The Oscars: Glitz, glamour... and gloom?

2013-02-21T00:00:00Z 2013-02-21T15:57:04Z The Oscars: Glitz, glamour... and gloom?Lyndsey Gilpin Medill Reports
February 21, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The Oscars are immersed in colorful Versace gowns and bottles of Dom Perignon - but the movies recognized at the ceremony are often much darker in tone. These Oscar-winners are often full of psychological demons and dramatic disorders, according to a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne has observed a significant trend of award-winning movies and leading roles with ominous psychological themes going back to the first Oscars ceremony in 1939. Of the 252 films and roles she documented, the researcher found that those with psychology disorders have accounted for 25 percent of the winners.

"Audiences are fascinated by heartless murderers, tragic heroes or heroines wrestling with psychological demons, couples who tear each other apart and families that make their home life a constant nightmare," she wrote in a 2011 article in Psychology Today.

Whitbourne described the audiences' draw to psychological films as being similar to the sensation of "rubbernecking in an accident." Many viewers are interested in getting a glimpse at something dark or disturbing, but don't want to be involved in it directly.

"It's what pays at the box office," Whitbourne said, "The average Hollywood director still favors antisocial behavior." Although the psychologist had yet to see "Silver Linings Playbook," she said that this movie shows that the dominant theme is continuing.

Founder and president of the Chicago's Film Critics Association, Dann Gire, respectfully disagreed with this thesis. While he recognized a surplus of Oscars going to movies with psychological themes, the Daily Herald critic said that this is merely a reflection of the Academy Awards's preferences rather than a display of audience' favorites. In other words, while the academy respects the challenge associated with interior psychological drama, the average mainstream audience is more interested in action films filled with machine guns, karate-chopping and Bruce Willis, he said.

"Its more easily understood if the conflict is exterior," Gire explained.

Critics need to understand both types of conflict. While "The Avengers" was one of Gire's top movie selections of the year, he considered "Silver Linings Playbook" a terrific film for the opposite reasons.

Gire brought attention to the nominations for this year's leading actress award as an example, suspecting the Oscars will either go one of two ways. They will either chose the mainstream audiences' favorite leading lady, Jessica Chastain, of "Zero Dark Thirty," who plays a powerful figure but without a character arc, or they will reward Emmanuelle Riva, of "Amour," whose character suffers from complex physical and psychological disabilities.

Gire said he believes that the Oscars will reward Riva's psychologically deep character, despite the audiences' preference of Chastain. The audience prefers a character dealing with external conflict, he said, but the Oscar will go to yet another psychological disorder. 

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