Hollywood's Crazy Idea of Mental Hospitals

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Ian McKellen, Natasha Richardson and a nurse in scene from 'Asylum.'

Ian McKellen and Natasha Richardson are two of the stars of the latest film set in a mental hospital. Paramount Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Paramount Classics

The movie Asylum opens this weekend. It's an "erotic thriller" starring Natasha Richardson, Marton Czokas and Ian McKellen. It joins a long tradition of cinematic portrayals of mental hospitals, most of which are pretty off base.


The idea of madness has long been appealing to filmmakers. Movies from "The Snake Pit" to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" to "Girl, Interrupted" and "Gothika" have often exploited that fascination. Now "Asylum," a new film opening this weekend, is the story of an obsessive love affair that begins and ends in a British mental hospital for the criminally insane during the 1950s. The movie prompted NPR's Lynn Neary to delve into other cinematic images of insane asylums. She has this report.

LYNN NEARY reporting:

At the beginning of "Asylum," Natasha Richardson, playing the wife of a newly arrived doctor at a British mental hospital, let curiosity get the best of her. After a painfully boring meeting of the hospital's ladies auxiliary, she hears screams coming from a distant hallway.

(Soundbite of screams)

NEARY: She follows the sound to a locked doorway where a little old lady with a shock of white hair beckons her.

(Soundbite of "Asylum")

Unidentified Woman #1: Are you joining guests?

Ms. NATASHA RICHARDSON (Actress): (As doctor's wife) No, I'm not, no.

Unidentified Woman #1: It's this way. But you're not allowed in the corridor?

NEARY: This is the stuff that movies about insanity are made of, the locked wards, the screaming inmates, the sane person who is surely doomed. Screenwriter Patrick Marber says this scene was the director's idea.

Mr. PATRICK MARBER (Screenwriter): ...(Unintelligible) onto something and Dave Mackenzie really wanted to establish early that this is a scary place. And he gives the audience a little fright.

NEARY: "Asylum," based on a novel of the same name, is as much a story about forbidden love as it is about insanity. And it was this aspect of the story that attracted Marber, who's best known for writing both the play and screenplay of "Closer." But Marber says he wasn't put off by the idea that a movie set in a brooding, Gothic mental asylum is something of a cliche.

Mr. MARBER: I think people feel very comfortable with that. Here's this place; this is what it's like. You kind of know the territory, and here's what happens. I don't have a problem--I mean, no one complains in a Western that someone goes into a bar and it's, you know, that bar we've seen in every Western or, you know, it becomes part of movie convention.

Mr. CHARLES TAYLOR (Film Critic): They're used as a basis for melodrama. I mean, they're places of fear.

NEARY: Film critic Charles Taylor.

Mr. TAYLOR: It's fear of craziness, fear that--`crazy' is another word for dangerous, and that, you know, madness is catching if we--you know, we'll be locked up with these people and if they don't harm us, we'll turn out as bad as they are.

NEARY: Taylor says films not only portray madness as catching, they also depict mental institutions as places that can literally drive a sane person crazy. In the 1963 cult classic "Shock Corridor," a newspaper reporter trying to solve a murder pretends to be insane in order to be admitted to a mental hospital. By the end of the film, the reporter has solved the crime, but he's also psychotic.

(Soundbite of "Shock Corridor")

Unidentified Woman #2: Why is he like that?

Unidentified Man: Well, a man can't tamper with the mind and live in a mental hospital and subject himself to all kinds of tests and expect to come out it sane. Charlie's a catatonic schizophrenic. What a tragedy. An insane mute will win the Pulitzer Prize.

NEARY: But it's not necessarily the patients who drive people mad. Often there's a malevolent mental health worker--a guard, a nurse, a doctor. In "Asylum," there is a scheming psychiatrist who manipulates the lovers into a tragically destructive relationship. Screenwriter Patrick Marber.

Mr. MARBER: He's the damaged crackpot, English nut case shrink, and we've all met those. He reminds me very much of an English public school deputy headmaster. And the guy is always lurking around and he thinks he's in the right to boss this place. But actually, no one would ever give him power because he's such a creep.

NEARY: The cinematic icon of the controlling mental health worker is Nurse Ratched from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." As played by Louise Fletcher, who won an Oscar for the role, Nurse Ratchet rules her roost in modulated tones. But her iron will breaks the men on her ward, most notably Jack Nicholson's McMurphy.

(Soundbite of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest)

Mr. JACK NICHOLSON (Actor): (As McMurphy) What's in the horse pill?

"Miss PILGRO": It's just medicine. It's good for you.

Mr. NICHOLSON: (As McMurphy) Yeah, but I don't like the idea of taking something if I don't know what it is.

"Miss PILGRO": Don't get upset, Mr. McMurphy.

Mr. NICHOLSON: (As McMurphy) I'm not getting upset, Miss Pilgro. It's just that I don't want anyone to try and slip me ...(unintelligible), know what I mean?

Ms. LOUISE FLETCHER (Actress): (As Nurse Ratchet) It's all right, Miss Pilgro. If Mr. McMurphy doesn't want to take his medication orally, I'm sure we can arrange that he can have it some other way, but I don't think you'd like it, Mr. McMurphy.

NEARY: Ultimately, says psychologist Michael Fleming, author of "Images of Madness," these cinematic portrayals of insane asylums have penetrated the cultural psyche.

Dr. MICHAEL FLEMING (Author, "Images of Madness"): The depiction in cinema over the last hundred years has really very much impacted the way people see both the patient, the institutions and the treaters.

NEARY: Fleming says in his practice, he has seen the effect of movie madness on patients being admitted to mental hospitals.

Dr. FLEMING: They come into this and they are terrified themselves and possibly disoriented a bit and really scared about what will happen to them. And sadly, they do comment on different films at times, that they walk around within their head.

NEARY: Asylums, says Fleming, are supposed to be sanctuaries. In movies, they are usually the opposite. Instead of places where healing takes place, they are houses of horror from which there is no escape. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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