The Analytic Observer

Newsletter of the Chicago Psychoanalytic Society

Chicago Psychoanalytic Society | October 1998 Newsletter


From the Projection Booth:

The Film Version of the Analyst
Fifty Years Ago and Now

by Phil S. Lebovitz

During a coversation about the presentation of the therapist in recent films with a playwright friend, she pointed out that a Hitchcock classic, Spellbound, centered on psychoanalysis and that the film would be intriguing to consider for its contrast with current films. Our discussion began with Good Will Hunting and Ordinary People; so I will elaborate on my viewing of Good Will Hunting and Spellbound.

An easy conclusion to reach is that the two films are based on strikingly different assumptions about therapists, what they do, and how they do it. Whether these differences capture the changes in psychoanalyic technique over the past fifty years in a way that is valid and is not simply "pop psychology" is what I wondered. Films that reach audiences, as these have, have far reaching effects on the public’s image of us.

Woody Allen’s films might seem like more apt vehicles to use in a discussion of this kind because they include a therapist in almost every one. However, his audience is so narrow - as we recently were made aware, his films (except for Hanna and Her Sisters) never reach a breakeven point in box office gross-that his view of the analyst has a limited impact.

Spellbound appeared in 1945, prior to the years of the flowering of psychoanalysis in America. The director, Hitchcock, treated the audience as naive about psychoanalysis; he introduced the film with a quote from Shakespeare about the trouble lying not in the stars but within ourselves. He then followed that with a several paragraph long description of the psychoanalytic theory of treatment; the essence of that statement captured Freud’s earlier model of making the unconscious conscious. This becomes the guiding principle around which the plot of the film is developed.

The plot involves a beautiful but repressed woman analyst, played by Ingrid Bergman, who meets the new analyst director of the hospital, played by Gregory Peck, on his first day; they fall in love at first sight. He, however, is a victim of amnesia and remembers nothing of his true identity; he reacts violently to the sight of parallel black lines on a white background and is implicated in a murder. She appoints herself the doctor who will solve the mystery of his identity and solve the crime. She will do it by analyzing his dreams, by having him re-experience the traumatic event, by recovering the traumatic childhood memory, and by establishing the links between each of these items. She will also, as the perfect psychoanalyst sleuth using psychological evidence, identify the real murderer.

Her devotion and perseverance derive from her love for him and, somewhat flippantly, she refers to professional boundaries. Yet, when in trouble, she goes directly to her former analyst (a pipe-smoking conducts herself as a scientist proving an hypothesis. The relationship of the doctor to the patient is incidental; they can even be lovers on the side with no impact on the process.

Fifty-three years later, Good Will Hunting appears on the screen and is the product of two young rising stars who also play major roles in the film. The audience’s familiarity with psychotherapy is assumed, as is an awareness of how a good therapist should look and behave.

The plot in this film involves a journey of self-discovery, an enhancement of self-esteem, and a solidification of structure that supports a capacity for intimacy. The young man proves to be a math genius, and independent thinker and a therapist for his therapist as well.

The relationship between the therapist, played affectionately by Robin Williams, and the math whiz/patient played by Matt Damon, represents a striking change from the one presented in Spellbound. The therapist is casually dressed - though bearded in stereotypical fashion - and often self-revealing; he displays his affect and lays bare aspects of his personal life. The notion in this film is that not only is the therapist/patient relationship the curative force but also that each participant profoundly affects the other; the patient restores the therapist to health as he makes his own progress.

The focus of the idealization of the psychoanalyst has changed. In 1945, the film depicts the psychoanalyst as a scientific detective of the highiest order; the relationship is necessary, though of less importance. In 1998, the film presents the therapist as a flawed, compassionate human being who is idealized for his ability to interact with the patient in order to effect personal development.

Issues for us to confront are plentiful. Is the image consonant with our models of good psychoanalytic technique? Do we want to encourage this kind of image? How can we have an effect on the image the film makers select?

Even thought these films become stereotypic in their presentation, they manage to capture some of the changes in psychoanalytic technique that have occurred over the past 50 years. The most prominent shift has been the one toward a more interactive process.


Chicago Psychoanalytic Society | October 1998 Newsletter