Deinstitutionalized: The Power of Relationships

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, a few movies emerged about mentally ill and institutionalized people befriending mentally healthy people. Often these films would feature major stars in these roles and combine elements of comedy and drama. In these films, acts of kindness and friendship helped the mentally ill person recover from what ails them.

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(Warning: Spoilers ahead)

Rain Man: The Power of Brotherhood

Rain Man (1988) tells the story of Charlie Babbit (Tom Cruise), an entrepreneur who discovers that his father left his entire fortune to his autistic savant brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman). After discovering this, Charlie kidnaps Raymond from the institution he’s living in and takes him on a cross country road trip to ransom his birth right back. Over the course of the film, Charlie grows to love Raymond and become a better person.

The film began with screenwriter Barry Morrow. At the age of 24, Morrow had met a 60-year-old mentally disabled man named Bill Sackter. Like Charlie Babbit, Morrow had taken Bill without permission after the process of emancipating him seemed too involved. However, the state did not come looking for either of them. Morrow wrote two TV movies about their relationship: Bill (1981) and Bill: On his Own (1983). Both starred Mickey Rooney in the titular role and Dennis Quaid as Morrow. When Morrow met savant Kim Peek, he became intrigued by Peek’s many abilities, including his ability to memorize entire books. Peek was diagnosed as autistic at the time, but is now thought to have suffered from FG syndrome.

With these experiences, Morrow decided to write another story about a much less altruistic man learning to take care of an Autistic savant (at that time referred to as an idiot Savant). According to Morrow, he pitched it to executive Roger Birnbaum, who knew that similar project titled Forrest Gump was in production (Birnbaum liked the story for Rain Man better).

Eventually, it became a pet project of Dustin Hoffman, who had worked in a New York psychiatric hospital in the 1960s. When he received the script, Hoffman had been working with director Martin Brest on what would become Midnight Run (1988), but quickly became more interested in Rain Man. Brest reluctantly agreed to set aside Midnight Run to work on Rain Man, but found that he did not like the project as much. Over the next few years, it had Steven Spielberg and Sydney Pollack attached to direct, but neither of these choices worked out for various reasons (including Pollack not wanting to make a road movie). Although somewhat interested in the project for some time, comedy writer turned director Barry Levinson stepped in to direct when Pollack left 8 weeks before the start of production. Levinson never spent time with the people written about in the film. His most high profile project at the time, it launched Levinson into major directorial stardom and won him an Academy Award for best director. It was also the first of Levinson’s films that he did not write the script for.

Unlike other directors, Levinson loved watching characters more than giant plots and ended up stripping away most of the extraneous plot threads in favor of character moments. In fact, probably the weakest part comes in Tom Cruise’s story. Valeria Golino’s Susanna is a role principally written to psychoanalyze Tom Cruise’s Charlie. It had been originally written as an upper-class wasp before the casting of Golino. She disappears for most of the movie, only to remerge when the guys arrive in Vegas. Morrow admits in the DVD commentary that the role serves this purpose. He also believes that Golino brings a lot to the role.

Unlike the other stories, the story ends with Hoffman returning to the institution (a decision that Morrow has mixed emotions on as he would never put somebody in an institution in fiction or reality). Director Levinson appears as a director who has to ask Raymond whether he wants to live with his brother or at the institution. Raymond does not know how to answer. It also features a scene where Cruise realizes why Raymond was put into the institution in the first place. Unlike many other films, Rain Man does examine the complex relationships between autistic people and people considered to be normal. Morrow talks about his complex relationships with both Peek and Sackter in the commentary. In particular, Sackter was not always easy to get along with. The film ends not with Charlie triumphing over an evil institution, but with Charlie accepting of a situation.

What About Bob?: The Power of Family

What About Bob? (1991) follows Bob (Bill Murray) as he stalks uptight psychiatrist Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss) to his summer home and proceeds to inadvertently ruin his life. This leads to Dr. Marvin trying to get rid of Bob in increasingly drastic ways.

