Bipolar on the Big Screen—Accurate or Not?

by Claire Gillespie Health Writer

Bipolar disorder, which affects between 2 and 3 percent of Americans, occasionally makes its way onto the big screen – with varying results. “There continues to be a huge amount of stigma around mental illness,” therapist Justine Mastin told HealthCentral. “It’s vital that the media portrays the challenges faced by people with mental illness accurately to continue to fight against stigma, encourage people to seek treatment, and promote real conversations around mental health.”

Actor Bradley Cooper attends a screening of The Weinstein Company's 'Silver Linings Playbook' at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

The romantic drama-comedy “Silver Linings Playbook,” which stars Bradley Cooper as Pat Solitano, a man with bipolar disorder, divided opinion in the mental health community. Some people considered it to be an accurate portrayal of the impact of mental illness on a family, while others accused it of misleading viewers by characterizing Pat’s illness with aggressive, violent outbursts. Ultimately, the movie’s director/writer made it with the best of intentions, to remind his bipolar son that “he is part of this world.”

Richard Gere Visits 'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon' at Rockefeller Center.
Theo Wargo/NBC/Getty Images for 'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon'

Mr. Jones (1993)

If you can see past the movie’s insensitive tagline, “Everything that makes him dangerous makes her love him even more,” “Mr. Jones” is actually a very insightful look at bipolar disorder, through the experiences of the eponymous main character, played by Richard Gere. The movie does a good job of showing both the manic and depressive states of bipolar disorder, and focuses on aspects of mental illness too often neglected in movies and on TV: hospitalization and treatment.

Drew Barrymore speaks onstage during the Building a Brand in a Mobile-First World panel on the Times Center Stage during 2016 Advertising Week New York.
John Lamparski/Getty Images for Advertising Week New York

Mad Love (1995)

There’s a tendency in Hollywood to sensationalize bipolar disorder, and “Mad Love,” starring Drew Barrymore as a hospitalized high school student, is one example of this. Critics accuse it of romanticizing the illness and failing to show the reality of what it’s like to go between the highs and lows. At the same time, “Mad Love” doesn’t quite reveal the true nature of the character’s mental illness, which can make watching it a frustrating experience for someone who lives with bipolar disorder.

U.S. actor George Clooney and U.K. actress Tilda Swinton attend the premiere for Michael Clayton during the 33rd Deauville American Film Festival.
Francois Durand/Getty Images

Michael Clayton (2007)

It may be one of George Clooney’s biggest big screen hits, but the bipolar character in “Michael Clayton” is New York attorney Arthur Edens, played by Tom Wilkinson. Generally, the movie’s portrayal of the illness is considered to be realistic, tackling issues like medication and involuntary commitment. Psychiatrist Nathaniel P. Morris, writing in Scientific American, highlighted Arthur’s opening dialogue, saying it reminded him of patients he has cared for.

Actor Maurice Benard attends the 12th Annual Heller Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel.
Angela Weiss/Getty Images

The Ghost and the Whale (2016)

Playing Joseph Hawthorne in the independent movie “The Ghost and the Whale” was a deeply personal project for Maurice Benard – the actor and his alter ego Sonny Corinthos also have bipolar depression. This film may have slipped under the radar, but has been praised for being an honest, heart-wrenching portrayal of bipolar disorder, and in particular of what can happen when it goes untreated.

Filmmaker Maya Forbes and actors Imogene Wolodarsky and Mark Ruffalo pose for a portrait during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Infinitely Polar Bear (2014)

“Infinitely Polar Bear,” starring Mark Ruffalo as Cam Stuart, a father with bipolar disorder, made a National Alliance on Mental Illness list of best movies about mental health. And the acclaim doesn’t end there. Psychologist Suzanne Lachmann calls it “an exquisitely nuanced, painstaking portrayal of what it’s like to be a loving, doting father held captive by his disorder.” This may be because it was based on writer/director Maya Forbes' own experiences as a child with her bipolar father.

Actress Katie Holmes attends the 'Touched With Fire' New York premiere at Walter Reade Theater.
Brad Barket/Getty Images

Touched With Fire (2015)

“Touched With Fire,” starring Katie Holmes and Luke Kirkby as Carla and Marco, fellow psychiatric patients being treated for the illness, hits the mark when it comes to depicting bipolar disorder. This is another film with a truly personal angle – inspired by director Paul Dalio’s own experience with bipolar disorder. Although the film focuses on the manic phase of a bipolar disorder and largely neglects the depressive phase, it has been praised for “not going over the edge.”

Actor James McAvoy arrives at the Vue Omni cinema for the premier of the film 'Filth', based on the novel by Irvine Welsh
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Filth (2013)

Another big-screen portrayal of bipolar disorder that’s been accused of sensationalism is “Filth,” starring James McAvoy as Bruce Robertson – an abusive, corrupt bigot who also happens to have bipolar disorder. At face value, “Filth” could be accused of glamorizing Bruce’s illness, but if you look a little deeper, you see a sad picture of an isolated, desperate man losing control of his life. It also reminds us that evil and insanity are often intertwined.

Actress Jessica Lange arrives at the Premiere of FX Network's 'Feud: Bette And Joan' at Grauman's Chinese Theatre.
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Blue Sky (1994)

While bipolar depression isn’t explicitly mentioned in “Blue Sky,” Jessica Lange’s award-winning performance as Carly Marshall tells the audience everything they need to know. Carly’s bouts of depression, manic outbursts, and promiscuity are played out with vulnerability, and her devotion to her husband and family is never compromised. "Blue Sky" shows that there can be a happy ending for people with bipolar disorder if they have love and support from their families.

Claire Gillespie
Meet Our Writer
Claire Gillespie

Claire Gillespie writes about mental health, psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis and IBS for HealthCentral. She is a passionate about mental health awareness, and also writes about health and wellness for other sites, including Vice, SELF, Zocdoc, Reader’s Digest, and Healthline. You can follow her on Twitter @southpawclaire.