Hollywood's obsession

Movies can't leave obsessive compulsive disorder alone, says Kaleem Aftab. It's become an indispensable character pointer

Cinema screens are being filled with movies featuring characters that simply can't help repeating themselves. Watch The Aviator, Electra, Assault on Precinct 13 and Are We There Yet? and you'd think that most Americans were sufferers of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). They all feature characters with a pathological aversion to germs, who continually check that everything is in order, or who have to go about their daily chores in a preordained manner. OCD has become a quick cinematic way for edgy characters to gain our sympathy.

The ghastly looks thrown at Leonardo DiCaprio's Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator show how those with obsessive-compulsive tendencies were once viewed as sure-fire candidates for the madhouse. The Outlaw director would wash his hands until they bled. Scorsese shoots the scenes in which Hughes quarantines himself in a single room for weeks on end with heavy religious overtones; the desire to confess is another characteristic symptom of obsessive-compulsives. Hughes also shows some of the less common symptoms of OCD, such as the hoarding of worthless items, and he also had tics, common in many OCD-related conditions, such as Tourette's syndrome.

The Aviator ends before his OCD and other psychiatric illnesses saw Hughes turn into a hermit, residing in a "germ-free" living room and wearing tissue boxes on his feet. It's a bizarre side-effect that in extreme cases of OCD the sufferer's fear of contagion leads to them living in extreme dirt when they give up hope of clearing the vicinity of germs. It's a side to OCD that movies choose to ignore.

American movies have traditionally identified characters with a propensity to repeat themselves as having a screw loose. In The Shining, Jack Nicholson famously spends the winter repeatedly typing, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy", and in the comedy What About Bob?, Bill Murray refuses to touch anything except with a tissue and lives in constant fear of terrible events.

It was James L Brooks's As Good as it Gets in 1997 that established OCD as a syndrome able to invoke moviegoers' sympathy. Jack Nicholson plays a curmudgeon with racist, sexist and homophobic beliefs, but that's easily explained away because he can't leave the house without switching the light on and off several times; he throws away soap bars after one use; he can't step on cracks in the pavement; and he brings his own clean Tupperware to restaurants. Then he starts taking his pills and falls in love with a waitress. OCD no longer meant that you were due a visit from the men in white coats. It was on its way to becoming a gimmick.

The syndrome has several benefits for film-makers. Watching somebody repeatedly do the same thing offers great comic and dramatic potential. More importantly, this is a disease that reveals itself visually. In Matchstick Men, Ridley Scott simply has to show Nicolas Cage opening and closing the door three times for the audience to recognise that he has OCD. As with As Good as It Gets, OCD is being used as a device to create obstacles for the film's protagonist in achieving his goals. While Nicholson has to get over OCD to woo a woman, Cage has to complete tasks in set time frames that adhering to his compulsions would inhibit.

In the latest movies to hit our screens, the way OCD is perceived has, once again, changed. It's now being used as an incidental shorthand to highlight the quirkiness of characters and, with some reports claiming that up to three per cent of Americans have some form of OCD, Hollywood appears to have deemed that it is now "cool" to have the condition.

Jennifer Garner's Electra recently became the first Hollywood superhero with the disorder. Watchers need not worry that she's got a day-job as a callous contract-killer because, underneath the cold exterior, she's a sympathetic obsessive-compulsive who cleans excessively, lays out her make-up in perfect order and, in another tell-tale sign of the syndrome, counts in patterns. The padding of characters with OCD can also be seen in the remake of Assault on Precinct 13, in which Mario Bello's psychiatrist proudly states, "I've got OCD", while in the forthcoming Ice Cube vehicle Are We There Yet?, it's a young boy who gets the injection of obsessive-compulsive cool.OCD is fast becoming a tool for lazy film-makers who can't be bothered to develop characters properly.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn