Our latest blog comes from stipend holder Dr Christina Wilkins, Lecturer in Film and Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham, who writes about using our collections to research the depiction of male mental health in films.

Content Information: This blog contains details on mental health conditions and discusses suicide.


Ever since I started my academic journey, I have always gravitated towards the contemporary. Looking at what is going on in the world around me, seeing the ways audiences and readers engage with film and literature, has been fascinating. In part, it has helped me understand how to navigate the world. This is not to say that I’ve not had to understand the history of what I research and teach. But it’s never been something I’ve immersed myself in too much.

So, when it came to thinking about my latest research project – which I hope to turn into a monograph around male mental illness onscreen – I started with contemporary examples and looked at what they were saying about gender roles and the treatment of mental illness in fictional ways. In doing so, there was something missing, something vital that would flesh out my argument. Any story represents the endpoint of a journey: it is aware of the things that come before it and contains within it traces of its history. The films I was looking at, whether they were trying to say something new about men and mental illness onscreen, were either touching upon it through language, or tropes, or gestures associated with these things historically, or in trying to do something different (perhaps as a form of social commentary), avoiding these things altogether. Either way, to understand what was and is happening now in film, I had to go back.

I had two separate visits planned to the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, one in early March, and one in May. I’d highlighted some things I wanted to look at before I went, but at this point, I was a bit unsure of looking at past materials and wasn’t sure what they could offer. This is something I’ve now begun to understand about archives and materials and what they can do – an expansion of ways of thinking about a topic.

One of the first things I looked at was promotional materials for various films, including Felix Van Groenigen’s Beautiful Boy from 2018 (EXEBD 98425). Figure 1: see cover at the beginning of the article and the reverse below.

The film explores themes of addiction and mental health crises, from both the perspective of son, Nic (Timothee Chalamet), and his father, David (Steve Carrell). Looking at the promotional material was fascinating. How was this story being pitched? It mattered what the focus was, because however the elements of mental illness were presented, it said something about their position in film culture. This was still in the range of the contemporary however. I’d also ordered some theoretical books, something of a safety net for me.


In planning my next visit, I tried to push myself to look at more artefacts from earlier years, and had been aided by Phil, who had some brilliant suggestions for older films to explore.

One of these was Twisted Nerve (Roy & John Boulting, 1968). I was given access to various materials for the film, including the promotional leaflet, the poster, and stills from the film. Looking at these sparked a number of ideas, and reinforced understandings I’d had of films of the 60s and 70s and their portrayal of mental illness. So often it was framed in relation to criminality, and tinged with discussions of psychoanalysis. This inevitably led to a blaming of mothers and their role in raising the (nearly all) men who carried out these violent acts that were blamed on psychopathology.


Fig.2: From the promotional card for Twisted Nerve, 1968 (EXEBD 19667)


When the story is being introduced, you might notice the mention of ‘His mother Enid’ who ‘smothers him with a protective adoration.’ The Psycho effect is clear here, and is evident in the poster itself for Twisted Nerve, which features a knife reminiscent of Bates’ used in the shower scene, and the tagline even makes explicit reference as you can see:


Fig. 3: The poster for Twisted Nerve, 1968 (EXEBD 56350)


In looking at these materials, inevitably Psycho would come up too. I found compelling articles in Films and Filming (1972) for example, talking about the way Psycho and a collection of other films functioned as a reflection of the neuroses of wider society. Looking at the reception of these films beyond academic criticism and theoretical frameworks was vital.

Another thing I also investigated whilst at the BDC Museum was looking beyond the films for evidence of how mental illness and gender was understood. I’ve written previously about the role of the body and the actor in shaping understandings of character, and this seems unquestionably important in my current research. I looked, for example, at Anthony Perkins, and how he was framed as an actor prior to Psycho. Another thing I found in looking through the archival content was a number of articles on actors who had died by suicide:

Fig. 4: ‘Death by Suicide’ by Roi. A. Uselton in Films in Review, April 1957 (EXEBD 25474)


This was a full 10 page spread on the actors, primarily from the silent era, who had taken their lives. Interesting to see was how this reporting differed according to gender. The female actors were often talked about in terms of their failed marriages, and the male actors, their failed careers.

In exploring these kinds of articles, along with promotional materials, the picture was beginning to flesh out. How mental illness, with it, outcomes of it such as suicide, are depicted in cultural artefacts connected to film are key. Who can play characters undergoing a mental health crisis, and does a fictional representation differ to how we talk about it in the world beyond the cinema screen? This is something I’m still working on. What has become clear from these two trips to the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum is that to see how we’ve gotten to where we are now, I need to understand the journey that’s been taken. That path looks beyond the one of academic scholarship, and into broader cultural importance and understandings of mental illness and gender, as well as the people playing, constructing, and writing these films.

I’ve since given a talk at QMUL on male mental illness onscreen, but the project is in the early stages, and I’m looking forward to exploring more – both past and present – in order to get to grips with it.



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