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Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Shrinks (originally published 12/02)

Movies were born right around the time when Sigmund Freud was turning the world of psychology on its ear. Ever since then, it seems that movies and psychology have maintained a special relationship. In fact, one of the earliest books of film theory was written in 1916 by Hugo Munsterberg, a Harvard professor of psychology. And even after film scholarship developed into a discipline in its own right, film theorists continued to point to the similarities between movie viewing and the dream state, which is the special province of psychoanalysts.

In light of all this, it is hardly surprising that psychiatrists turn up with great regularity as characters in movies. The analyst played for laughs by Billy Crystal in "Analyze This" (1999) and its currently playing sequel, "Analyze That," is only the most recent in a long line of movie shrinks, both dramatic and comic. For a sampling of how earlier filmmakers have portrayed practitioners of psychiatric medicine in all their aspects, look for these titles on home video.

"Spellbound" (1945). Alfred Hitchcock made a number of films in which a man is fatally attracted to a dangerous and/or disturbed woman, but here he reverses that formula. Gregory Peck plays a man posing as a psychiatrist. Ingrid Bergman, as a real psychiatrist, sees through his deception and probes for the psychological roots of his problems. Along the way, she rather unwisely falls in love with him. The film is especially notable because surrealist artist Salvador Dali was hired to design a dream sequence.

"Carefree" (1938). In this Irving Berlin musical, Fred Astaire plays a dancing psychiatrist with Ginger Rogers as his patient. Ginger can't make up her mind whether to marry her boyfriend (Ralph Bellamy), so she goes to Fred for analysis. As they dance their way through her dreams, she discovers (how'd you guess?) that it's Fred she really loves.

"Equus" (1977). By the time Peter Shaffer wrote the play on which this film is based, the range of movie portrayals of psychiatrists extended from the reverential to the satirical. The main character of "Equus" is presented in a way that falls somewhere in between these extremes. Richard Burton as Dr. Martin Dysart is both highly skilled and riddled with human frailty. His treatment of a boy who was mysteriously driven to blind a stable full of horses leads him to question the value of the work he does. Burton is brilliant; Shaffer's dialogue is written in just the sort of elevated style that seemed to put Burton on his mettle and call forth the best he had to offer.

"Still of the Night" (1982). This suspense film stars Roy Scheider as a psychiatrist whose patient is murdered. Soon after, he meets a woman (Meryl Streep) about whom the murdered man had spoken repeatedly in therapy sessions. Naturally, the doc falls for this mystery woman. But is she the murderer?

"Zelig" (1983). Woody Allen's enormously clever faux-documentary about an insecure human chameleon who takes on the attributes of whomever he is with features a wonderful performance by Mia Farrow as the psychiatrist who analyzes Leonard Zelig and falls in love with him. Additionally, there are scenes in which Zelig, true to form, morphs himself into a psychiatrist because he is with one. This allows Allen to do some broad burlesquing of the profession while Farrow's character remains more sympathetic and credible.

"They Might Be Giants" (1971). My own favorite psychiatrist movie is this delightful confection starring Joanne Woodward as a psychiatrist who is hired to examine a New York City judge (George C. Scott) who believes that he is Sherlock Holmes. The psychiatrist's name, inevitably, is Dr. Watson.

Finally, if you want a harrowing glimpse of real psychiatry, look for a documentary called "Let There Be Light" (1944). It deals with the phenomenon that is now known as post traumatic stress disorder, but in those days was simply called "shell shock." John Huston's chronicle of the emotionally wounded veterans of World War II doesn't have songs and dances, and none of the psychiatrists fall in love with their patients. But if Martin Dysart could have seen it, he might not have been so quick to doubt the worth of his chosen profession.

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