One of the most unforgettable closing moments in film history takes place when the heroine of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), the fading film star and femme fatale Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson), turns directly to the camera and utters the much-quoted line: “All right, Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” In this sequence, Desmond has finally lost her grip on reality: about to be led away by policemen, she is convinced that she is part of a grandiose film production, her desire to return to the spotlight finally sated.
Ostensibly, Sunset Boulevard is about a star’s descent into madness, a tale that unfolds precisely against the backdrop of Hollywood, but Wilder’s film also exposes our fascination with psychologically unstable characters whose behaviour exceeds the bounds of normality. Such cinematic subjects are an essential part of Hollywood’s narratives, from Bette Davis’ iconic turn as the bespectacled neurotic Charlotte Vale in Irving Rapper’s Now, Voyager (1942: one of the earliest Hollywood films to directly refer to the work of Sigmund Freud) to Jack Nicholson in Miloš Forman’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Russell Crowe in Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001).
Yet the recent success of the film Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell’s adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel based on his son’s struggle with bipolar disorder, and the Showtime television series Homeland, a thriller about a CIA agent’s relentless pursuit of an American soldier with terrorist connections, has dramatically challenged existing representations of mental illness. They reflectan acute shift in the way in which film and television mediate the image of madness.
Although the protagonists of Silver Linings Playbook and Homeland both endure the difficulties of living with bipolar disorder (and depression in the former case), neither film can be easily pigeonholed as “issue-led”. They encompass questions that relate directly to the psychological state of their protagonists, but no clear-cut answers are provided, allowing for a more appropriate and authentic perspective on mental illness. And this different treatment of mental illness we witness relies on engaging narratives that firmly reject both sentimentalisation and stigmatisation.
Until now, Hollywood’s portrayal of mental illness has been largely troubling and problematic. Characters whose behaviour does not fit with normative conventions are either monstrous (Norma Desmond and Jack Nicholson’s R. P. McMurphy in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) or sentimentalised (Russell Crowe’s schizophrenic mathematician John Nash in A Beautiful Mind). More recently, in Joe Wright’s The Soloist (2009), in which a homeless schizophrenic with a musical gift, Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), develops a friendship with journalist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr), schizophrenia is evoked through a formal device that switches the image to pure colour, shards of light and movement – a tonal shift that comes to stand for Ayers’ experience of music. Despite this attempt at viscerally conveying a state of consciousness comparable to psychosis, the film feels like a fairy tale. Indeed, Wright’s overly emotive representation of Ayers is reminiscent of Mike Figgis’ Mr. Jones (1993), in which a man with bipolar disorder, played by Richard Gere, becomes romantically entangled with his psychiatrist (Lena Olin), leading to a relationship that permits him, momentarily, to be “normal” again and loved unconditionally.
The central character of Silver Linings Playbook, Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), is the antithesis of Gere’s soulful yet fra-gile Mr Jones or Ayers’ sympathetic musical genius. He is unlikeable, difficult to watch and even irritating, frequently swearing or slumping in silence. Soon after the opening titles, viewers learn that he was living with undiagnosed bipolar disorder and, when he found his wife cheating on him with a colleague, erupted in a violent episode that resulted in his admission to a psychiatric unit. Quick’s novel does not refer directly to bipolar disorder; Russell’s decision to make this explicit resulted from his personal experiences as a father with a son suffering from this form of mental illness (a point much discussed by Cooper at the time of the film’s release). Pat returns to his childhood home, painfully revisiting old haunts and quarrelling with his parents; most memorably, he is seen jogging around his neighbourhood, wrapped in bin liners to encourage weight loss.
During one of his daily jogs, Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a depressed widow. Like Pat, Tiffany is not a conventionally likeable heroine, but her relationship with him allows viewers to accept and respond to their lives. Silver Linings Playbook is, in essence, a romantic comedy without the romanticisation of mental illness; key scenes such as “the first date” and “the first kiss” are genuinely awkward, clumsy and often combative not as a consequence of the characters’ conditions but as simple markers of their humanity. These scenes are especially moving because they evoke the cadence of everyday life and make flesh and blood of their subjects, real people rather than ciphers of mental illness.
While Silver Linings Playbook makes us rethink mental illness and its role in Hollywood, Homeland’s representation of Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is ground-breaking because it is simply a matter of fact that she is bipolar; this aspect of her character does not drive the narrative forward, nor is it the defining feature of her role. Carrie’s public, professional paranoia as a CIA agent is strikingly juxtaposed with her personal trauma and emotional vulnerability. Yet crucially, Carrie’s illness is not often referred to in any detail and, in some episodes, is signified merely by understated shots of her reaching into a medicine cabinet.
At the end of the first series, Carrie’s illness has escalated to such a degree that she submits to electroconvulsive therapy, in which electrical shocks are applied to the brain, yet viewers are invited to look on as voyeurs, faced with the reality of severe illness, stark and terrifying. At the precise moment when the camera might look away, we are implicated in her terror, no longer just witnessing but participating in her world. Homeland’s risky finale pays off because it asks important questions about the ethics of representing mental illness and the viewer’s response to such troubling images.
Both Homeland and Silver Linings Playbook have opened up perceptions of mental illness that differ significantly from previous representations in mainstream culture. While scholarly debates continue to respond to cinema’s ever-shifting portrayals of race, gender and sexuality, more attention must be paid to the subject of mental illness and, more broadly, disability. The enduring appeal of Norma Desmond may tell us something about our hidden anxieties about mental illness as well as the tainted prize of fame, but Pat Solitano and Carrie Mathison are uniquely fascinating because they openly discuss their illness: here, the mentally ill are not objects of enquiry, but speaking subjects.