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Social Work Identity vs. Hollywood’s Fantasies
Edited by Bet MacArthur, LICSW
Thirty years ago, my day-to-day therapy practice pushed me into movies in ways that I had never experienced before; this unbidden thrust, triggered by one specific film, launched my life-long auxiliary career (ancillary to doing therapy and supervision) in media studies.
In 1980, the film Ordinary People opened, hailed as movie hero Robert Redford’s directorial debut, and starring ‘America’s sweetheart’ Mary Tyler Moore in a very dark role, alongside heavy-hitter Donald Sutherland and TV comic Judd Hirsch, who were also cast against type.
I was young, my clients mostly were young, the movie was about young people and family – and people could not stop talking about it. While the movie genre did not appeal to me personally – – like just another day at the office, no? – – so many clients came in needing to talk about its impact on them that I felt obliged to go see it in order to be able to help them.
Judd Hirsch’s brief appearance as the therapist in Ordinary People still stands today as one of the most sensitive and appropriate impersonations of a therapist ever in movies. The film is recommended to our younger readers who may never have seen it. It’s unlikely you’ll ever forget it.
Judd Hirsch and Redford did a great job there, but more generally, what is it with Hollywood and therapy? Ordinary People sits on a very short list of tolerable movie depictions of therapy and therapists (including Good Will Hunting (1997), An Unmarried Woman (1978), Ordinary People, and Prime (2012).) , while the list is very long indeed of movies which trot out an all-too-familiar array of trite distortions (HBO-TV’s In Treatment (2008); Dressed to Kill (1980), House of Games (1987), Prince of Tides (1991), What About Bob? (1991), and many more).
And that is the clinical significance of this topic. Along with the need to be aware of how popular culture moves our clients, and how they identify with certain characters and stories, we also need to be mindful of how movie therapy and therapists shape the expectations and fears of the public before and as they come to us in need...
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