December 13, 2017

View as List Mental Illness in the Movies

  • Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind (2001)

    Every year, chances are at least one actor or actress will receive an Oscar nomination for portraying a character living with mental illness. Movies, especially in recent decades, have offered smart and largely sympathetic portraits of men and women enduring the costs of depression, schizophrenia, autism, and other mental disorders. Here, in chronological order, are nine of the most accurate and realistic of those portrayals.

  • 1

    One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

    Still of Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito in One Flew Over the Cuckoo\'s Nest (1975)

    In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Jack Nicholson plays a charismatic, petty criminal institutionalized for evaluation. He quickly realizes that most of the patients living under the thumb of the oppressive Nurse Ratched are, in some ways, saner than the people he knew on the outside. This hilarious and heartbreaking movie makes some jokes at the expense of the mentally ill. But it also humanizes the patients, who were ostracized and punished only because their minds betrayed them. 

  • 2

    Ordinary People (1980)

    Still of Timothy Hutton and Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People (1980)

    Directed by Robert Redford, this Oscar-winning movie about an upper middle-class family trying to come to grips with the drowning death of their teenage son is harrowing. The core of the movie revolves around the surviving son, played brilliantly by Timothy Hutton, who was present at the sailing accident that killed his brother—and the depression and survivor's guilt that he and his parents have to fight through in order to heal. 

  • 3

    Rain Man (1988)

    Still of Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (1988)

    In this Oscar-winning movie, a self-absorbed hotshot played by Tom Cruise discovers that he has an autistic-savant brother (Dustin Hoffman) he never knew existed. The film won a slew of Oscars, including Best Movie and Best Actor for Hoffman. Hoffman positively disappears into the role of Raymond Babbitt, giving a remarkably accurate and sensitive portrayal of savant syndrome. 

  • 4

    The Fisher King (1991)

    Still of Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King (1991)

    Robin Williams plays a man in the grip of severe post-traumatic stress disorder in this emotionally devastating film. The hallucination scenes might feel over-the-top to some viewers. But they’re not surprising, considering this movie was directed by Terry Gilliam, a master of the surreal onscreen image. What is surprising is the lovely, nuanced way that Williams handles what could have been a cartoonish treatment of mental illness.

  • 5

    Clean, Shaven (1993)

    Still of Peter Greene in Clean, Shaven (1993)

    Widely praised yet seen by relatively few, this movie follows the efforts of a schizophrenic man to obtain custody of his daughter from her adoptive mother. Clean, Shaven is a hard movie to watch, but once seen, it’s even harder to forget. Starring an astonishingly good Peter Greene, the movie presents what may be the best fictional portrayal of schizophrenia ever committed to film. 

  • 6

    Shine (1996)

    Still of Geoffrey Rush in Shine (1996)

    This Oscar-winning drama is based on the life of Australian concert pianist David Helfgott, played by Geoffrey Rush, who suffered from schizoaffective disorder and was institutionalized for years. The movie has been criticized by some viewers for taking liberties with facts around Helfgott's life—including the scope of his talents as a pianist—but it’s a powerful portrait of a troubled artist.

  • 7

    A Beautiful Mind (2001)

    Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind (2001)

    Russell Crowe's portrayal of Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash remains one of the big screen's best characterizations of a life under siege by schizophrenia. It includes special effects that visually depict the hallucinations people with the disorder sometimes suffer. In later life, Nash said he was able to "intellectually reject some of the delusionally influenced lines of thinking" that had defined much of his adult life. 

  • 8

    The Hours (2002)

    Still of Julianne Moore in The Hours (2002)

    The Hours is a relentless study of the ways that mental illness—especially depression and the suicidal thinking that sometimes accompanies it—can control virtually every element of a person's life. Nicole Kidman won an Oscar for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf, the writer who eventually committed suicide. But Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore are equally terrific as women in the grips of debilitating depression.

  • 9

    Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

    Still of Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

    Bradley Cooper plays Pat Solitano, a young man who has just been released from a mental health facility, where he spent eight months being treated for bipolar disorder. Cooper portrays Pat as a young man who's not ashamed of his illness, but who also understands—at a wrenching level—that his life will always be defined, at least in part, by that illness.