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Suicide, Drugs and Mental Illness: That’s Entertainment

The suicide of “gonzo” journalist, madman and unapologetic drug fiend Hunter S. Thompson -- portrayed by Bill Murray and Johnny Depp in “Where the Buffalo Roam” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” respectively -- spurs this Oscar week rumination on how Hollywood has portrayed three of its favorite overlapping social issues.

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Mental illness

Three years ago, Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of the depression that led to Virginia Woolf’s suicide earned her the best actress Oscar for “The Hours.” This year, a Xanax helps coax the socially wobbly, probably depressed, divorced teacher played by Paul Giamatti in “Sideways” through a dinner date, and although he didn’t get an acting nomination, the film is a best picture contender. Germ paranoia snared laughs -- as well as a Neutrogena soap product placement -- in the 1997 Oscar-nominated comedy “As Good as It Gets,” but it engenders nothing but sympathy for troubled tycoon Howard Hughes in best picture nominee “The Aviator.” If the mid-century maverick, portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in a nominated performance, had lived to see the benefits of modern pharmacology, he might have casually popped a pill to quell his compulsive, ritualistic behaviors.

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Substance abuse

Heroin addiction plagues Ray Charles, played by best actor nominee Jamie Foxx in the best picture nominee “Ray,” but unlike jazz savant Charlie Parker in “Bird,” a Clint Eastwood-directed film that won a sound award in 1988, the musician eventually shakes the devastating grip of a bad drug. Hard liquor is portrayed as equally life-threatening in “Days of Wine and Roses” (1962 best actor nominee Jack Lemmon: “I thought, ‘I wonder who that bum is.’ And then I saw it was me.”) or “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995 best actor winner Nicolas Cage: “I can remember ... if my wife leffme ... or Illeff her ... "). But this year, wine is apparently benign. Even scenes of violence, depression and DUI seem zany when the “Sideways” buddies drain bottle after bottle of anything -- except Merlot, of course -- with a cork in it. Meanwhile, the actor who swears off lithium in the Academy-ignored “Garden State” self-prescribes recreational drugs.

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Suicide

“The Big Chill.” “Ordinary People.” “Leaving Las Vegas.” These Oscar-nominated scripts hinge on suicide or suicide attempts, while “Sideways” merely references it as a way of fleshing out its main character. But this year’s best picture nominee “Million Dollar Baby,” starring best actress nominee Hillary Swank, is doing for assisted suicide what 1962 nominee “To Kill a Mockingbird” did for racial injustice: bringing a hot-button Supreme Court issue to the big screen. At least there’s no way for movie critics to give away the surprise ending of the high court’s decision last week to hear a challenge to Oregon’s right-to-die law.

-- Pamm Higgins


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