This year’s Oscars are all about psychological drama — clashing egos, searing traumas, neurotic outbursts. And that’s just the Vanity Fair after-party.
Of course, the eight contenders for Best Picture are teeming with psychodrama, too. The pyrotechnics in Guardians of the Galaxy may be epic — but, for some movie buffs, they’re nothing compared to Michael Keaton’s manic freak-outs in Birdman.
The movies up for the top prize draw us inside their characters’ heads — but only to a point. That got us thinking: What’s really going on in their brains, from a clinical perspective?
We did some research and talked about the conditions explored on screen with Dr. Carlos Pato, chair of the University of Southern California’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Pato had seen all eight films up for Best Picture. (Oh, L.A. — never change!)
It’s important to remember that Hollywood screenplays aren’t exactly excerpted from the DSM. But some of this year’s big contenders shed light on real-world psychological and psychiatric disorders — conditions that, as Pato says, reflect “the most human aspect of ourselves.”
Here’s a look at the psychological conditions driving some of this year’s Oscar heavyweights:
Perhaps more than any of the nominated films, Birdman takes us on a psychological rollercoaster courtesy of Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson, a washed-up movie star who can barely draw the line between reality and fantasy. Birdman is essentially a loopy comedy about celebrity — but it’s also a close-up portrait of a possibly disintegrating mind.
What might Riggan’s diagnosis be if he walked — or flew — into a psychiatrist's office? Most likely major depression with psychotic tendencies, which the National Institutes of Health defines as "a mental disorder in which a person has depression along with loss of touch with reality."
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson’s breakneck comic caper is hurled along by Adrien Brody’s conniving heir Dmitri and Willem Dafoe’s creepy, cold-blooded killer Joplin. (The most serious condition you could pin on Ralph Fiennes’ dapper concierge M. Gustave is an excess of charm.)
The menacing villains of Budapest, like many real-life serial killers, most likely have antisocial personality disorder. The Mayo Clinic defines it "a type of chronic mental condition in which a person's ways of thinking, perceiving situations and relating to others are dysfunctional—and destructive."
Pato, for his part, said he “found it harder to see the film as having enough depth to characterize the characters.” (He liked the movie, though.)
In this indie favorite, J.K. Simmons’ monstrous music instructor Fletcher does a number on Miles Teller's eager music student. Pato — and pretty much anybody who’s seen the movie — agrees that Fletcher’s cruel and abusive behavior borders on sadism. But the more accurate diagnosis might be “teacher from hell.”
It’s not clear if real-life Navy SEAL Chris Kyle suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder — but his cinematic counterpart, played by Bradley Cooper, bears deep mental wounds and emotional scars. This controversial drama presents the serious psychological toll of war on veterans — and suggests, as Pato says, that “no matter heroic (soldiers) may have been in that context, they suffer” when they return home.
The Imitation Game
The film may not be the most authentic portrayal of computing pioneer and shadowy war hero Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), but it is fueled by a very real psychological theme: sexual repression. (Turing was prosecuted for homosexual acts in the early 1950s and punished with chemical castration). A gay man in an intolerant society, Turing was forced to live a fiction, Pato says, which may explain his reported social inhibitions.
Over the course of a dozen years, Mason Evans, Jr., grows from a fresh-faced little boy into a slightly less fresh-faced college student. Along the way, he is exposed to an array of psychological issues — from his stepfather's presumed alcoholism to his biological father's apparent Peter Pan Syndrome.
But young Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, appears to enter into adolescence mostly unscathed, if a little heartbroken. (He wouldn’t be a Richard Linklater character without a little heartbreak.) The only psychological struggle he's forced to face is adolescence. And we've all been there, Mason!
Danielle Friedman is senior editor of Fusion's Sex & Life section, by way of NBC News and The Daily Beast. She enjoys writing about the intersection of health and culture. She also loves Muppets.