You can tell a lot about society’s attitudes towards psychologists at any given time by watching the great movies about psychologists and mental health from particular eras. People’s attitudes have changed quite a bit since the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, when films about psychiatric institutions portrayed horrors being inflicted on patients and questioned the validity of many mental health practices. Many of those horrors were, unfortunately, based on fact. But as mental health practices have changed and the idea of seeing a psychologist has lost its stigma, so have the films about psychologists.
Movies such as Harvey from 1950, which portrayed a loveable drunkard who had an imaginary rabbit friend, were largely inaccurate when it comes to mental health and somewhat absurd. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, people started making films about psychologists that questioned whether things like lobotomies were helpful or if they were institutionalized torture. Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange from 1972 portrayed the story of a violent youth who was conditioned to become physically ill every time he attempted to engage in sex or violence while in jail. The film definitely questioned the validity of mental health treatments, although the treatment in the film was fictitious. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, based on the famous book by Ken Kesey and starring Jack Nicholson, exemplifies the fear of mental health institutions of the time, showing a man who fakes mental illness to get out of jail time only to lose his mind in an institution and eventually become lobotomized.
In the 1980s people began to have a more understanding view of psychology, perhaps because the field itself was changing, and by the 1990s it was no longer taboo to visit one. Films such as Prince of Tides, in which Barbra Streisand plays a psychologist helping a troubled man face his demons, and the comedy Analyze This, in which Billy Crystal plays a psychologist to Robert Deniro’s gangster client character, show how this attitude shift has affected pop culture.
This is barely an overview of the great movies about psychologists from the last century. As you watch these films from each decade, you can see how the psychological field and people’s attitudes towards it change.