Many people worked of the people who worked on What about Bob? spent their careers working on similar films. Producer Laura Ziskin produced the socially relevant comedies Hero (1992), To Die For (1995), As Good as it Gets (1997), and Fight Club (1999). She also came up with the story for this movie and Hero with husband Alvin Sargent. The writer hired to write the actual film, Tom Schulman, wrote many comedies about outsiders invading somebody’s life, including his directorial debut 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag (1997), Holy Man (1998), and Welcome to Mooseport (2004). Director Frank Oz made many offbeat comedies in idyllic locations, including Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), Housesitter (1992), In & Out (1998), and The Stepford Wives (2004). On top of all this, the production uses one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite cinematographers, Michael Ballhaus. As well as accentuating the beautiful scenery of the summer home, Ballhaus brings a claustrophobic nature to Bob’s early scenes, making it easy to understand how he sees the world.

If Bob seems crazy in one way, then Dr. Marvin seems crazy in a completely different way. While Bob needs to be in control of every situation he’s in, Dr. Marvin needs to control everybody around him, including himself, his wife, and children. While Bob’s world revolves safety, Dr. Marvin’s world serves as a monument to how worldly and wonderful he presents himself as. Even before Bob shows up at his summer home, Marvin tends to see the world only through the most narcissistic lens. He wants his son Sigmund to have his great experiences of learning to dive. He refuses to let his family leave until they tell him what background will look best for his interview Good Morning America. He claims not to get angry even when a man has stalked him to his summer home. He can only have serious conversations with his offspring through puppets. At one point, Marvin calls Bob “a textbook narcissist,” but it seems to describe him more than Bob.

While slight, the film does have a perspective. It sees Bob as a lovable simpleton who falls under the spell of the terrible Dr. Marvin, whose therapy mostly consists of slogans and easy answers. Marvin also is an admirer of Sigmund Freud, to the point of having multiple busts of him and naming their children Sigmund and Anna. Even in the 1990’s, most psychology professionals considered Freud’s teachings antiquated and damaging. In this film, Marvin is a villain who cares more about his ego than his patients.

The Fisher King: The Power of Friendship

The Fisher King’s screenwriter, Richard LaGravenese, wrote the film as a response to the 1980’s, a decade he considered to be mean and nasty. He had previously co-written the terribly received Rude Awakening (1989), which followed two hippies who return to New York in the 1980’s. The Lead character of Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) begins the story as a nasty Howard Stern-esque DJ who has his insulting remarks lead to a mass shooting at a swanky New York restaurant. When he meets one of the shooting’s mentally scarred victims Parry (Robin Williams) years later, Jack decides to help him out. With this decision, the selfish Jack is constantly challenged to make less selfish decisions to help Parry.

The Fisher King is the first movie that Terry Gilliam directed from a script that he did not write and he made it partially to prove that he could make a film on time and under budget. He stuck closely to the script except for a fantasy scene where everybody starts dancing in Grand Central Station.

As a character, Parry acts as the primary antagonist to Jack. Before the film began, Parry worked as a professor of mythology and literature. After being institutionalized for a brief time, Parry (whose real name is Dr. Henry Sagan) returns to the real world as a character he created from mythology. As Parry, the Red Knight represents the trauma of his past. The climax of the film comes from Jack having to grab the holy grail to awaken Parry from a catatonic state.

Williams had also starred in Penny Marshall’s Awakenings in 1990, in which he played the healthy yet uptight doctor to catatonic patients. However, Awakenings deals more with victims of a physical illness than a mental one. The main patient (Robert De Niro) returns to his catatonic state because the medication cannot sustain his active condition.

Mr. Jones: The Power of Love

Written by Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth and Pulitzer prize winner Michael Cristofer, Mr. Jones (1993) tells the story of the bipolar Mr. Jones (Richard Gere), who they never give a first name to (a character refers to him as “Jones, Mister”). Unlike the other films, Jones focuses on the patient rather than the “normal” person in the story. The director, Mike Figgis, had become known for making stylish thrillers (including Internal Affairs (1990) starring Jones star Gere) and would direct two critically acclaimed dramas right after the critically and commercially unsuccessful Jones. The second of these films, Leaving Las Vegas (1995), deals with another character behaving erratically (Figgis claimed to have been drawn to these types of characters). It received the Academy Award for Nicolas Cage.

According to reports, Tristar reshot Jones to be a much more upbeat film along the lines of Pretty Woman (1991), which began as a downbeat script before Touchstone Pictures and Garry Marshall decided to make it. By most accounts, Figgis’s original version had much harsher scenes. Figgis himself said the studio cut the film to all the manic episodes and cut out all the depressive episodes. Gere’s Sommersby (1993) director Jon Amiel took over reshoots and added a sweeter tone to the film including a scene where Gere and Olin walk on the beach (an image used to sell the film). He also reshot the scene Jones and Bowen make love for the first time (which originally happened in an office, but now happens in a wooded area). One can see Figgis’s original version in how his specific moody visual style clashes with Amiel’s more conventional style.

