Thanks For Sharing: Big Screen Therapists

February 7, 2019
While the practice of psychiatry is not always favourably reflected on screen, these five movie therapists give the right advice. 

BERGER (JUDD HIRSCH) IN ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980)

In Robert Redford’s powerful, Oscar winning directorial debut, a stuffy, upper crust, emotionally fractured family (parents Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore, and son, Timothy Hutton, all superb) is hopelessly unable to deal with the drowning death of its cherished, idolised oldest son. Very slowly but surely, however, the family is at least partially put back together with the help of sagely psychiatrist, Dr. Berger, played with rumpled brilliance by Judd Hirsch.

SUSAN LOWENSTEIN (BARBRA STREISAND) IN PRINCE OF TIDES (1991)

She may well and truly overstep the clearly delineated concepts of what constitutes a doctor/patient relationship, but in this charming but gutsy drama, Barbra Streisand’s Dr. Susan Lowenstein is highly effective in excavating and then dealing with the mental health due to deeply buried psychological injuries of Nick Nolte’s outwardly happy but ultimately profoundly troubled teacher and football coach.

MARTIN DYSART (RICHARD BURTON) IN EQUUS (1977)

In Sidney Lumet’s dark, brooding, stylistically daring adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s stage masterpiece, the great Richard Burton is in towering, majestic form as veteran psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Dysart, who is charged with determining why a troubled young man (fine work from Peter Firth) blinded an entire stable of horses with a sickle. What he unearths – with skill, diligence, and perseverance – is at once sad, horrifying, sickening, and disturbing.

SEAN MAGUIRE (ROBIN WILLIAMS) IN GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997)

Far grittier and considerably more street-smart than the usual big screen psychiatrist, Robin Williams’ Dr. Sean Maguire talks tough and always refuses to back down, which makes him the perfect therapist for Matt Damon’s Will Hunting, an unlikely mathematical genius from the wrong side of the tracks. Burdened with guilt and shame stemming from an abusive childhood, Will is pushed to confront his inner demons by Dr. Maguire, and is ultimately freed to shoot for the stars thanks to the canny, well-judged intervention of the therapist.

CAWLEY (BEN KINGSLEY) IN SHUTTER ISLAND (2010)

Though beginning as a genre thriller, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island – set on the eponymous isolated, wave-lashed prison for the criminally insane – becomes something else altogether by the end, picking away at deep, thought provoking themes involving the practice of psychiatry, its modern evolution, and the moral implications attached to the different schools of thought in relation to treating psychiatric patients. Much of that is centred on Ben Kingsley’s Dr. Cawley, the institution’s officious head doctor, who is ultimately revealed to be much, much more than what he seems, and a true hero of his profession.

 

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