Mental Illness in Media Can Be Therapeutic: Angelica Jade Bastien

Posted on December 16, 2017 at 9:30 pm

I’ve written before about my admiration for writer Angelica Jade Bastien, who writes beautifully and with great passion about film and television, especially about the portrayal of black and female characters. She also writes forthrightly about her own struggles with mental illness. In two recent essays she pays tribute to portrayals of mental illness on the large and small screen that are more than authentic; they are therapeutic.

One is a classic, Bette Davis’ Now Voyager, one of my favorites as well. It was an early depiction of the struggle of Charlotte Vale, a young woman from an upper-class Boston family, who has so much anxiety over feelings of being unloved and unworthy that she has a breakdown. With the help of a sympathetic psychiatrist played with enormous patience and compassion by Claude Rains, she has one of the cinema’s great transformations, inside and out. Bastien writes:

Now, Voyager remains a timeless portrait of a woman who pulls herself back from the edge of madness to create a life she’s proud to live, with the help of both psychiatry and her own willpower. The film is buttressed by sleek, highly efficient Hollywood production and the moving performances of the cast, notably Davis and Claude Rains as Dr. Jaquith, who helps usher Charlotte into this next phase of her life. Most poignantly, Now, Voyager is a curious outlier in the pantheon of American cinema that concerns itself with women living with mental illness. Few films offer the kind of blistering hope and empathy that has made Now, Voyager endure.

Unlike the “emotional distance” in other movies about mentally ill women, whether they are treated as villains (Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction,” Fairuza Balk in “The Craft”) or quirky misfits, Bastien says that “Now Voyager” “centers on Charlotte’s interior life, including her mental illness, above all else, and how Davis capably brings this to life.”

She also wrote about a view of mental illness made 75 years later, Rachel Bloom’s television series “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”

It has an elasticity few other shows come close to, let alone pull off with such regularity, in the way it melds cutting emotional truths with audacious musical numbers that reference everything from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to 1980s hair-metal bands. But I was always left cold by it. It took until season three, which takes a gimlet-eyed approach to Rebecca’s mental-health concerns, for me to realize that my chilliness toward the series wasn’t a mark of any inauthenticity I witnessed in its narrative. In fact, it isn’t that I didn’t see much of my own journey with mental illness on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; I saw too much of myself in the overachieving, myopic Rebecca Bunch.

One of the greatest pleasures of the series is watching Rachel Bloom inhabit this character. She is at her best when she interrogates Rebecca’s mania, capturing the seductive quality of a manic episode. Its garish, bright intensity fools you into believing this is your best self as you dive headfirst into a series of self-destructive and often exhilarating behaviors. I can see myself in Rebecca’s relationship with mania, the vivacity of her daydreams, and her fraught relationship with her mother….In Rebecca’s shifting emotions, I saw my own history: the giddy elation of a new diagnosis she believes can solve everything, the buoyant mania that often follows a suicide attempt, the careful navigation that comes when you’ve tried to set fire to your own life and still have to move forward.

As is increasingly recognized, representation matters. Bloom has been frank in acknowledging her own mental health issues and her determination to present, even in a heightened, comic setting, an authentic depiction of a character for whom mental health is just one of her character attributes. That, in and of itself, can be therapeutic in educating the members of the audience who do not understand these issues and validating the experience of those who understand them only too well.

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Vox on Makeover Movies

Posted on July 11, 2015 at 3:55 pm

In my book, The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies, there is a discussion of “makeover movies.”

Little girls and bigger ones see a lot of what I call “makeover movies:” in a crucial scene Our Heroine gets a new dress and hairstyle (or just takes off her glasses) and her life changes. Sometimes she transforms herself, as Ella does in “The Bells are Ringing” , causing her to have enormous conflicts and self-doubt. More often, she is transformed by someone else. Cinderella gets a dress to go to the ball, where the prince falls in love with her. Sleeping Beauty’s ballgown is so crucial that the fairies’ fight over its color literally leads the bad fairy to her hideaway. The modern counterparts are Eliza Doolittle, who, like Cinderella, goes to a ball in borrowed finery (and accent) and dazzles everyone there (“My Fair Lady” ) and “Gigi” who is actually groomed by her grandmother and great-aunt to be a very elegant prostitute, trained almost like a geisha in manners and skills for pleasing a man. Over and over, we see the heroines rewarded for being passive pleasers.

Transformation themes have been a central part of stories long before there were movies. The examples above were fairy tales before they were on screen. And girls and women are not the only ones who are transformed; superheroes all have origin stories that are a form of makeover, though they are changing to fantasy versions for themselves, and not to get positive attention from the opposite sex.

