Hollywood Classic tackles mental illness

Graphic by Carrie Clowers ’18

Graphic by Carrie Clowers ’18

BY ISAAC MICHAEL DONOVAN ’19

As both a person who struggles with mental illness and a film studies major, I have often found that depictions of mental illness in film fall short of portraying its actualities and the lives of those who experience it. However, the 1942 film “Now, Voyager,” starring Bette Davis (“The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex”), is one of the most accurate portrayals of mental illness I have seen to date. It is shocking to think that a classic Hollywood film could ever succeed in portraying mental illness  — a taboo subject even today — and do so in a progressive way. Davis excels in capturing the struggles of mental illness and the long journey towards self-determination and self-understanding.

Davis plays Charlotte Vale, an unattractive, overweight, repressed spinster, whose life is brutally dominated by her tyrannical mother (Gladys Cooper, “My Fair Lady”), an aristocratic Boston dowager whose verbal and emotional abuse has contributed to Charlotte’s lack of self-confidence. It is revealed that Mrs. Vale already has three sons and Charlotte was an unwanted and unexpected child. Fearing that Charlotte is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, her sister-in-law Lisa (Ilka Chase, “Ocean’s 11”) introduces her to psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”), who recommends that she spend time in his sanitarium. Charlotte spends several months there and works on herself extensively. After leaving the sanitarium she goes on a cruise and, having lost weight, relishes in her new glamorous appearance. In classic Hollywood tradition, she meets a man on the ship who accepts her for the complicated person she truly is, mental illness and all. But ultimately, the romance of the film does not factor into the intricate depiction of a woman suffering without the true understanding of those around her. Although Jerry, Charlotte’s love interest, is kind and compassionate, the affection he shows her does not “cure” her. A common trope in film is mentally-ill women becoming cured through a romantic interaction with a man, as if romance is reserved for neurotypicals. What I love about this particular film is that it never loses sight of its main objective, that people can live happy lives with mental illness, and that change comes from within. 

What is notable in “Now, Voyager” is the way in which Charlotte’s ongoing personal growth is translated into her physical appearance. Transforming from “drab to fab” is a common Hollywood vehicle to express the “fixing” of a character, informing the audience that a character is different and better for it. However, despite becoming fashionable, Davis’ character still struggles with mental illness. She has self-doubt, lack of confidence and can’t shake her feelings of inferiority. 

As someone who struggles with mental illness and loves film, I was completely shocked and moved. A film from the 1940s that accurately depicts mental illness? And, that does not demonize the subject or belittle the character suffering from it? “Now, Voyager,” is a cinematic revelation unmatched to this day. In this humble film lover’s opinion, this is a movie that should be viewed by all, mentally ill or otherwise, as an example of the comfort and healing that film can bring to audiences around the world. Looking for a movie to watch in your free time? Choose this one.

Mount Holyoke News

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