is “What About Bob?” Bob (Bill Murray) has every neurotic symptom in the book, with a large assortment of obsessions, compulsions, and phobias. His new therapist is Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss), who is clearly more interested in promoting his new self-help book than he is in actually helping his patients. After their first session, Dr. Marvin informs Bob that he and his family are going on vacation. This separation is unbearable to Bob, who ingeniously tracks Dr. Marvin down and crashes his vacation. Dr. Marvin is outraged, but Bob rapidly endears himself to Dr. Marvin’s family. Things spiral rapidly out of control for Dr. Marvin, and at the end, it is he who is reduced to a catatonic state and must be hospitalized.

A third image depicts the psychologist as unethical or duplicitous, violating professional ethical codes. The classic example would involve having a romantic or sexual relationship with a client – a “boundary violation,” in the parlance of the trade. A variation on this theme can be found in “Final Analysis,” in which psychiatrist Isaac Barr (Richard Gere) has an affair with his patient’s sister. Yet another twist can be found in “Prime,” in which therapist Lisa Metzger (Meryl Streep) discovers that one of her patients is dating her son, yet fails to reveal this knowledge to the patient.

The final image is the most negative of all: the therapist as evil. An iconic example is Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Though not in one of the traditional mental health professions, she is certainly the representative of the “mental health establishment” in the   film. In the guise of providing therapy, she maintains absolute control over the patients, even driving one of them to suicide. One patient, R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), rebels and challenges her authority, but the rebellion is ultimately quashed as McMurphy is forced to undergo a lobotomy. The popularity of this movie – and the fact that it swept the Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director) certainly solidifi ed this image in the public mind.

An even more extreme version can be seen in another extraordinarily popular movie, “Silence of the Lambs,” which has as one of its central figures psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), who is not only a killer but a cannibal. (And as an added bonus, the film gives us another psychiatrist, Dr. Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald), who, while not a cold-blooded murderer – we at least have to give him that – is a smug, self-absorbed, smarmy, lecherous egocentric. Choose your poison!)

Fortunately, the picture is not one of unrelenting gloom. There are some screen depictions of therapists that are more positive and at least somewhat more accurate. Two examples are “Good Will Hunting” and “Ordinary People.”

In “Good Will Hunting,” therapist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) is treating Will Hunting (Matt Damon), a brilliant but troubled adolescent with a history of severe abuse. Although real psychologists (and others) will wince when the therapist grabs Will by the throat after Will insults his late wife, and reveals more of himself than many therapists would be comfortable with, there is an authenticity about the therapy scenes that is refreshing.

But perhaps the most positive and sensitive depiction of a therapist among contemporary popular movies is Judd Hirsch’s portrayal of Dr. Berger in “Ordinary People,” which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Berger is treating Conrad (Timothy Hutton), an adolescent who attempted suicide after the death of his brother. Alternately empathetic and challenging as the situation demands, Berger helps Conrad confront his inner demons stemming from his role in his brother’s death, and his current relationships with his parents, especially his mother.

Without much doubt, though, it is the stereotypes and caricatures of therapy that are dominant in the film. This is not necessarily all bad, however. Movies have been described as “life with the boring parts cut out,” and most real therapy has some pretty boring parts. But who would want to pay $8.50 to see that? So enjoy the flashier versions of therapy that Hollywood gives us. Just keep in mind that, when it comes to real psychology and real psychologists, “it’s not like in the movies.”

Thanks to my departmental colleagues Jennifer Tickle and Libby Williams for their help.