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Psychology's Best Movies

And the Oscar goes to... which psychological disorder?

As each award season approaches, the world's attention focuses on Hollywood and the best of its productions. Underneath the glitz and the glamour, psychology provides much of the substance that propels producers, directors, and screenwriters to give creative voice to the range of human experiences. Audiences are fascinated by heartless murderers, tragic heros or heroines wrestling with psychological demons, couples who tear each other apart, and families that make their home life a constant nightmare. Whether frightening or hilarious, Hollywood's dramatization of the psychological life of its characters is what keeps us glued to the screen.

As it turns out, the Academy Awards are heavily weighted toward films that depict psychological themes. They also seem to place an unusual emphasis on certain types of characters and issues. Here I've compiled a list of psychological themes in award-winning movies, including movies that won Best Leading Actor, Best Leading Actress, and Best Picture (although I did cheat in one important instance). This led to a potential set of 252 films and characters. Of these, I count more than 60 that fit my criteria. It's possible that I've missed one or two, and if so, I welcome comments to point these out!

There's one other important way that psychology went to the movies, and that is in the real life of 2010's Best Actor and Best Actress. Both Natalie Portman and Colin Firth are co-authors of published psychological articles. Portman served as an undergraduate research assistant (here's hope to all underpaid and overworked psych students). Firth actually funded a brain imaging study comparing political conservatives to liberals. You can check out those references below. Obviously publishing a psychology article is highly correlated with your chances of winning an Oscar. Who said correlation didn't equal causation? (Just kidding, of course).

And now, can we have the envelope, please? Here is a list of stars and films, along with what I would consider the categories of psychological disorder that they most closely depict.

Best Actress Winners (and their associated disorders):

1939: Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind: Narcissistic personality disorder

1957: Joanne Woodward, The Three Faces of Eve: Dissociative identity disorder

1968: Barbra Streisand, Funny Girl: Narcissistic personality disorder (tied with Katharine Hepburn for Best Actress)

1972: Liza Minelli, Cabaret: Narcissistic personality disorder

1977: Diane Keaton, Annie Hall: Generalized anxiety disorder

2000: Angelina Jolie*, Girl, Interrupted: Borderline personality disorder

2002: Nicole Kidman, The Hours: Major depressive disorder

2010: Natalie Portman, Black Swan: Psychotic disorder, not otherwise specified

*Best supporting actress

Best Actor Winners (and their associated disorders):

1945: Ray Milland, The Lost Weekend: Alcohol dependence

1948: Laurence Olivier, Hamlet: Major depressive disorder

1960: Burt Lancaster, Elmer Gantry: Narcissistic personality disorder

1970: George C. Scott (refused), Patton: Narcissistic personality disorder

1972: Marlon Brando (refused), The Godfather: Antisocial personality disorder

1976: Peter Finch, Network: Major depressive disorder

1978: Jon Voight, Coming Home: PTSD

1980: Robert De Niro, Raging Bull: Intermittent explosive disorder

1984: F. Murray Abraham, Amadeus: Delusional disorder

1987: Michael Douglas, Wall Street: Antisocial personality disorder

1988: Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man: Autism spectrum disorder

1991: Anthony Hopkins, Silence of the Lambs: Antisocial personality disorder

1997: Jack Nicholson, As Good as it Gets: Obsessive compulsive disorder

1999: Kevin Spacey, American Beauty: Pedophilic disorder

2006: Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland: Antisocial personality disorder/narcissistic personality disorder

2007: Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will be Blood: Antisocial personality disorder

2009: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart: Alcohol dependence

2010: Colin Firth, The King's Speech: Stuttering

Best Picture Winners (and disorders portrayed):

1939: Gone With the Wind: Narcissistic personality disorder

1940: Rebecca: Complicated bereavement

1945: The Lost Weekend: Alcohol dependence

1946: The Best Years of Our Life: PTSD

1948: Hamlet: Major depressive disorder

1950: All About Eve: Dissociative Identity Disorder

1955: Marty: Intellectual developmental disability

1958: Gigi: Pedophilic disorder

1963: Tom Jones: Compulsive sexuality

1968: Oliver: Antisocial personality disorder

1969: Midnight Cowboy: Drug dependence

1970: Patton: Narcissistic personality disorder

1972: The Godfather: Antisocial personality disorder

1973: The Sting: Antisocial personality disorder

1974: The Godfather Part II: Antisocial personality disorder

1975: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: Schizophrenia (Jack Nicholson won Best Actor, though his character did not have schizophrenia)

1977: Annie Hall: Generalized anxiety disorder

1984: Amadeus: Delusional disorder

1986: Platoon: Acute stress disorder

1988: Rain Man: Autism spectrum disorder

1991: Silence of the Lambs: Antisocial personality disorder

1992: Unforgiven: Antisocial personality disorder

1994: Forrest Gump: Intellectual developmental disability

1996: The English Patient: PTSD (probable)

1999: American Beauty: Pedophilic disorder

2001: A Beautiful Mind: Schizophrenia

2002: Chicago: Narcissistic personality disorder (Roxie Hart and Billy Flynn) and antisocial personality disorder (Velma Kelly)

2006: The Departed: Antisocial personality disorder

2007: No Country for Old Men: Antisocial personality disorder

2009: The Hurt Locker: Acute stress disorder (or PTSD)

2010: The King's Speech: Stuttering

Movies based on severely impaired family relationships

1966: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (including Elizabeth Taylor as Best Actress)

1979: Kramer vs. Kramer

1980: Ordinary People

1983: Terms of Endearment

The Oscars for most frequent psychological disorder go to:

Clearly, psychology features heavily in Hollywood's feature films. Let's hope that someday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences includes psychology as one of its sciences!

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012


Baird, A. A., Kagan, J., Gaudette, T., Walz, K. A., Hershlag*, N., & Boas, D. A. (2002). Frontal lobe activation during object permanence: data from near-infrared spectroscopy. Neuroimage, 16(4), 1120-1125. doi: S1053811902911705 [pii]

Kanai, R., Feilden, T., Firth, C., & Rees, G. (2011). Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults. Current biology : CB, 21(8), 677-680.

*Portman's real name

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