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Dennis Palumbo Headshot

The Male Therapist, Hollywood-Style

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Two iconic images, from two classic films: in Now, Voyager, kindly therapist Claude Rains walks in the garden with troubled patient Bette Davis. He's paternal, insightful and obviously knows what's good for her.

In The Three Faces of Eve, Lee J. Cobb helps Joanne Woodward parse out the three distinct personalities tormenting her. Like Claude Rains before him, he's a model of the patriarchal culture, a therapist of unquestionable motives and unimpeachable authority. One of the good guys.

Which begs the question: How did we get from there to Hannibal Lecter?

Because, with rare exceptions, that's where we are. Look at how male therapists are currently depicted in mainstream Hollywood films. Instead of being shown as caretakers, they're portrayed as troubled, sexually predatory, even psychotic: Richard Gere in Final Analysis. Bruce Willis in The Color of Night. Robert DeNiro in Hide and Seek. Brian Cox in the recent Running with Scissors. And of course, as mentioned above, the wearily omnipresent Dr. Lecter, in The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, Red Dragon and last year's Hannibal Rising.

Things aren't much better on the small screen. On TV shows like Without A Trace, The Closer and CSI, a male psychologist or psychiatrist is as likely to be the bad guy as any garden-variety contract killer or spurned lover.

Of course, as a former screenwriter myself (now a licensed psychotherapist), I know enough to be skeptical of Hollywood's notion of any profession...but still, I can't help wondering what's going on.

What makes this trend even more irksome is the contrast with the predominant depiction of female therapists on-screen: Barbra Streisand's Dr. Lowenstein in The Prince of Tides. Lorraine Bracco's Dr. Melfi on The Sopranos. Carolyn McCormack's earnest Dr. Olivet on the long-running Law and Order.

(In some attempt at balance, I guess I should mention Birds of Prey, the short-lived WB series of a few years back, in which Mia Sara played an evil female psychiatrist named Dr. Harley Quinn. Grandiose, homicidal, the works. Then again, what else would you expect of the Joker's girlfriend?)

Don't get me wrong. There have been the occasional positive portrayals of male therapists on film and TV: Judd Hirsch in Ordinary People. Robin Williams in
Good Will Hunting. And, to cite Law and Order again, J.F. Simmons' wonderful, testy police consultant, Dr. Emil Skoda. Not to mention the recent Golden Globe-nominated Gabriel Byrne in HBO's In Treatment, playing a therapist who, though certainly flawed, ultimately has his heart in the right place.

But these are clearly exceptions. The question is, why? What happened? How did the on-screen image of male therapist go from father figure to the most likely suspect?

Maybe this change simply reflects one that's occurred in the culture at large. After all, the past fifty years has seen a challenge to the whole idea of male authority. In terms of image, professors, doctors and scientists of the male persuasion have suddenly gone from being saints to sinners.

Same with male therapists. No wonder today's TV and film writers find them irresistible as villains. All that education, respectability and power, turned to the Dark Side.

But it wasn't just society's growing distrust of male authority that turned Lee J. Cobb's gray suit and pipe into Anthony Hopkins' face muzzle and leather restraints. There was also a trend, starting in the 50's, of popular films that threw extremely cold water on the notion of psychological treatment as a positive tool to alleviate suffering. Films like The Manchurian Candidate (and its recent remake), The Snake Pit, and One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest all suggested the nefarious ways that psychology could be exploited or used for evil, often conflating its concepts with those of brain-washing and drug-induced manipulation.

Even such recent films as A Beautiful Mind depicted the horrendous misuse of electro-convulsive therapy -- at the hands, of course, of a cooly assured male psychiatrist. A real Poster Boy for the clueless patriarchy.

Let's face it: the world's a pretty treacherous, confusing place nowadays. Our most sturdy institutions -- government, the church, education -- traditionally headed by men, seem to be letting us down. It's no different with therapy. Fairly or not, I believe the way in which male therapists are portrayed on screen reflects a similar disenchantment with both the profession in general, and its male practitioners in particular.

Nowadays, much like Catholic priests, the male therapist suffers from the failed expectations of a disillusioned public. He's been transformed, regrettably, into just another stock character -- our distrust and suspicion buffed to a stereotypical finish by the narrative demands of TV and film.

So now, to the hallowed celluloid images of "tough" private eye, "brilliant" physician and "ruthless" attorney, we can add the unethical, manipulative and frequently homicidal male therapist. Coming to a theater -- or TV screen -- near you!

Hmm. Sounds like we could all use a walk with Claude Rains right about now...