Howard Hughes and Pop Culture: How One Man Affected The Portrayal of OCD

Leonardo Dicaprio in The Aviator and Howard Hughes in real life

Throughout his life, Hughes was known for being eccentric, but towards the end he became more withdrawn and reclusive. He locked himself away. He watched the movie Ice Station Zebra (1968) 150 times. The public asked what could drive a once powerful titan of industry mad. Years after his death, historians came to the conclusion that he suffered from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or OCD. From this point on, filmmakers decided to base almost all of its characters around symptoms similar to Hughes’ (a focus on cleanliness, neatness, germs, etc.).

However, Hughes represents a specific case in a specific time period. That is not to say that this version of OCD does not exist, but that it gets portrayed this way to the point that the general public assumes that that’s all it is.


So, what is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? Obsessions refer to unwanted intrusive thoughts. These thoughts can range from violent to inappropriate to embarrassing. Compulsions refer to behaviors that people use to drown them out. These obsessions have to be quite pronounced and extreme to be classified as OCD. It is quite possible for somebody to be overly concerned with cleanliness, but it is also quite possible for a person with OCD to be a hoarder. Somebody’s anxieties can involve cleanliness or they can involve social concerns. It depends entirely on that person, their illness, and their life experiences.

The actual factors of somebody likely having OCD likely come from a person’s genetics, brain structure, and environment. Any number of factors can affect a person’s obsessions and compulsions. It’s also quite possible that somebody can have multiple disorders, ranging from autism to depression to Tourette Syndrome and so on. There’s also no cure for OCD, but there is treatment.

OCD is also different than Obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), which focuses more on neatness and organization.

I would like to make one thing clear: I do not hate any of the movies or TV shows mentioned, even if they do not portray OCD well. This article examines how filmmakers use OCD as a storytelling device.

Howard Hughes (Left) and Jason Robards in Melvin and Howard

Howard Hughes on film

Most portrayals of Hughes revolve around Hughes less as a person and more as an Icon of industry. The only other movie besides The Aviator (2004) to portray his life was the TV miniseries The Amazing Howard Hughes (1977) starring Tommy Lee Jones as the famed aviator. In Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1986), he appears in a role similar to the Orson Welles role in Ed Wood (1994). The Rocketeer (1991) involves Gangsters stealing a rocket pack from Hughes (Terry O’Quinn), only to have it fall into the hands of stunt pilot Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell). In Melvin and Howard (1980), down on his luck Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat) picks up Hughes (Jason Robards) after a motorcycle accident, only to have Hughes leave him his fortune. To each of these heroes, he represents a type of economic freedom.

Leonardo Dicaprio played Hughes in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. The film seeks to portray OCD in the empathetic way Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001) portrays schizophrenia.

Since the 1970’s, making a theatrical film about Hughes became a goal for many filmmakers. Warren Beatty tried to make his Hughes project for over forty years (both Melvin and Howard and Rules Don’t Apply (2016) came out of the project). In the 1990’s, there were four movies about Hughes in development including one by the Hughes Brothers and one starring Edward Norton and directed by Miloš Forman. For a while, Brian De Palma, David Koepp and Nicolas Cage were attached to direct, write and star in a project titled Mr. Hughes after finishing Snake Eyes (1998). In the film, Cage would have played Hughes and the author of his fake biography, Clifford Irving (who would eventually become the subject of The Hoax (2006) starring Richard Gere). According to reports, Disney did not want to produce a 170 minute intricately plotted film with an $80 million budget (Scorsese’s film runs the same length at $110 million). De Palma would make Mission to Mars (2000) before leaving Hollywood altogether. Christopher Nolan tried to make his version with Jim Carrey in the starring role, only to have it shelved by the studio after Miramax greenlit The Aviator.

Even the film that got made had a long history. Before Scorsese took on the project, DiCaprio was attached to the project with Michael Mann. After Mann’s The Insider (1999) flopped at the Box office, the film was cancelled. Mann would stay on as a producer, but his next film would be the biopic Ali (2001). Scorsese became attached to the project after the critical and commercial success of Gangs of New York (2002).

