Monday, February 15, 2010

Oscar loves the mentally unstable!

There's something about playing against type, and playing uncomfortably troubled people, that the folks doing the nominations for the Academy Awards seem to like. In more recent years, we've seen Oscars go to killers in movies like Monster and Silence of the Lambs, and a psychotic fan in Misery, among others. But even generations ago, fighting personal demons could get you Oscar notice, as happened to Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit, which TCM is showing tonight at 8:00 PM ET.

De Havilland stars as a young wife in New York who ends up in a state mental institution, for reasons that aren't entirely clear to her. She's had some sort of breakdown, but she isn't as bad off as some of the other patients. This allows her to see more clearly the horror that mental patients had to go through: The Snake Pit is, above all else, a stinging indictment on the treatment of the mentally ill. She and the other patients are pretty much caged up, with treatment in many cases given to them whether they want it or not -- although for quite a few of the patients, they wouldn't have known what was going on. In other words, this is a view of mental institutions diametrically opposed to that in a movie like Love Crazy. Indeed, in one of the more harrowing scenes of the movie, de Havilland is subjected to electroshock therapy. The whole thing must have been deeply disconcerting to the audiences of 1948, much the same way Ray Milland's ugly alcoholic Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend challenged audiences a few years earlier.

De Havilland was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, but didn't win, in part because she had won a few years earlier (for To Each His Own) and because there was an equally outstanding performance to vote for that year, that being Jane Wyman's deaf-mute in Johnny Belinda. That having been said, de Havilland is superb here, but not the only one. The other patients, including Beulah Bondi, Lee Patrick, and a brief appearance by Celeste Holm are equally worth watching, as is the doctor who tries to help them (Leo Genn) and the nurse who thinks force needs to be used to keep the patients in check. (Shades of The Caretakers here.)

The Snake Pit has been released to DVD and, despite being 60 years old, is still a powerful look at mental hospitals, especially as it's based upon a real story.

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