VOX has a nice commentary on makeover movies.

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The Five Meanest Mothers in Movies

Posted on May 10, 2014 at 8:00 am

I’ve posted several times about my favorite movie mothers, all loving, kind, supportive, and wise.  I thought it would be fun to share some of my favorite mean movie mothers, too.

1. Now, Voyager Bette Davis is a repressed single woman who lives with a mother so controlling she literally throws herself down the stairs just to spite her daughter. Davis only survives with the help of a compassionate therapist played by Claude Rains, the love of handsome but unavailable Paul Henreid, and, perhaps most important, the opportunity to help another abused daughter.

2. The Manchurian Candidate Angela Lansbury was only three years older than Laurence Harvey, who plays her son, but that just adds to the unnerving evil of the mother she plays. Meryl Streep played the part in the remake and she was scary even crunching the ice from her drink.

3. Carrie Piper Laurie is almost as scary as Sissy Spacek in this story of a repressed and repressing mother whose fanaticism fuels her daughter’s telekinetic fury.

4. Precious Mo’Nique won an Oscar for playing a monstrously abusive mother because she showed us that she was a victim as well as a tormentor.

5. Mommie Dearest The memoir of the daughter adopted by Joan Crawford inspired this sizzling story with a dynamic performance from Faye Dunaway as the star who could throw a tantrum over a wire hanger.

And don’t forget that my ebook 50 Must-See Movies: Mothers is free through tomorrow.

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For Your Netflix Queue Lists

Interview: Steve Taravella, Author of a New Book about Mary Wickes

Posted on June 9, 2013 at 8:00 am

I love the great character actress Mary Wickes, who was the nun who was replaced by Whoopi Goldberg as choir director in “Sister Act,” the nurse who was “a treasure” opposite Bette Davis in “Now Voyager,” and the hotel staff who operated the switchboard in “White Christmas.”  And it was a very great pleasure to read the new biography about Wickes by Steve Taravella called Mary Wickes: I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before, the meticulously researched and beautifully written story of her life on and off camera.  As an actress, she had impeccable comic timing.  She appeared on Broadway, on radio, and on television as well as in the movies, appearing with some of Hollywood’s brightest stars.  Off-screen, she was for decades the closest friend of Lucille Ball.  Taravella generously took time to answer my questions about the book.wickes nun

How did you decide to write about Mary Wickes?

As a former journalist who likes researching people’s lives, I always thought I’d enjoy preparing a proper biography some day, though certainly I never had Mary in mind. When I found myself moving from San Francisco to Washington DC without a job lined up, I decided this was my opportunity to try. Since I’d often considered writing a magazine profile of Mary, I turned to her life first, to determine if it might be interesting enough to justify a book treatment. I mean, would readers find her life genuinely intriguing or was my interest in her unusual?  I quickly decided there was indeed a book in Mary’s story. It wasn’t generally known that she had been the original Mary Poppins, the animator’s model for Cruella de Vil, and a member of Orson Welles’ groundbreaking Mercury Theatre. There were interesting stories in each of these things – and many more, like her close friendship with Lucille Ball.

I began in spring of 1998, giving myself a year to research and write full-time. I was naïve to think I could finish this in a year. Twelve months became thirteen and, not wanting to incur debt to complete this, I returned to the workforce. My new job required frequent travel to the developing world – mostly Ethiopia, Kenya and South Africa, but also Uganda, India and other places – so the book lost some momentum.  I’d pull it out on vacation to work on a chapter here or there, but was far from done.  When I took a job with the UN in Italy four years ago, I decided that if I didn’t finish the book now, I’d never complete it, and I didn’t want all that effort to have been wasted. So my time in Rome became extraordinarily single-focused – not the typical ex-pat experience.mary wickes cover

Your breadth and depth of research is remarkable.  What or who was toughest to track down?

Hardest to track down were former child stars, who often leave the business, form social circles outside the entertainment industry and, especially with women, build lives under different names. I had great trouble finding Anne Whitfield, who played a teenager in White Christmas and would have been the only surviving member of the film’s principle cast. Finally, after several hundred pages in a Google search, I found her name in a PDF of promotional materials for an “old radio days” festival in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s. I tracked down the organizer of the event, who agreed to pass my contact information to her husband. When we finally spoke, Whitfield was very helpful. She long ago stopped performing, became a grandmother, and worked in environmental programs in Washington State under her new last name, Phillips.

