All That Glitters Isn’t Gold-
Part One: And The Winner Is


 “I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!” Does playing somebody who is mentally ill mean Oscar Bait? And how does media influence our perception of mental illness? 

John Oliver once put it so succinctly it’s hard to not quote him on it: “Mental Illness: The thing actors pretend to have in order to win Oscars.” I recommend watching the entire piece, like always John Oliver is informative, funny and smart. Also what else can I say? Gotta love a fellow ex-pat.


However, is this inherently true? Does somebody have to pretend to have a mental illness to win something some actors would give their hind teeth for? And does the sex or racial ethnicity of that person matter within this fraught topic? 

It just happened again as the astonishing actor Anthony Hopkins, playing a man with advanced dementia in ‘The Father,’ managed to beat out the competition for Best Actor 2021. However, did Hopkins deserve this? That year, with this amount of talent and hours that the other nominees put in, surely it deserved to go to someone who, I dunno, delivered a phenomenal performance while dying of stage four cancer and no-one knowing it—RIP  Chadwick Boseman, the ultimate consummate professional. And of course I have to mention Will Smith won this year, and not for playing anyone with a mental illness. Chris Rock made one joke about his wife and G.I Jane without knowing that Jada had alepicia and he got socked in the mouth. Wow, that’s an over-reaction if there ever was one, and Will Smith’s psyche should be questioned, maybe about IED (Intermittenet Explosive Disorder) but as I always say that’s another rant for another day.

Or maybe the Oscar deserved to go to someone who learned how to play the drums and speak American Sign Language. That’s what Riz Ahmed had to do for his electrifying performance in “Sound of Metal.” 

Even the first East Asian actor to get a nomination for Best Actor, Steve Yeun, went unrecognized. Yes, the representation was a lot less Caucasian, but the result was that the victor was still the old white guy who already has an Oscar for playing the psychopathic murderer Hannibal Lector--and yes, psychopaths are considered mentally ill. Apparently, personality disorders, which seem like they should be a whole different kettle of fish, are stuck in with mental illness because some of the same attributes belong in the Le Creuset pot you cook the Bouillabaisse in.  

For anonymity's sake we’ll call my friend Sven. He sometimes can be a bit of a douche, but he’s got Bipolar too, and sometimes can be a bit of a know-it-all. He’s the Seinfeld to my Elaine. Sven said “what does it matter if Hopkins wins? It’s apples and oranges.”

“Well, isn’t it time for an orange to win?” I told him I wanted to write about this. He said: “This type of article is contrived and has been done before.”

“No, but don’t you think the representation of mentally ill people in movies is important?”

“It’s a fucking movie, Betsy—”

Needless to say, I Irish-goodbyed him and hung up in mid-sentence. I didn’t need a cycle of anxiety or nerves, not now or ever. But then I stepped back. It’s not the actors under scrutiny here, they’re all resplendent. Of larger concern is: how accurately is mental illness portrayed? People watch movies and TV shows and think people with mental illness—diagnosed or  undiagnosed—are actually like this. 

So, I researched and tried to figure out how many winners of the top awards had to write, play,  direct or produce a movie of someone who is deemed “mad” to get the little gold, glittering emblem of success that some define a career by. The following list of novels, movies and TV shows isn’t so much a Buzzfeed listicle (or as I call them a Busticle which sounds like an  abbreviation of burst testicle) as it is a presentation of things to think about. Do the mentally ill always get the sympathy vote? And do these roles show an accurate portrayal of mental  diseases and the things we go through as a society? 

We already know about how actors depicting Dementia get awards. As mentioned above, Anthony Hopkins got an Academy Award in 2021. In 2015 Julianne Moore got one for ‘Still Alice’ depicting a woman who is suffering early onset dementia. What they don’t depict in the movies is that the general diminishing of the mind happens over not a period days or months  but years. It’s also been put in a category it doesn’t belong to. Dementia and Alzheimer’s are degenerative diseases caused by malformed prions in the brain which eventually atrophy the matter, neurons and synapses. Therefore, they are not traditional mental illnesses. Yes, some of the ailments of these diseases are found in mental illness like depression, anxiety, and auditory and visual hallucinations. But the memory lapses, the debilitating headaches, confusion and forgetfulness, then the impaired motor skills and cognitive function, all lead to a compromised ability to take care of one’s self. A relative may take care of you but eventually you have to go into an in-patient healthcare facility, until finally the symptoms accumulate into coma and death. In all, this is not how someone with mental illness dies. 

If you look, many award-winning movies and TV shows deal with mental illnesses and equate them with personality disorders when both are entirely different—but that’s another rant for another day (or if you have read Leopards and Chameleons already, well, that’s my point).

