Hollywood is mad about madness. It just can’t make up its mind about what causes it.
In Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” Howard Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive disorder and other eccentricities are linked to a demonic mother who fed him a steady diet of paranoia and germ phobias. But Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Hughes, has said in interviews that he believes OCD is hard-wired into the brain and not easily cured.
While researching the role, Mr. DiCaprio got to “spend three or four days with a patient,” he told the Los Angeles Daily News recently. “I found out what a daily routine for them was like and how you’re constantly playing mind games with yourself.”
Just as bad as the confusion over root causes, say critics, is Hollywood’s tendency to mock mental illness as well as sentimentalize it.
The latter is why Dr. Sally Satel, a D.C.-based psychiatrist, avoids movies that depict mental illness.
It’s bad enough to watch mentally ill characters being mistreated by others or by the mental health profession, she says; it’s even worse when “those episodes of mistreatment are often used as an artistically cheap way to manipulate the audience.
“Directors or writers often use it as a shortcut to generate sympathy without fully developing the character.”
Recent examples of Hollywood’s penchant for mental illness are plentiful.
OCD-related tics were a punchline in Jack Nicholson’s Oscar-winning turn in “As Good as It Gets” and in “Matchstick Men,” which starred Nicholas Cage.
Schizophrenia and multiple-personality disorder were conflated in the Jim Carrey comedy “Me, Myself & Irene.” Novelist Virginia Woolf’s struggle with depression was a heroic storyline in “The Hours.” Insanity was weirdly entangled with seduction in “Girl, Interrupted.”
On TV, it has been depicted in such shows as “Monk” and Sally Field’s six-episode arc on “ER.”
In “The Aviator,” the mental decline of Howard Hughes is more than hinted at, but it is treated sparingly; Mr. Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan focus on the Texan industrialist at his most vital.
But there are scenes of Mr. Hughes hitting himself with a bar of soap, which he carries everywhere; holed up in a projection room, naked, unkempt and urinating in a meticulously arranged row of milk jars; and repeating phrases until they sound perfect to his deranged ear.
The movie opens with what the filmmakers posit as the basis for Mr. Hughes’ disorders: a scene in which his mother creepily inculcates a sense of safety and cleanliness in separateness from others — the godly state of isolation, or “quarantine,” a word he spells aloud when under stress.
“My mother made me this way,” also a favorite theme in “The Hours,” is bad neuroscience. The “society is sick — not the patients” trope of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” has also been discarded.