• Film

Mental Illness in Film

As part of Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, below are some of the most poignant depictions of mental illness in film. 


The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey

In the titular role in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (adapted from the novel by Walter Mosley), Samuel L. Jackson transforms into an elderly man suffering from dementia. When he’s suddenly left without his caretaker, Grey is assigned to the care of an orphaned teenager. During this time, Grey finds a treatment that will restore his memories, but it will come at a significant cost. For Jackson, an award-winning movie star and four-time Golden Globe nominee, it was his most personal role yet.

“I’m from a family surrounded by Alzheimer’s,” he said during the TCA 2022 press conference. “My grandfather, my uncle, my aunt, my mom, as well as people on my father’s side, also have Alzheimer’s. I’ve watched them change, deteriorate, and become different people over the years. I wanted to tell their story. I’ve listened to them and understood that things in their past are more their present than what’s going on in their everyday life. It’s important to understand how to convey that to people and to give the audience an opportunity to know that they aren’t the only ones to watch their loved ones deteriorate that way.”

He paused. “People need an outlet to look at someone else dealing with those particular things.”


Still Alice

Julianne Moore stars as a brilliant Columbia University professor who suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice. The role earned her a Best Actress Golden Globe and an Academy Award in 2015, for her searing portrayal of a woman coping with this escalating disease and the impact it has, not only on herself as she reacts to her own deterioration, but, heartbreakingly, on each member of her family.

Moore underwent extensive research as she hadn’t had anyone close to her be affected the disease. She told Nylon magazine, “It was a lot of work, but it was fascinating. I started with the head of the Alzheimer’s Association, who has a family history of the disease. We had long phone conversations about her experience with it, and then she set me up with various women across the country who had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. I had all these conversations with women – the youngest was 49, and the oldest woman I spoke to that day was 62. Then I went to the New York Alzheimer’s Association and talked to all the staff.  I talked to a support group filled with women who were still in the early stages of the disease and were doing cognitive work with language. I also went to Mount Sinai Hospital and talked to their leading researchers. Then they sent me to a long-term care facility where I observed people who were really very sick. I really wanted to be as accurate as possible with the behavior.”


Away from Her

Away from Her is about a married couple, played by Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent, whose 40-plus years relationship is tested by the wife’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. As her condition worsens, she checks into a facility better equipped to deal with her condition. She develops a close friendship with another resident, Aubrey (Michael Murphy), which makes her husband jealous. For clarity and comfort, he turns to Aubrey’s wife, Marion (Olympia Dukakis).

Christie won a Best Actress award at the Golden Globes in 2008, and an Academy Award nomination. Sarah Polley, who directed and wrote the screenplay, earned a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination at the Oscars that year.

During an HFPA press conference in 2007, Polley said, “I think Alzheimer’s is something we all think about a great deal. To a certain extent, we are afraid of the idea of forgetting your life and undoing all the work you’ve done. It’s really scary. It’s as hard, if not harder for the caregiver who is completely aware the entire time of what’s happening.”


The Notebook

The Notebook, adapted from the 1996 novel by Nicholas Sparks, stars Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams as a young couple who fall in love in the 1940s. Now a much older couple, their story is told from a notebook the husband (James Garner) reads in the present day to his wife (Gena Rowlands), who has Alzheimer’s.

The film was directed Rowland’s son in real life, Nick Cassavetes, who spoke to the HFPA about his film in a press conference. He said of convincing his mother to take on the role, “It wasn’t easy. My grandmother, Mary Ellen Rowlands, Lady Rowlands, before she died, had a long stretch where she was afflicted with Alzheimer’s, and she lived with my mother. It was a place that I think Gena didn’t want to visit. So, I tried to convince her, and then I said the magic words, ‘Mom, I need you.’ It was a sneaky trick, but I think she’s glad she did it.”

On the subject of this debilitating mental condition, Cassavetes said, “Alzheimer’s is the worst thing. You can cut off my arms and legs but don’t take my brain. The longer we go, our memories are becoming more precious. When our future experiences become more limited, our memories are our most precious commodity.”


The Father

The Father, directed by Florian Zeller, is based on Zeller’s 2012 play “Le Père,” and boasts a stellar cast starring Sir Anthony Hopkins playing an octogenarian man named Anthony who is suffering from dementia, and Olivia Colman playing Anne, his daughter. After Anthony has driven away a string of caretakers, deeming them unnecessary, Anne firmly tells him that unless he accepts an arrangement in which a professional caregiver looks after him, she will have no choice but to relocate him to a nursing home. 

Zeller told The Guardian, “Anthony’s daughter is in a painful situation. She’s trying her best, but she understands that love isn’t enough. It must be so hard becoming the parent of your own parent, or to leave them in an institution. The film is not about telling people what they should do. There is a consolation, a very real and beautiful one, in remembering that we are all in the same boat. Art reminds us we are not just individuals. We are part of something larger.”

The film is seen through Anthony’s discombobulated world view. When he’s confused about why a strange man is standing in his living room, we learn that the man is, in fact, Anne’s husband and that Anthony is residing in his home with Anne. It is both heartbreaking and illuminating. 

In 2021, the film garnered four Golden Globe nominations, and Hopkins won a Best Actor trophy at the Academy Awards, with Christopher Hampton winning Best Adapted Screenplay.