Mental illness and why Silver Linings Playbook deserved an Oscar for Best Screenplay

Besides earning Jennifer Lawrence a well-deserved Oscar for Best Actress, Silver Linings Playbook was robbed at last night’s Academy Awards. The Academy wasted an opportunity to honor a film that dealt with mental illness in a nuanced, realistic, sensitive and engaging way.

Let’s look at the important categories SLP was up for.

Editing: the award went to Argo. If Argo deserved to win for anything it was definitely editing. So, I wasn’t that upset. The film was superbly edited. Props.

Best Actor: the award went to Daniel Day Lewis. I was rooting for Bradley Cooper, but you could hardly say he was robbed. DDL did an exceptional job at becoming Lincoln. Still, given that DDL has now won three Academy Awards for best actor, breaking a record, it would have been nice of Cooper to win just won. But nobody every said life or the Academy was fair.

Best Directing: Life of Pi seemed remarkable technically and visually. More importantly, I didn’t see it, so I can’t say anything.

Best Picture:  Argo was suspenseful, engaging, fun and funny. It was a smart, well-paced thriller. But the hero was generic, with a little anti-hero thrown in. As a character he was unmemorable, which brings me to the last category.

Best Adapted Screenplay: the writing in Argo, especially the Hollywood sections, was cute and clever. But the characters were two dimensional. Some were funny, but that’s as developed as they got. Does anyone feel like they really know Tony Mendez? Or what makes him tick? The characters in SLP were fully developed, and you left the theater feeling like you knew them.  They were nuanced, they were complicated, they were funny and sad. They made you smile and laugh and cry. (Oh my god. Did I just write that. Sorry.) This was a tribute of course, to the actors’ stellar abilities but to the script as well. The two main characters, Pat Solitano (Cooper) and Tiffany Maxwell (Lawrence), suffered mental illness but they were also admirable, charming, loving, and brave. The film neither stigmatized nor romanticized their condition. Their disease was a part of who they were but not who they were.  While struggling with their mood disorders, they were able to find happiness and fulfillment in their lives.

Katrina Gay, Director of Communications at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), praised the film’s treatment of mental illness:

“Making a film about mental illness is tricky: It can sensationalize, trivialize or exploit it…. But Silver Linings Playbook not only entertains us, it shows us how alike we all really are. The characters are quirky and likable. This film allows the audience to relate to the characters and the story. It’s way more effective than a campaign or banner project.”

Some of the sensitivity with which the characters were handled may stem the director and screenwriter’s own biography. David O. Russell’s son suffers from bi-polar disorder and as Russell explains, “I wanted to treat the characters as humanly as possible. I want people to feel the humanity of the characters.” And Matthew Quick, who wrote the novel from which the screenplay was adapted, suffered from depression.

When is the last time you remember seeing a film in which mentally ill characters were richly complicated people, and not just menaces to society?  The Academy wasted a chance to award movie-making about the daily heroism of everyday life. And it’s a shame.

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Born and raised on the mean streets of New York City’s Upper West Side, Katie Halper is a comic, writer, blogger, satirist and filmmaker based in New York. Katie graduated from The Dalton School (where she teaches history) and Wesleyan University (where she learned that labels are for jars.) A director of Living Liberally and co-founder/performer in Laughing Liberally, Katie has performed at Town Hall, Symphony Space, The Culture Project, D.C. Comedy Festival, all five Netroots Nations, and The Nation Magazine Cruise, where she made Howard Dean laugh! and has appeared with Lizz Winstead, Markos Moulitsas, The Yes Men, Cynthia Nixon and Jim Hightower. Her writing and videos have appeared in The New York Times, Comedy Central, The Nation Magazine, Gawker, Nerve, Jezebel, the Huffington Post, Alternet and Katie has been featured in/on NY Magazine, LA Times, In These Times, Gawker,Jezebel, MSNBC, Air America, GritTV, the Alan Colmes Show, Sirius radio (which hung up on her once) and the National Review, which called Katie “cute and some what brainy.” Katie co-produced Tim Robbins’s film Embedded, (Venice Film Festival, Sundance Channel); Estela Bravo’s Free to Fly (Havana Film Festival, LA Latino Film Festival); was outreach director for The Take, Naomi Klein/Avi Lewis documentary about Argentine workers (Toronto & Venice Film Festivals, Film Forum); co-directed New Yorkers Remember the Spanish Civil War, a video for Museum of the City of NY exhibit, and wrote/directed viral satiric videos including Jews/ Women/ Gays for McCain.

Katie is a writer, comedian, filmmaker, and New Yorker.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/worrywort/ worrywort

    Agreed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the totally misguided, patronizing argument that the movie didn’t treat mental illness “seriously” enough, or that the finale was wishful thinking. Total misreadings. As if people with mental illnesses don’t live through a rich spectrum of life experiences, even in the midst of their challenges.

  • http://feministing.com/members/nikkix/ Nikki

    I was recently diagnosed with depression, and watched this with my mom when she came up to help me out. It was a really lovely and moving film.

  • http://feministing.com/members/lindsey/ Lindsey

    I thought the film was excellent in showing the humanity of people with mental illness as well. At the same time, I don’t think the movie gave a particularly accurate portrayal of bi-polar disorder… Bradley Cooper’s symptoms seemed at times more schizophrenic. I think this is a common mistake in hollywood. But otherwise, I did enjoy the film.