Given the massive psychological effect that a movie can have on an audience, the role of the psychiatrist adds an extra layer of intrigue whenever they are depicted onscreen. Throughout the history of cinema, the role of the therapist has been one rife with excellent performances by some of the all-time best acting talent Hollywood has ever seen.
As HBO’s half-hour therapy drama, In Treatment, nears the release of its long-awaited fourth season in 2021, all eyes turn to some of the most memorable movie psychiatrists ever played on screen. From Barbara Streisand and Jane Fonda to Michael Caine and Denzel Washington, find out how these medical doctors stack up.
10 Martin Dysart – Equus (1977)
The great Richard Burton earned his seventh and final Oscar nomination for his role as Dr. Martin Dysart in Equus, directed by the five-time Oscar nominee, Sidney Lumet.
Equus tells the story of Alan Strang (Peter Firth), a psychotic teenage boy who runs afoul of the law by brutally blinding a stable of horses with a large metal stake. As a result, Alan is sent to see Dr. Dysart (Burton), a skilled psychiatrist who is able to probe Alan’s past and elicit the source of the boy’s inner-demons while putting him on a healing path.
9 Martha Livingston – Agnes Of God (1985)
In Norman Jewison’s thrice Oscar-nominated drama, Agnes of God, Jane Fonda plays Dr. Martha Livingston, a nun who doubles as a psychiatrist. When a gullible novitiate is discovered in her convent with a dead infant, Martha is ordered by the court to investigate.
As she begins to investigate, Martha is met with opposition from church officials at every turn, as she tries to determine whether or not the novitiate is guilty or innocent. The deeper Martha digs, the closer she gets to uncovering a major conspiracy within the church.
8 Robert Elliot – Dressed To Kill (1980)
In Brian De Palma’s controversial and polarizing thriller, Dressed to Kill, Michael Caine gives an all-time great dual-performance. By day, he is Robert Elliot, a calm and measured psychiatrist. By night, he’s a masquerading moonlight murderer.
Angie Dickinson stars as Kate Miller, a woman who visits Elliot after having an explicit sex fantasy. When Kate gets slaughtered soon after, Elliot is pursued by her son Peter (Keith Gordon), leading to an all-time jaw-dropping twist finale.
7 Susan Lowenstein – The Prince Of Tides (1991)
Barbara Streisand’s second directorial feature, The Prince of Tides, earned seven Academy Award nods, losing almost all of them to The Silence of the Lambs. Co-starring Nick Nolte, Streisand plays psychiatrist, Dr. Susan Lowenstein.
Based on the Pat Conroy novel, the film follows Tom Wingo (Nolte), a man reeling over his sister’s sudden suicide. When Tom begins visiting his sister’s former shrink, Dr. Lowenstein, he is able to open up, express his feelings, and begin the healing process to overcome his profound sense of grief. Along the way, Tom and Susan also begin to fall in love, giving new meaning to doctor-patient privilege.
6 Malcolm Crowe – The Sixth Sense (1999)
One of the most brilliant and often overlooked aspects of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense is that it is a psychological horror film about a psychologist – and a deceased one, at that.
In one of his most inspired performances to date, Bruce Willis plays Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a melancholic doctor who doesn’t quite seem all there. When young Cole Seer (Haley Joel Osment) meets Dr. Crowe, they forge a strange bond over the boy’s ability to see and communicate with ghosts.
5 Constance Petersen – Spellbound (1945)
Given the Freudian imagery and themes that populate his filmography, it would be foolish to compile a list of the best all-time film psychiatrists without including Sir Alfred Hitchcock.
In Hitchcock’s classic tale of tension and suspense, legendary screen actress Ingrid Bergman plays Dr. Constance Petersen, a mental asylum shrink who’s morals are compromised when treating an amnesiac murder suspect. As Dr. Petersen works to uncover the truth about the murder in question, she begins to fall for the dashing new director, Dr. Edwards (Gregory Peck).
4 Jerome Davenport – Antwone Fisher (2002)
As Dr. Jerome Davenport, Denzel Washington gives one of his finest, most heartfelt, and unforgettable performances as a doctor who makes a real difference in a troubled young man’s life.
Directed by Washington from a script by the real-life Antwone Fisher, the biographical character study focuses on the title character, an angry young sailor prone to violent fits of rage. When Fisher is sent to see Dr. Davenport, a slow but undeniable shift in the young man’s demeanor and outlook on life begins to change for the better.
3 John Spivey – One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
As the definitive film about psychiatry and the effect of institutionalized mental health, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won five Oscars, including Best Picture, and currently ranks #18 on IMDb’s Top 250.
What makes Dr. John Spivey so memorable in the movie is that he was played by Dean R. Brooks, a real-life psychiatrist who served as the head of the Oregon State Hospital in 1975 where the film was shot. He brought instant credibility to the production and gave a positive counterpoint to the evil Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).
2 Sean Maguire – Good Will Hunting (1997)
The late great Robin Williams won a much-deserved Academy Award for his heartrending turn as Dr. Sean Maguire, a down-to-earth psychiatrist working as a community college professor. When the brilliant but hyper-violent Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is sent to visit him, Sean has trouble getting through to the angry young man.
However, as Sean begins to let Will know about himself, the young man begins to reciprocate. Sean uses his unorthodox style to make a major breakthrough and get to the heart of Will’s emotional turmoil.
1 Doctor Beger – Ordinary People (1980)
Adapted from the Judith Guest novel, Robert Redford’s Ordinary People won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. The film follows the devastating aftermath of a lost loved one and the psychoanalytic ways of coping.
Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), Calvin (Donald Sutherland), and Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) have their lives shattered following the death of Buck, the eldest son in the family. Buck’s bereaving younger brother Conrad begins seeing Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), the involved shrink who provides an open ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on.
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