Films have long had a fascination with the mentally ill. They make for great subject matter and provide roles that actors can sink their teeth into -- often at the risk of chewing up substantial portions of the scenery. Recently filmgoers have been blessed with one of the best portrayals of a whacko in recent or for that matter distant memory. Cate Blanchett's transcendent performance in the title role of Woody Allen's latest flicker inspired the annotated list below. I could have made a far longer list but that would have robbed me of the clever title for this post. Maybe I'll have to write a part two or make a list of men. Anyway this one will suffice for now. Or am I crazy?
Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. (1950) Speaking of all time greats....Meet Norma Desmond ex silent film star bent on a comeback that no one else wants. Possessing oodles of cash and her very own screen writer (William Holden as Joe Gillis). She also possess delusions -- chiefly that the movie industry and public are hankering to see her again up on the big screen. Ahh delusions. Living in your own fantasies. A world of your own. How easily they can prey upon the mind. She has a butler/ex-husband (Eric von Stroheim) who is a candidate for world's greatest all time enabler. Nothing helps a nut along like someone supporting their madness.
Gena Rowlands as Mable in A Woman Under the Influence (1974) The nutty housewife. A staple of society but so rarely encountered on film. She somehow manages -- most of the time -- to keep house raise children look after her hard working hubby and give the appearance of all being hunky dory. But then there are the many other times when she just can't hold it together and anyone and everyone present sees the kook in action. Rowlands as Mable frankly creeped me out because watching the film was like looking at surreptitiously taken home movies from my childhood. She was manic she was perfectly fine she was inappropriate she was dear old mom and loving wife. She was all over the place and it was brilliant.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) This has been the gold standard of crazy ladies for over 60 years. There was a wonderful mannered broadness to her and co star Marlon Brando's performances. A kind of why-hold-anything-back approach that turned cinema on its head. Leigh played the classic drama queen nutcase which allows one be a bit of a ham. She took full advantage of the privilege and never crossed the line into vamping.
Kristen Dunst as Justine in Melancholia (2011) No one has quite done depression as Ms. Dunst did in this terrific film from Lars von Trier. There's a real difficulty in doing clinical depression because so much of it is self contained lethargy. You're not exactly bouncing off the walls. So lot of it is the look and Dunst had it. She also had the faraway gazing the zombie walk. It was a criminally underrated performance.
Ellen Burstyn as Sara Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream (2000) One of the more common "real life" (whatever the hell that is) sufferers of mental illness is the shut-in older woman. Add a little TV addiction and a lot of diet pill addiction to an already unstable mind and you've got the recipe for one whacked out woman and one bravura performance from Ms. Burstyn. While Darren Aronofsky's direction helped heighten the performances the cast here was superb. In Mrs. Goldfarb we see so many of those mad aging housewives filling their days with TV and fantasy and drugs to plug in the holes where there lives used to be.
Through a Glass Darkly (1961) Director Ingmar Bergman loved his crazy film characters and I had plenty to choose from but went with this one as my favorite. Karin is married to a doctor her father is a successful writer and she has a precocious younger brother. She herself is bright and beautiful. But none of this stands a chance against the mental illness inherited from her mom. Not even a recent stint in a mental institution has set Karin straight. Bergman's fascination with mental illness made for some powerful evocative cinema and Andersson's Karin is a classic example.
Monica Vitti as Giuliana in Red Dessert (1964) A very understated performance for a very understated insanity. To many a person suffering from mental problems is a raving loon pacing up and down streets screaming at squirrels. But there are much more subtle forms as Vitti showed in this great Antonioni film. She was detached confused unfocussed and prone to wandering and wondering. This not easy to detect mental illness can race downhill in a split second. It never quite does for Giuliana who holds it together -- fakes it. This is actually quite bad. The mentally ill person who can "pass" does herself no favors.