Hollywood on the Couch

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The Girl with the Evil Psychiatrist

Why are male therapists now portrayed as villains in movies and on TV?

Two iconic images, from two classic films: in Now, Voyager, kindly therapist Claude Rains walks in the garden with troubled patient Bette Davis. He's paternal, insightful and obviously knows what's good for her.

In The Three Faces of Eve, psychologist Lee J. Cobb helps Joanne Woodward parse out the three distinct personalities tormenting her. Like Claude Rains before him, he's a model of the patriarchal culture, a clinician of unquestionable motives and unimpeachable authority. One of the good guys.

Now, flash forward 40 or so years, to The Silence of the Lambs, in which Anthony Hopkins plays Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a psychiatrist with an unusually carnivorous interest in his patients. Or anybody else crossing his path, like that poor census taker who once knocked on his door. ("I ate his liver with some fava beans, and a nice Chianti.")

More recently, in Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest), we have evil psychiatrist Peter Teleborian. Not only does he sexually molest adolescent Lisbeth Salander while she's under his care, he's also addicted to Internet kiddie porn.

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Which begs the question: How did we get from Claude Rains to Hannibal the Cannibal, from Lee J. Cobb to Peter Teleborian?

Because, with rare exceptions, that's where we are. Look at how male therapists are now depicted in mainstream Hollywood films. Instead of being shown as caretakers, they're portrayed as troubled, sexually predatory, even psychotic: in the past two decades, we've had Bruce Willis in The Color of Night, Richard Gere in Final Analysis, Robert DeNiro in Hide and Seek and Brian Cox in Running with Scissors. And of course, as mentioned above, the wearily omnipresent Dr. Lecter, in The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, Red Dragon and, most recently, Hannibal Rising.

Things aren't much better on the small screen. On TV shows like Law and Order: SVU, The Closer and CSI, a male psychologist or psychiatrist is as likely to be the bad guy as any garden-variety contract killer or spurned lover.

Of course, as a former screenwriter myself (now a licensed psychotherapist), I know enough to be skeptical of Hollywood's notion of any profession...but still, I can't help wondering what's going on.

What makes this trend even more irksome is the contrast with the predominant depiction of female therapists on-screen: in recent years, we've had Barbra Streisand's Dr. Lowenstein in The Prince of Tides. Lorraine Bracco's Dr. Melfi on The Sopranos. Carolyn McCormack's earnest Dr. Olivet on the above-mentioned Law and Order franchise. And, just this past year, Julia Ormond as Vincent D'Onofrio's therapist on L&O: Criminal Intent, as well as Callie Thorne as a sports psychologist on USA's Necessary Roughness.

(In some attempt at balance, I guess I should mention Birds of Prey, the short-lived superhero series of some years back, in which Mia Sara played an evil female psychiatrist named Dr. Harley Quinn. Grandiose, homicidal, the works. Then again, what else would you expect of the Joker's girlfriend?)

Don't get me wrong. There have been the occasional positive portrayals of male therapists on film and TV: Judd Hirsch in the Oscar-winning Ordinary People. Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. And, to cite Law and Order again, J.F. Simmons' wonderful, testy police consultant, Dr. Emil Skoda. Not to mention Gabriel Byrne in HBO's In Treatment, playing a therapist who, though certainly flawed, ultimately has his heart in the right place.

But these are clearly exceptions. The question is, why? What happened? How did the on-screen image of male therapist go from father figure to the most likely suspect?

Maybe this change simply reflects one that's occurred in the culture at large. After all, the past fifty years has seen a challenge to the whole idea of male authority. In terms of image, professors, doctors and scientists of the male persuasion have suddenly gone from being saints to sinners. Same with male therapists. No wonder today's TV and film writers find them irresistible as villains. All that education, respectability and power, turned to the Dark Side.

But it wasn't just society's growing distrust of male authority that turned Lee J. Cobb's gray suit and pipe into Anthony Hopkins' face muzzle and leather restraints. There was also a trend, starting in the 50's, of popular films that threw extremely cold water on the notion of psychological treatment as a positive tool to alleviate suffering. Films like The Manchurian Candidate (and its recent remake), The Snake Pit, and One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest all suggested the nefarious ways that psychology could be exploited or used for evil, often conflating its concepts with those of brain-washing and drug-induced manipulation.

Even such recent films as A Beautiful Mind depicted the horrendous misuse of electro-convulsive therapy -- at the hands, of course, of a cooly assured, unfeeling male psychiatrist. (As opposed to its somewhat benign use in the series finale of Showtime's Homeland, in which Claire Danes' sister, a kindly psychiatrist, looks on with concern.)

Let's face it: the world's a pretty treacherous, confusing place nowadays. Our most sturdy institutions -- government, the church, education -- traditionally headed by men, seem to be letting us down. It's no different with psychotherapy. Fairly or not, I believe the way in which male therapists are portrayed on screen reflects a similar disenchantment with both the profession in general, and its male practitioners in particular.

Which is why, when I started writing a series of mystery novels (Mirror Image and its sequel, Fever Dream), I wanted my amateur sleuth to be a therapist. Flawed, yes. Psychologist Daniel Rinaldi is certainly that. Troubled, stubborn, and with a temper. But someone trying desperately to make a difference. To help others on the path to healing, even if only as a way to come to some kind of peace himself.

My point is, if Daniel Rinaldi's mission as a therapist is to treat those crippled by trauma, I guess one of my goals as a writer is to help resuscitate the image of the mental health professional. Particularly male. Particularly in today's harsh, cynical world.

Because nowadays, much like Catholic priests, the male therapist suffers from the failed expectations of a disillusioned public. He's been transformed, regrettably, into just another stock character -- our distrust and suspicion buffed to a stereotypical finish by the narrative demands of TV and film.

So now, to the hallowed celluloid images of "tough" private eye, "brilliant" physician and "ruthless" attorney, we can add the unethical, manipulative and frequently homicidal male therapist. Coming to a theater -- or TV screen -- near you!

Hmm. Sounds like we could all use a walk with Claude Rains right about now...

 

 

 

Dennis Palumbo is a former Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter) turned licensed psychotherapist and mystery author.

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