THERAPISTS on the SILVER SCREEN: fantasy or fact?

Dec 15, 2022

A movie-style male therapist writing in a notebook counsels a male client lying on a therapist's couch, waving his hands expressively.
Illustration Credit: Joseph Lee

In psychoanalysis, a screen memory covers up a deeper, more emotionally charged issue. Similarly, movie and television screens both shield and open us to human complexity through fiction. The opportunity to peer into shadow and secrets from a safe distance is irresistible.

Depictions of psychotherapists and therapy can range from the malevolent Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) to psychic empath Deanna Troi (Star Trek). Most on-screen therapists, however, like their real-world counterparts, are wounded healers doing their best to help despite sometimes substantial fallibilities. Bruce Willis (Sixth Sense) doesn’t realize he’s dead; Jennifer Melfi (The Sopranos) denies her mobster client’s sociopathy, and Kelsey Grammer (Frasier) embodies the mercurial power of humor that grants perspective. Jung understood the value of the analyst’s capacity to suffer as they led the way; he writes, “…it is his own hurt that gives a measure of his power to heal.”

During the painful tumult of the COVID pandemic, growing demand for therapeutic support piqued public curiosity in the mechanisms of psychotherapy, opening the way for Jonah Hill’s vulnerable documentary STUTZ, filmed with his ailing therapist Phil Stutz. It invites the public to witness the wisdom, mutual vulnerabilities, and authentic affection that fuels the healing process. As Freud wrote in a letter to Jung, “…psychoanalysis in essence, is a cure through love.”


“I was attending a drag show, but I put on a costume and began to perform on stage. I was a background performer for someone else, and I was just walking around the stage. I felt like I wasn’t wearing the costume that I wanted to wear. I didn’t feel comfortable or confident. I also felt like I wasn’t getting cheered on by the crowd. I got off the stage and felt unseen. I remember seeing a pill bottle, and not knowing what it was, I took a pill. It was someone’s else’s medication that I stole. I spent the rest of the dream trying to hide in shame from taking someone else’s medicine and anxiously waiting to see what the pill was going to do to me.”


Frazier (TV series, 1993-2004). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frasier

In Treatment (TV series, 2009-2021). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Treatment

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (film, 1975). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One_Flew_Over_the_Cuckoo%27s_Nest_(film)

Star Trek: The Next Generation (TV series, 1987-1994). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Trek:_The_Next_Generation

STUTZ (Film). (2022); Jonah Hill, Phil Stutz. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKCmefQdplI

The Sixth Sense (Film, 1999). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sixth_Sense

The Sopranos (TV series, 1999-2007). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sopranos


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1 Comment

  1. Judy Gibson

    As you said, Dr. Smith stole his way onto the ship in Lost in Space. Jonathan Harris, the actor who played Dr. Smith, stole his way onto the show. He was originally meant to be a part of the show for only a few episodes, but his over-the-top portrayal made him so popular that he remained for the whole run.


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