Crazy Chick Flicks
Setoodeh, Ramin, Newsweek
Byline: Ramin Setoodeh
Why does it take a nervous breakdown to get a girl noticed in Hollywood?
You want to know why Natalie Portman is a shoo-in for the Oscar, here's one answer. It's not just that she lost 20 pounds for the role, spent nearly a year practicing ballet, and delivered a performance that made us forget she was once the annoying Queen Amidala. It's because she played a crazy chick. Nina, Portman's overachieving ballerina, reads like a chapter from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. "There's the obsessive--compulsive. There's the paranoid. There's the borderline personality and schizophrenia," says Mark Heyman, one of the film's writers. Heyman didn't consult a doctor for any help with the character. He asked his mother. She's a therapist.
Mad Men might rule TV, but crazy chicks have conquered the big screen. Not only do actresses win Academy Awards by playing insane--just ask Kathy Bates (Misery), Nicole Kidman (The Hours), Angelina Jolie (Girl, Interrupted), or Jessica Lange (Blue Sky)--but movies featuring women beyond the verge play equally well with female and male audiences. Women, we're told, like crazy-chick flicks be-cause "they can console themselves, thinking, 'That woman is really attractive, but she's crazy, so I'm better than she is,'?" explains Sharon Packer, a New York psychiatrist who is writing about Black Swan for a medical journal. As for male audiences, Packer says, "I think it has to do with the Sir Lancelot feeling. Men might be more attracted to someone who has a degree of helplessness: being crazy is being helpless." Or maybe it's just that, as Black Swan fan Sean Kearney told us, "I can't think of a crazy girl who isn't hot." Kearney, 26, a videogame designer from Los Angeles, plans to be first in line when The Roommate opens Feb. 4. That film features Gossip Girl's Leighton Meester playing an undergrad who is so delusional, she dyes her hair the same color as her roommate, Sara (Minka Kelly), slips into bed with Sara's boyfriend, and then chases everyone around with a gun.
Actresses say they enjoy playing characters who've gone around the bend because it allows them a chance to stretch. "It's a lot of fun to act, I've got to say," says Barbara Hershey, who as the Black Swan matriarch plays "a mentally ill person taking care of a mentally ill person. It's a family of crazies!" Erika Christensen, who portrayed a crazy chick in 2002's Swimfan, says, "What appealed to me about the role was the fact that she was so different from me. She wasn't just someone where I could be playing myself." For The Roommate, Meester met with doctors who treated delusion. "It was really challenging," she says. "I tried to remain in the mood as much as possible." Halle Berry, who has been missing from the screen for a while, recently received a Golden Globe nomination for her stripper with multiple personalities in Frankie and Alice.
It goes without saying that, in real life, mental illness is a significant medical problem. Almost one in five Americans suffered some form of it in 2009, according to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and 11 million had a serious mental illness. Nonetheless, very few people seem to get offended when Hollywood uses mental illness as a plot point. While other Oscar contenders like The Social Network and The King's Speech have come under fire for questions about historical accuracy, the mental-health community hasn't voiced any qualms about Black Swan yet. "Does it do damage?" asks Packer, the New York psychiatrist. "I think it brings attention to how prevalent eating disorders are or how perfection can drive someone to the brink. The psychiatric disorders do the damage."
The crazy chick has been a theatrical staple since the days of classic Greek drama, when vengeful women like Medea tromped around the stage, murdering their children. Shakespeare's Ophelia went mad after her boyfriend killed her dad, and then handed out flowers like some proto-hippie before committing suicide. …