One of the biggest stars quoted in the book keeps her personal address and phone number private. My requests to her public PO box went unanswered. Since I knew the city she lived in, I searched public records available online in hopes that her name would be recorded with her residential address somewhere. I discovered a recent permit approval for a home construction project under a name that jumped out at me – that of the actress’ long-deceased mother. Female stars of a certain generation sometimes used their mother’s name to preserve their privacy (just as Mary used her grandmother’s name (Mary Shannon) whenever she was hospitalized, and I recognized this name from the actress’ own memoir years before. I sent a letter by International DHL to this address, and received the reply I needed.

In the end, I interviewed almost 300 people. In some ways, I had an easier time than expected because people sort of figure, If he’s going to all this trouble about Mary Wickes, it’s got to be for a legitimate effort, and they agree to cooperate. If I’d been preparing, say, yet another biography of Elizabeth Taylor, I don’t think doors would have opened so easily.

What surprised you the most in what you found out?

That for her entire life, Mary knowingly kept a man in Ohio from learning that they were first cousins. Discovering this episode of her life was stunning. Even though Mary had very little family herself — she was an only child, as was her father, and her mother had only one sibling – she always professed great devotion to family ties and family history. Mary knew everything about this man, one of her only two cousins – yet he knew nothing of Mary Wickes until I reached out to him for this book after her death, showing him personal family papers of hers that were clearly about him. This was a powerful family secret for her, and a painful one for him, even in his 80s. For instance, his whole life, he was unable to learn where his mother was buried; meanwhile, Mary visited her gravesite often.

She appeared in one of her signature roles, the nurse in “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” on stage, film, TV and radio — which did she prefer and why?  Why was that role one of her favorites?

No doubt, she preferred the stage version. The Broadway run was her big break, gave her steady, high-profile work for almost two years, brought her to the attention of casting directors and pushed her into social circles she wouldn’t otherwise have been part of. It cemented her as a performer who could deliver – and it reassured her that she could in fact make it as an actress. She got one of the show’s longest, loudest laughs every night. On the other hand, a TV version 30 years later was a disappointment for all involved, even with Orson Welles as star and the Hallmark Hall of Fame people behind it.

What was the change made from the theatrical to film version for “taste” reasons?

We forget today the power that Hayes Office censors once had over film releases. In this case, the play’s central character – arrogant, abrasive and over-bearing – refers to Mary’s character, a nurse, as “Miss Bedpan.”  That was changed to “Miss Stomach Pump,” which censors felt would offend filmgoers less.

Mary Wickes worked with a range of top directors and actors.  Who did she admire most? 

She adored George S. Kaufman, the playwright who also directed her on stage often. The two of them developed a strong rapport; he didn’t just understand her comic gifts, he celebrated them. The director George Seaton (“Miracle on 34th Street”) was another favorite. Years later, she also really admired Mike Nichols, who directed her in “Postcards from the Edge” with Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine. Nichols won her over at the start by hiring her without asking for an audition or reading of any kind; this was during a particularly dry spell in her career, and she never forgot the gesture. As to performers, it’s hard to know who she most admired because Mary spoke so little about work. But she did on several occasions mention the respect she had for Bette Davis; no doubt Mary admired Davis’ directness on the set. They worked together in three films and one television show.

She was a close friend of Lucille Ball’s.  What made their friendship so enduring?wickes and ball

Yes, Mary was inarguably Lucille Ball’s best friend for some 30 years, and was virtually a member of the family. Both women were both bold and direct and a little ‘in-your-face.’  They both loved to laugh, and neither had much patience for ineptness. Because they started working about the same time (Mary was 14 months older), they had experiences in common. Lucy appeared in the film version of Stage Door, while Mary appeared in the original Broadway production, for which Lucy had auditioned.  They had deep affection for each other, evidenced by never-before-published letters that I excerpt in the book.

How did she get Cary Grant’s trunk?

An interesting story. In the 1930s, while Mary was a young amateur performer in St. Louis, an actor performing in a touring stage show there got a film contract offer and left quickly for Los Angeles. His name was Archie Leach and, when he left, he gave his theatrical costume trunk to a friend of Mary’s, Clifford Newdahl, who asked Mary’s family to store it for him when he entered World War II. It sat in their basement until after the war, when Newdahl decided he no longer needed it. So the trunk became Mary’s . . . and Leach, of course, became Cary Grant. Mary loved the trunk and made great use of it, like during her national tour of Oklahoma! in 1979.

What problem did she face on the set of “The Trouble With Angels?”

