Most Memorable Mentally Ill Characters In Film
February 23rd, 2010 3:00pm EST
Just last week the movie "Shutter Island," starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Martin Scorsese, was released in general theaters. Its first weekend was a success, and the film is about two U.S. marshals who come to investigate a special hospital for the criminally insane
when one of their patients go missing. One of the marshals, Teddy (DiCaprio) believes there are nefarious things going on at the hospital and seeks to get answers about possible Nazi human experimentation. This is hardly the first (nor the last) movie to take place at a mental institute or about people with mental illness. Here's a look at some of the most interesting and memorable mentally ill characters in film.
Lisa Rowe in "Girl, Interrupted"
When Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder) "voluntarily" checks herself into a mental hospital after trying to kill herself, she does not expect much good to come of it. She also doesn't expect to meet a group of eccentric, troubled young women who grow to be genuine friends and companions of her. The most important person she meets is Lisa Rowe (Angelina Jolie), the sexy and charismatic sociopath that serves as a leader to the other girls. Lisa is intelligent and cruel, but she is also charming and appealing, and Susanna can't help but be drawn to her. Neither could the audience. Jolie had a few breakout roles before this movie, but it was this role that catapulted her into full fame. She manages to walk the line of Lisa being unstable enough for the audience to fear her, sympathetic enough that they feel for her, and vibrant enough that they understand Susanna's obsession with her. Jolie won the Golden Globe, the SAG, and the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. This performance really holds up in time, especially in the ice cream shop where Lisa barks at a woman to protect Susanna.
Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence Of The Lambs"
There are few iconic psychopaths that are as beloved and feared as Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). It was his character alone that spurred on three spin-off movies from "The Silence of the Lambs," and he started a whole new spin on the idea of quip pro quo. In the movie Lecter is a brilliant madman who is a cannibalistic serial killer, and he was once a psychiatrist before that. He agrees to help an FBI Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) track down a current serial killer in return for her sharing personal information about himself. Lecter enjoys breaking her down psychologically while feeding her little bits of information. Every minute that Anthony Hopkins is on the screen is magic. It is one of his most fascinating portrayals to date, and with an actor who has been around for decades that says a great deal. He won an Academy Award for his role in the movie. Just be glad you're not the one Lecter is having for dinner!
Annie Wilkes in "Misery"
When done well, playing a mentally unstable character on screen can get you all kinds of notice and fame. Kathy Bates knows all about this since she didn't get into the spotlight until she starred as the terrifying Annie Wilkes in "Misery." Based on the best selling novel from Stephen King, the story is about a famous author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) who gets into an accident during a blizzard. Wilkes finds him and takes him home, and she reveals she is his biggest fan. At first she seems kind, but her psychosis breaks through and she traps Sheldon in the house, forcing him to re-write his newest novel because he killed off his main character. She terrorizes him, drugs him, threatens to burn him if he doesn't burn his novel, and then in a horrific scene hobbles him when he tries to get away. Bates won an Academy Award for Best Actress after this, and she really is one of the scariest villains in film history. This is one woman you wouldn't want in your fanbase!
The Narrator in "Fight Club"
Edward Norton has played a few unstable characters in his career ("Primal Fear" and "American History X" for example), but somehow his role in "Fight Club" is one of the most memorable. This is interesting since the film didn't do terribly well in the box office nor with critics, but after DVD release it became a huge cult classic. Everyone knows Rule #1 after all - you don't talk about Fight Club! As the narrator and nameless main character of the film, he seems like a meek and normal guy who gets sucked into a violent and exciting world. He meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a soap salesman he met on a flight, and they begin the fight club together. Other men join and basically just take out their rage and aggression on one another in a secret club. The big twist of the movie is that the narrator actually is Tyler Durden; they are dissociated personalities in the same body and he created everything himself, making the delusion that there was another man in control. He kills "Durden" in the end, but if you look at the whole movie again knowing that ... that's one crazy and violent man!
Randle McMurphy in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"
This is kind of a cheat, but the entire movie is based on a mental institute and the patients inside of it, so it works in the end. It is cheating because Randle (Jack Nicholson) is never exactly diagnosed with a distinct mental illness; he goes to the institution to avoid hard labor at a prison. He was arrested for statutory rape, and he thought being in a mental house would be more relaxing. Once inside Randle meets the tyrannical Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who torments and punishes the patients rather than helping them to get better. He befriends all the patients and starts to bait Nurse Ratched and take down her influence. In the end this doesn't work out so well for Randle, but his anarchistic attitude and growing friendship with the other patients makes him a character to like if not to relate to. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is one of only three movies to win all major five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay. Another on this list is "The Silence of the Lambs." The Academy really likes insanity, huh?
Story by Chelsea Doyle
Starpulse contributing writer
Related: Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Fight Club, Jack Nicholson, James Caan, Jodie Foster, Kathy Bates, Leonardo DiCaprio, Louise Fletcher, Martin Scorsese, One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, Shutter Island, The Silence Of The Lambs, Winona Ryder, Starpulse Exclusives, Movies
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