The film feels like it was made using popular stars of the time. Played by Richard Gere in the post Pretty Woman phase of his career, the character of Jones suffers from the star’s persona. While Gere worked hard on the role, the film was sold on Jones’s more manic episodes rather than his depressing ones and the trailers featured James Brown singing “I Feel Good” over these moments (the film itself plays it over the opening credits). However, the movie tends to play the moments in the trailers as awkward, uncomfortable, and strange. It also sold the story based on the romance between Jones and his Therapist Elizabeth Bowen (Lena Olin), an aspect of the story that many critics felt did not work. A Swedish actress, Olin became known in the United States for starring as a lead in three love stories: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), Enemies: A Love Story (1989), and Havana (1990). While she gives a good performance, her presence and heavy accent do not seem to fit the role she plays. The scenes added also come across as a little stiff rather than romantic. These factors sometimes affect how well the film works.


In all of these films, relationships end up changing and/or saving the mentally ill character. Each of these movies tend to function less as a realistic portrait of mental illness and more as a fairy tale. Each of the relationships in the film changes slightly. Rain Man focuses on a brotherhood, What About Bob? focuses on a man’s relationship with a family, The Fisher King focuses on a friendship, and Mr. Jones focuses on a romantic relationship.

Rain Man’s story of brotherhood allows Raymond to change ever so slightly. Unlike the other characters, Raymond will never be able to fully function on his own in the world. Raymond is able to touch other people and be touched (something Morrow admits would probably not happen in a short amount of time). Raymond also learns that “Who’s on first” is a comedy bit and not something he needs to repeat every time he’s scared or uncomfortable. In a featurette from the time period, Hoffman offers a similar sentiment about bringing autistic people out of their shell.

Early on in What About Bob?, there’s a scene where Bob watches a TV show about a blended family, The Brady Bunch (1969-1974). Throughout the story, the entire family helps Bob by showing him kindness. By doing so, they begin solving their own problems, which enrages Dr. Marvin. However, these acts of kindness help Bob become a mentally healthy individual. Even when Dr. Marvin tries to kill Bob at the end, Bob sees it as an act of therapy. This attempted murder ends up curing Bob and bringing him closer together with the Marvin family. However, it also sends Dr. Marvin into a catatonic stupor. He even decides to marry Dr. Marvin’s sister, Lily (Fran Brill). The ceremony releases Marvin from his stupor. The entire story focuses around how a family makes Bob better.

The Fisher King’s third act centers around Parry being retraumatized by his wife’s murder after his date with Lydia. The red knight reappears and chases him to a spot where two teenage thugs attack him. When he’s found catatonic after being beaten half to death, Parry’s Doctor tells Jack that the problem is mental and involves Parry overcoming his trauma. This leads to Jack deciding to steal the famed grail out Parry keeps talking about (which turns out to be a rich man’s spelling bee trophy). By doing this, Jack helps Parry accept his wife’s death.

Mr. Jones tells the story about a romance and sexual relationship between a patient and his doctor. In the real world, this is prohibited by the Hippocratic oath as it involves a power imbalance between client and therapist. It can cause serious damage to a patient. Another doctor discusses the moral ramifications with Dr. Bowen, but the film still sees this as a love story with a happy ending. She does resign her position because of this. The film begins and ends with Jones standing on the edge of a roof, questioning whether or not he will jump. The first time has him acting out of sheer joy and thinking he can fly. The second time has him being saved by Dr. Bowen, who comes up after him.

All of these stories end with the patient snapping out of whatever condition they have and accepting the real world because of the kindness of various people. They are often quite simplistic solutions to complex problems.


These movies operate with the idea that relationships and kindness heal the wounds of mental health problems. While this is a comforting narrative, it often does not get at the real heart of the issues involved with various mental illnesses and conditions.


  • Originally, Rain Man was offered to Dustin Hoffman and Bill Murray, with the assumption that Murray would play Raymond and Hoffman would play Charlie. However, the studio forgot to indicate which role they wanted each actor to read for. After reading the script, Hoffman committed to play Raymond. Murray read the script shortly afterwards and said that he would only play the role if he could play Raymond. The studio refused and Murray dropped out.


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