The media most often likes to associate mental illness with serial killers. Their motivation to commit murder is attributed to their insanity like Norman Bates in ‘Psycho,’ Leather-face in ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ and Buffalo Bill in ‘Silence of the Lambs.’ The last of these also features one of the most infamous serial killer characters in cinema, Hannibal Lector in ‘Silence of the Lambs,’ which happens to be the first role Anthony Hopkins received an Oscar for.

Lector is also depicted in ‘Red Dragon’ and ‘Hannibal’ (the series)— sheesh, the guy gets around. But he is based on several serial killers, not just one. 

However Norman Bates, Leather-face, and Buffalo Bill were each based on the same one: a man who experienced a harsh childhood and a mental illness that is no laughing matter. It’s the sad and disturbing story of Ed Gein. I’m warning you now, the next paragraphs aren’t for the faint  hearted. 
Gein grew up in a small town with a very religiously pious and domineering mother who told her two sons that all women are whores, except herself, of course. She was the center of Ed’s world. The only competition for his mother’s attention and affection was his brother, who died ‘mysteriously’ in a fire, whilst out in the forest with Ed. His father was an abusive alcoholic that both his mother and Ed hated. They were relieved when he died. His mother then suffered a stroke which Ed enjoyed because it meant she depended on him for everything until a second stroke killed her. Ed was absolutely distraught and alone, he was an outcast of the town anyway so this made him completely unhinged. He would keep her room exactly the same (a la Norman Bates). He then proceeded to dig up recently deceased women of the town and made certain pieces of furniture, furnishings and flatware out of their skins and bones. Gein had read about and was obsessed with Nazis and had fashioned skin-hide lamps. Just like the Bitch of Buchenwald, Ilse Koch, had done.

Gein also had a gender identity issue, but he never considered himself transgender. He was too fucked up mentally, and fundamentally religious to even consider it. So he didn’t just make household items but put together a ‘woman suit’ …sound familiar?

It was when he started to kill women around his mother’s age, that people started to notice and notified the authorities. When the police went inside, they were horrified. Fuck, anyone would be. One of the Chiefs of Police killed himself months after stepping in the house of horrors. Gein then spent the remaining years of his life in a mental institution. What’s equally disturbing is that the town used to hire him as a babysitter. The children told their parents of the “souvenirs” Ed Gein had, and the parents thought they were just making up tall tales about this odd, but not-at-all-dangerous character.

I’m not going to name the town because for years they got tourism from this morbid curiosity; they’ve suffered enough. The media fervor came when a famous director, Alfred Hitchcock, heard the story, well, the rest is cinematic history. Then when Thomas Harris heard the story in the eighties, it inspired him to write the Buffalo Bill character which Ted Levine successfully and disturbingly embodied in ‘Silence of the Lambs.’ 

You may be asking where did the pit come from? Ed Gein didn’t have a pit. Well, no, he didn’t. That came from a serial killer, rapist, and kidnapper Gary Heidnik, who kept women in ‘a pit’ in his basement. He was an awful, pious man who kept women as sex slaves. One died through electrocution when he filled the pit with water, and another died through starvation and other terms of abuse. He would then feed the remains of the corpses to the  other slaves mixed with dog food. Only when one of them, Josefina Rivera, won his trust she was able to get help, under the guise of getting him another sex slave. This tale is gruesome and completely abhorrent, they all are.

Another avenue to explore the concept of insane serial killers is David Fincher’s critically acclaimed series ‘Mind Hunter’—which he promises is just on hiatus, fingers crossed. It chronicles the beginnings of the FBI’s psychiatric behavioral unit. The whole program is based on the autobiography of the infamous forensic psychologist, John Douglas. In his career he met and analyzed probably most of the serial killers out there. Even more impressive, he established the Modus Operandi of murderers based on the evidence and case studies. Renowned serial killers like Charles Manson (who never killed anyone but used his influence, again, another day Betsy, another day) Ed Kemper, and David Berkowitz have all been expertly depicted by actors in this series. 

The primary inquiry within ‘Mindhunter’ is: is it nature or nurture that creates a serial killer? In reality it’s both, you can’t have one without the other. Not everyone who is a psychopath or  sociopath becomes one either. Furthermore, society likes to blame critically acclaimed multimedia for activating more serial killers when the answers are often closer to home (but that’s another rant for another day). Actually that’s exactly where they most likely originate from: the parents. It’s not really a case of monkey see monkey do. It’s more a case that monkey has already seen and done.

The big question is what happens if the media follows the victims of these perpetrators, where do they end up? How do they cope with the fact that the fabric of their sanity has been torn to shreds by another human being?

Stay tuned for the next installment of this semi riveting/horrifying series of think pieces.
©Betsy’s Bell Jar 2022