A Male Therapist on Screen? Odds Are, He's a Heel

Commentator Dennis Palumbo is a psychotherapist who used to be a screenwriter. And that makes him uniquely qualified to make an observation about how therapists are portrayed in the movies. In general, male therapists are given a very bad rap, says Palumbo, who works in Sherman Oaks, Calif. His screenwriting credits include the movie My Favorite Year.

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Commentator Dennis Palumbo is a psychotherapist but he used to be a screenwriter. And that makes him uniquely qualified to make an observation about how therapists are portrayed in the movies now as oppose to decades past.

DENNIS PALUMBO: In "Now, Voyager," kindly therapist Claude Rains is paternal and insightful and he obviously knows what's good for his patient.

(Soundbite of movie, "Now, Voyager")

Unidentified Woman: Tell me, how is Charlotte?

Mr. CLAUDE RAINS (Actor): (As Dr. Jaquith) Better every week. In fact, she's almost well but she doesn't believe it. (Unintelligible) still looks (unintelligible). You'll find her feeling depressed today because under this morning, I told her she's a fledgling (unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman: A fledgling?

Mr. RAINS: (As Dr. Jaquith) Well, it's time, better to get out of the nest and try her own wings.

PALUMBO: He's a lot like Lee J. Cobb in "Three Faces of Eve," helping Joanne Woodward parse out the three distinct personalities tormenting her. Like Claude Rains before him, he's a model of the patriarchal culture, a therapist of unquestionable motives, and unimpeachable authority. One of the good guys, which begs the question how did we get from there to Hannibal Lecter. Because with rare exceptions, that's where we are.

Look at how male therapists are currently depicted on film and television. Instead of being caretakers, they're troubled, predatory, even psychotic. Richard Gere in "Final Analysis," Bruce Willis in the "Color of Night," Robert de Niro in last year's "Hide and Seek." On TV shows, like "Law and Order" and "CSI," a male psychologist or psychiatrist is as liable to be the bad guy as any garden-variety contract killer or spurned lover.

Now, I know enough to be skeptical about Hollywood's notion of any profession. But I can't help wondering what's going on? How did the onscreen image of male therapists go from father figure to the most likely suspect?

Maybe this change simply reflects one that's occurred in the culture at large. After all, the past 40 years has seen a challenge to the whole idea of male authority. In terms of image, professors, doctors, and scientists of the male persuasion have suddenly gone from being saint to sinners. Same with therapists.

No wonder today's TV and film writers find them irresistible as villains. All that education, respectability and power turned to the dark side. But it wasn't just society's growing mistrust of male authority that turned Lee J. Cobbs' gray suit and pipe into Anthony Hopkins face muscle and leather restraints.

There was also a trend starting in the '50s, a popular film that threw cold water on the whole idea of psychological treatment as a positive tool to alleviate suffering. Films, like the "Manchurian Candidate," "The Snake Pit," and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," suggested a nefarious way psychology could be exploited or used for evil.

Let's face it. The world's a pretty treacherous, confusing place, nowadays. Our most sturdy institutions - government, the Church, education - traditionally headed by men seemed to be letting us down. It's no different with therapy. Nowadays, much like priests, male therapists suffer from the failed expectations of a disillusioned public. Our distrust and suspicion buffed to a stereotypic finish by the narrative demands of TV and film.

So now, to the hallowed images of tough private eye, brilliant physician and ruthless attorney, we can add the unethical, manipulative, and frequently, homicidal male therapist, coming to a theater or TV screen near you.

Hmm. Sounds like we could use a walk like Claude Rains right about now.

NORRIS: Dennis Palumbo is a therapist in Sherman Oaks, California. His screenwriting credits include the movie, "My Favorite Year."

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