Some of the greatest Hollywood films deal with subject matter that hits close to our hearts, such as protagonists with mental illness. Much like Vivien Leigh’s portrayal of the histrionic Scarlett O’Hara from the classic Gone with the Wind, several other actors and actresses have done marvelous work portraying similarly afflicted characters.
Here are five iconic portrayals of mental illness in film:
Natalie Portman in Black Swan
Portman took home an Academy Award for her gripping portrayal of Nina, an obsessed ballet dancer in the lead role of the White Swan for a New York city production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Nina’s obsession leads to her breaking down mentally including developing anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder that is responsible for the most mental illness deaths.
The film received several other accolades and became one of a few horror films to receive a Best Picture nomination.
Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook
Cooper sheds some light on bipolar disorder with a funny yet poignant portrayal of Patrick “Pat” Solitano, Jr., a recently released patient from the psychiatric clinic. Pat suffered a mental breakdown following a messy breakup with his wife.
He tries to get his life back together but struggles with his unpredictable shift in mood, behaviour, and poor attention span, until he meets Tiffany, who bonds with him over a dancing competition as he learns to slowly get over his past demons.
Edward Norton in Fight Club
The cult classic featured engrossing performances from both Edward Norton and Brad Pitt as the one-and-the-same, Tyler Durden. Norton, who serves as the nameless narrator up until the plot twist, constructs a sexy bad boy alter ego for himself. Patients with disassociative disorders like Durden have problems with memory, identity, emotion, perception, behaviour and sense of self.
Durden’s alter ego played by Pitt is nothing but an illusion and leads to him committing and forgetting about his many activities including creating the titular Fight Club and dating Marla, his love interest.
Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia
Depression is one of the most covered topics in films, but Melancholia, a science-fiction drama is unlike any of them. Dunst plays Justine, a bride-to-be suffering from a depressive episode as the Earth is about to collide with a rogue planet.
Writer and director Lars von Trier was inspired when he received insight during one of his depressive episodes learning about how depressed individuals tend to remain calm during catastrophic events. The film is considered a masterpiece and Dunst received similar acclaim for her performance.
Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
As the star of one of the most renowned films centering around mental illness, Nicholson gave an award-winning performance as Randle McMurphy, a psychiatric patient suffering from antisocial personality disorder. McMurphy is seemingly friendly but has strong internal turmoil manifesting in a manipulative and sometimes violent behaviour, such as what led to his confinement: battery, gambling and statutory rape.
Initially a troubled character, McMurphy forms deep friendships with the other patients as he inspires them to rebel against the corrupt Nurse Ratched, even if it led to his eventual demise. A rebel to the end, McMurphy was able to overcome his mental illness and help others.