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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.