Like many biopics, The Aviator simplifies Hughes’ life quite a bit, as the truth is far too complicated to put in any three-hour movie. It cuts many of the women he slept with including his first wife. It also spans twenty years without anybody ever seeming to age that much. It also eliminates or truncates the history of his many films. Hughes’s fights with the MPAA over the original Scarface (1932) are mentioned in passing. His brief and tumultuous collaboration with Preston Sturges on The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947) is eliminated due to runtime.

The Aviator’s portrayal of OCD slowly dominates the story over time. It opens with Hughes being quarantined from Cholera in Texas. His mother washes him. In his twenties, he has small symptoms like throwing a napkin under the table and perfecting his movie to the point of financial ruin.  Over the course of the film, Hughes goes from having his mother quarantine him in their house to quarantining himself in his private screening room.

The film also has a lot of humor in it, but people with OCD are never the butt of the joke. Like many of Scorsese’s films, Hughes’ OCD is portrayed in very movie oriented way in that it portrays everything in terms of the history of film. This includes making movie stars that appear in the film resemble their screen persona. Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) will appear as she did in Bringing Up Baby (1938). Errol Flynn (Jude Law) will appear as the big swashbuckler who constantly gets into fights. All of these characters have larger than life characterizations and are often the butt of the joke, while the more reserved Hughes becomes a tormented straight man who has to hide his feelings of discomfort.

Like in real life, Hughes never overcomes his symptoms. The movie ends with Hughes still unable to handle many day to day tasks, only to realize that he has accomplished all of his childhood dreams. This might be the best ending to a film about Hughes as there’s not a great ending to Hughes’s life. The opening line of the New York Times obituary was “Howard R. Hughes died today as mysteriously as he lived.” Coroners had a hard time identifying his body. There are two movies about the aftermath of his death. Multiple lovers of his wrote books on their relationships with him. Actress Terry Moore even wrote a book called The Passions of Howard Hughes (1996), on his affairs with other actresses besides her.

Two years after Hughes’s death, his estate attorney hired former American Psychological Association (APA) president and CEO Raymond D. Fowler, PHD, to perform a psychological autopsy on Hughes. Fowler found that Hughes’s fears for his health probably started in his childhood. Throughout his childhood, Hughes’s mother was afraid that he would contract Polio and checked him for diseases every day. As Hughes grew older, he became more and more concerned with germs getting into his body. Fowler also concluded that “He didn’t believe that germs could come from him, just from the outside.” He also found that Hughes was concerned with cleanliness, he neglected his own hygiene. From this specific case came a specific character that cinema copied over and over again.

Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets

Effect on storytelling

Hughes has been a model for two types of characters: billionaires and people with OCD. Many billionaires in fiction have taken some trait from Howard Hughes, from Mr. Burns on The Simpsons (1989-) to Tony Stark (his father’s name and personality come from Hughes) to Christopher Nolan’s Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight trilogy (Nolan reportedly lifted material from his screenplay about Hughes for all three films).

The lingering effects of Hughes’s case have created a specific archetype of OCD: a fastidiously neat germophobe who repeats tasks over and over again. When he goes home, he locks himself away in his clean apartment where everything is perfectly arranged and organized. He has trouble touching everything and anything. This person tends to come off as less mentally ill, and more eccentric, especially in comedies. Characters like this tend to be portrayed based on the quirkier anxieties (washing hands incessantly, stepping over cracks in the sidewalk, counting) rather than the more disturbing ones (anxieties about hurting other people, driving off the road, fearing their own doom, etc.). With this character, a debilitating mental illness sometimes becomes a set of traits whenever a writer, director or producer needs to create a cleanly anal retentive character. It is seen as a mental illness that focuses on cleanliness and neatness so much that the Wikipedia page about the illness starts with a picture of hand washing.

Wikipedia page

This character is pervasive throughout movies (As Good as It Gets (1998), Matchstick Men (2005)) and television (Scrubs (2001-2010), Monk (2002-2009)). All of these portrayals fit into a broader comedic archetype. They also portray OCD from how an observer might see it, rather than what actually goes on in somebody’s mind.

As Good as It Gets probably has one of worst portrayal of OCD of the bunch. However, looking at As Good as It Gets as an example of reality on any subject is such a ludicrous notion that it makes it all the more enjoyable to just see it as a romantic comedy with some dark themes. Although he has many superficial symptoms (he’s a hand washer, wears gloves that he promptly throws away), the lead character of Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) seems too abrasive to have OCD. This isn’t to say that there aren’t mean or insensitive people with OCD, but that nobody with the condition would necessarily act in the way Udall does. For example, why would Udall shove a dog down a garbage shoot rather than avoiding it altogether? It seems like a lot trouble than it’s worth. Noah C. Berman PHD pointed out that “Melvin’s over-the-top eccentricities obscure the boundary between what is quirky and what is OCD” and that his self-absorbed personality suggests other mental disorders. Berman also points out that when the filmmakers do portray OCD, it’s fairly accurate. Nicholson won the Oscar for his performance in this film, and while it’s not always an accurate portrayal, he gives his usual good comedic performance as that type of character.

Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men features Hughes hopeful Nicholas Cage as a conman who has OCD and Tourettes. His behavior involves having a spotless apartment, not liking sunlight, and so on. Cage acts as an OCD samurai, living a quiet life in his apartment. This all changes when he meets his long-lost daughter (Alison Lohman). Every sequence puts his quiet life into jeopardy until he finally loses everything that matters to him. Like many of the characters in this article, the portrayal is pretty broad.

Adrien Monk in Monk and Dr. Kevin Casey in Scrubs

Television also portrays another side of OCD. With Scrubs and Monk, having a mental illness has made them ridiculously good at their job. Like autism in The Accountant (2016), it’s seen as a superpower as much as a hindrance. In many of these shows, the jokes come out of the behavior the characters use to drown out compulsions.

When Michael J. Fox guest starred in two consecutive episodes on Scrubs in 2004, the public had known about his battle with Parkinson’s for years. The character in Scrubs (Dr. Kevin Casey) was given OCD to cover up Fox’s Parkinson’s disease. The storyline of the first episode (“My Catalyst”) focuses on how all the doctors envy Doctor Casey, only to learn how debilitating his mental illness is. The second episode (“My Porcelain God”) features Casey in a smaller role, as other subplots take the main focus. Casey has all of the tics of the OCD character (touching everything in his first patient’s room, washing his hands for hours, entering and exiting a room multiple times). Casey is also a pretty positive character. Myles McNutt of the AV club notes that “Although Casey hasn’t allowed his O.C.D. to defeat him, he has acknowledged it will always on some level define him, a mirror to Fox’s own choice to reveal his Parkinson’s diagnosis and take on a new role as an activist for Parkinson’s research.” Casey as a character has a short yet memorable tenure. Both of these episodes focus on Casey as a mentor rather than as a lead.

While Scrubs features this character as a guest star, Monk follows the character through many wacky mysteries. Even his name connotes this archetype: a clean and noble man in the middle of a scummy world. Like House (2004-2012), Monk sets out to reinvent the Sherlock Holmes’ character, with a brilliant yet volatile character leading a whole bunch of less intelligent yet more amiable characters. The joke in Monk come at others’ frustration with the good yet unrelentingly neurotic Adrien Monk (Tony Shaloub). He’s a germophobe. He’s concerned with cleanliness neatness to the point of getting on people’s nerves. However, these people are usually the bad guy.

Monk also does not portray OCD in the most realistic manner. Season 8 is a particularly good example. One episode (“Mr. Monk goes to Group Therapy”) involves Monk asking for a cure to his condition. Any good therapist will tell their patients that OCD does not have a cure and symptoms can come back at any time. The Series’ finale (“Mr. Monk and the End”) has Monk getting better through the power of love, a trope that comes up many times in these stories.

