Imagining Shrinks in Film – Getting Even

By Jacqueline Lucas Palmer.

What is it about psychiatrists and psychotherapists on celluloid and how we love to see them suffer. I think we like to get even and give these therapists a lot more trouble than their clients have to deal with, thus somehow redressing the perceived power imbalance of needing to ask for help. In the hit HBO series ‘In Treatment’, Paul Weston (played by Gabriel Byrne) is a shrink losing his marbles over a young beautiful client. She is repeating an early sexual experience with a father figure in falling for her therapist, and Paul falls hard. When he takes his guilt and desire to his supervisor Gina (played by Dianne Wiest), the female shrinks holds the boundaries, and reminds him of ethics, morality, integrity which would be transgressed in having sex with his client. Though Gina is his conscience, Paul is soon joining the seductive Laura on his couch, and fondling and cuddling his way through her session. Naturally when he succumbs to her seductive techniques she is confused and begins to miss therapy. But Paul is saved by a panic attack at the final test of his will. Thankfully there are two more series for him to make up for losing his head, heart and high ground.

In the hugely funny ‘Analyse This’, Billy Crystal plays the comic shrink Ben Sobell, who lives in the shadow of his father, a famous psychiatrist, too busy doing book signings to attend his son’s wedding. Ben gets a client from hell in the form of mob boss Paul Viti (played by Robert de Niro): “If I talk to you and you turn me into a fag I’ll kill you!” he threatens, as well as getting his lackeys to drag Ben out of bed and out of his own wedding ceremonies (plural) for a session. Not to mention a plot to ‘take him out’ for knowing too much. In Ben’s nightmares Vito calls him a loser who needs therapy! Needing therapy looks to be the raison d’etre of Ben’s awful punishments – did I mention getting thrown in a shark tank. In spite of the years of therapy required for all psychotherapists in training and the ongoing supervision, Hollywood gets even as Ben, under fire from the mob, pleads with Viti to shoot back when his panic attacks get the better of him and he hides trembling under a car. Indeed Viti gets the touchy feely therapy speak lines, while Ben is forced to play at being a mob boss at a big meet.

More mafia bosses get the shrink treatment in the ‘Sopranos,’ another hit HBO series, and this time Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini) takes his dreams and panic attacks to Dr Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). Before long she is taking her erotic dreams about Tony to supervision, as he tries to win his shrink with threats, gifts, trips, letters and kisses. Again it’s the female shrink who has to hold the boundaries firm, while the men fall hard and often get their prize in the form of a willing beautiful female client. This time in “Shrink”, Dr Henry Carter (played by Kevin Spacey) has another famous psychiatrist father looming over him in a well documented Oedipal dynamic, as he struggles with the grief and turmoil of his wife’s suicide. Turning to booze and drugs, this shrink to the stars is soon getting client supervision from his drug dealer: “Do you ever feel you can’t do anything for them?” And in a spectacular melt down during a TV interview he tears up his bestseller “Happiness’, “It’s all bullshit and then you die!” But before long there is salvation in the form of a celebrity client he can simply stop seeing in order to ‘see’ more personally.

And in “Help” the British comedy series, Chris Langham’s laughable shrink Peter, does comic turns to Paul Whitehouse’s parade of clients. He gets the giggles with his clients, and falls for his secretary, “I’m not very ethical really”, and like all imagined shrinks on screen that ends rather badly too.