This was one of the few moments in her career where she let others down, and she no doubt agonized over it. Playing a nun at a Catholic girl’s school, she was to jump in a swimming pool in full habit to help two young girls flailing in the water. Mary had never learned to swim, so producers arranged for her to receive lessons at the YMCA in advance. The day of the shoot, without any warning to producer or director, Mary refused to enter the water, saying she was afraid she’d drown. In reality, she’d never showed up for the lessons that Columbia paid for – not out of fear of drowning, but out of fear that others would learn from her swimsuit and swollen arm that she had undergone a mastectomy. Mary went to great lengths to hide her breast cancer. So this consummate professional made a conscious decision to let her co-workers down rather than risk revealing her condition, since the production was now forced to hire a stuntman, incur additional costs and delay shooting. Both the cancer and the stigma surrounding it in the 1960s shaped many of her interactions with people later.

What role did her faith play in her life?

Mary’s faith was profoundly important to her. To her, church was not a place merely to spend Sunday mornings; it was the very center of her community. She was completely engaged in the life of her church (All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills, Calif.), serving on various committees, helping to organize special events, and even teaching Sunday School when in town. More than this, Mary put her faith into practice. She had a strong sense of service to others that was rooted in her faith. She was a longtime hospital volunteer in Los Angeles. She did not just providing comfort to patients, keep them company, arrange interpreters or assist the chaplain, but advocate on patient care issues to management. She spoke on public occasions about the importance of volunteerism and about her faith, often citing a verse from First Corinthians about having faith strong enough to move mountains not being enough without charity.


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Free This Weekend! 50 Must-See Movies: Mothers

Posted on May 4, 2013 at 6:00 am

In honor of Mother’s Day next Sunday, I’m making my ebook, 50 Must-See Movies: Mothers free all weekend!  Post a review on Amazon and you can get any other Miniver Press ebook free as well.  The book is dedicated to my own wonderful wise, witty, and always-on-our-side mother, who made all three of her daughters the stars of her story.  Here’s the book’s introduction:

No relationship is more primal, more fraught, more influential, more worried over, more nourishing when good and more devastating when bad that our connection to our mothers.  The first eyes to look at us with love, the first arms to hold us, Mom is the one who first keeps us fed and warm, who applauds our first steps and kisses our scrapes and takes our temperature by kissing our forehead.  She’s also the one who keeps people in endless years of psychoanalysis for failing to make her children feel loved and safe.  Mom inspires a lot of movies in every possible category, from comedy to romance to drama to crime to animation to horror, from the lowest-budget indie to the biggest-budget prestige film.  A lot of women have been nominated for Oscars for playing mothers and just about every actress over age 20 has appeared as a mother in at least one movie.Image

There are innumerable ways of mothering and all of them show up in the movies.  There are cookie-baking, apron-wearing mothers who always know just the right comforting thing to say.  There are stylish, sophisticated, wealthy mothers and mothers who do not have enough money to feed their children.  There are mothers with PhDs and mothers who cannot read.  There are mothers of every race and religion and many species on earth and in outer space (remember “Alien”).

There are terrifying mothers who abuse or abandon their children or coldly deploy them like weapons of mass destruction. There are mothers who give good advice and endless support and mothers who try to push their children to take the wrong jobs and marry the wrong people.  There are super-strict mothers and super-lax mothers, mothers who want to know every detail of their children’s lives even when they are grown up and mothers who barely remember that they have any children at all even when they are young.  There are mothers of children with special needs who fight fiercely to make sure they have the fullest and most independent lives they can.  There are children who love and support their mothers and children who break their mothers’ hearts with their selfishness and cruelty.

And there are those very special souls who remind us that motherhood does not require a biological connection.  Stepmothers and adoptive mothers are as vitally important on screen as they are in the lives of those lucky enough to be mothered by them.

“A boy’s best friend is his mother,” says a character whose mother is central to the story even though she never appears in the film.  (Spoiler alert: the quote comes from Norman Bates in “Psycho.”)  In “Stop or My Mom Will Shoot,” tough guy Sylvester Stallone plays a cop who mother comes along on his investigation whether he wants her to or not.  In “Oedipus Wrecks,” one of three short films that make up the compilation “New York Stories,” Woody Allen plays a lawyer whose mother finds the ultimate way to embarrass him.  And don’t get me started on Jason’s mother in the “Friday the 13th” movies.

I have selected 50 of my favorite movie mothers, including classic films like “The Sound of Music” and “Little Women” along with forgotten or overlooked films like “Stella Dallas,” “Claudia and David,” and “Dear Frankie.”  Actresses like Anne Revere and Spring Byington made careers out of wonderful performances as mothers and I have included some of their best.  I have a special affection for those based on real-life mothers, especially those based on the mothers of the writers who told their stories, like Sally Field’s Oscar-winning performance in “Places in the Heart.”  But it is clear that in some way each of the mothers in these movies is inspired by the unique joys and frustrations of the woman we love first.



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