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 yearly 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 at times 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 do give unusual emphasis to 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 62 that fit my criteria, leading to the overwhelming statistic that psychology accounts for 25% of all Oscar-winning major films and roles. 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?

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
  • 1999 Hilary Swank: Boys Don't Cry: Gender identity 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: Autistic 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 (including Jack Nicholson for Best Actor though he did not have schizophrenia)
  • 1977: Annie Hall: Generalized anxiety disorder
  • 1984: Amadeus: Delusional disorder
  • 1986: Platoon: Acute stress disorder
  • 1988: Rain Man: Autism
  • 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 

Posted Jan 14, 2012 -