With all that said, Monk is actually a show that does portray somebody with OCD as a beloved member of the community. That’s really what the show is about: what it’s like to love somebody while feeling frustrated with them.

All these characters feel like descendants from the traits of Hughes’s specific illness. They’re clean, neat, and afraid of germs. The difference comes from the fact that Hughes had life experiences that made him afraid of germs. He came from a time where Cholera and Polio wiped out many people in America and modern science did not understand these illnesses. This has not been the case in America for decades. None of these characters seem to have a cause or specificity for their symptoms. In these movies, the illness exists more as a grab bag of quirks than as a complex illness that has formed over a period of years.

There are also a few more nuanced portrayals, with Phoebe in Wonderland (2008) and Girls (2012-2017) probably representing the best examples.

The indie film Phoebe in Wonderland (2008) focuses on a little girl (Elle Fanning) with Tourette Syndrome and OCD, but leans more towards Tourette. Unlike the other films, Phoebe does not fit into the OCD archetype as much. Although she washes her hands a lot, she’s not overly neat and tidy. Of all the films, only Phoebe and The Aviator portray somebody washing their hands until bleeding. It also portrays OCD being passed down through generations and admits that any treatment as long-term and complicated. The end of the film has Phoebe explaining Tourette syndrome to her class before performing in their school production of Alice in Wonderland.

Girls does portray Hannah Horvath’s OCD in a very realistic way. In season 2, it portrays her relapsing into OCD due to a stressful situation (which does happen). It also points out that it’s genetic through a throwaway joke. Girls feels genuine in that even though it includes some of the behaviors most often portrayed (counting, etc.), it feels like it’s somebody else’s symptoms for once. However, like a lot of Girls, it switches to another subject pretty quickly. Since Girls portrays the worst and most awkward parts of people, it also distances the audience from its characters considerably.

Lena Dunham and Adam Driver in Girls


One of the main downsides come not in how the illness is portrayed, but in how these stories believe it should be treated. Usually there are two treatments in movies like this: drugs or falling in love.

In many cases, the characters do not seek treatment. Kevin Casey seems to be Superman at medicine because he does not seek treatment. Phoebe in Wonderland ends before she can really seek treatment. Monk seems to sporadically seek treatment and it seems like Monk would lose more of his symptoms for how often he is exposed to his fears.

In almost all of these examples, taking a special medication is part of the character’s treatment. In both Matchstick Men and As Good as it Gets, the character’s main form of treatment is medication. This isn’t to say that medication isn’t a treatment (patients should ask their doctor about it), but it’s rarely the main treatment.

The main treatment often is exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP). This treatment involves facing an obsession without using a compulsion to combat it. It is a personal journey that involves a different approach for every person and is often quite painful.

In almost all these stories (with the exception of Phoebe in Wonderland), the characters change because of love. Girls ends Hannah Horvath’s OCD storyline after she reconnects with Adam (Adam Driver). Matchstick Men ends with Cage recovering by becoming a husband and father. As Good as It Gets has Jack Nicholson decide to become a better man to win over Helen Hunt. Monk becomes a better person for his wife’s daughter. While these storylines end with the hero or heroine in a complex relationship, it does not reflect reality as much as it reflects the conventions of romantic storytelling. As Noah Berman says in his article, “Although I desperately wish that overcoming OCD was as simple as finding someone to love, treatment tends to be far more anxiety-provoking and complex.” Neither of Hughes’s marriages cleared up his symptoms. However, as previously stated, few of these stories reflect reality that much anyway.


Although many of the stories portray OCD inaccurately, that does not make them ineffective as forms of storytelling. However, they also tend to portray something personal, complex, and unique to every person who has it as a simplistic set of traits. Hughes’s symptoms happened to him due to his complex life and involved many factors. Most portrayals afterwards tend to become rather simplistic due to the mistaken belief that Hughes’s case represents how most cases are.



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