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Beyond Spectacle: Mental Health’s Depiction in Oscar Worthy Movies

Recent Portrayals of Mental Health at the Academy Awards

In contrast to previous years, multiple nominated films for this year’s Academy Awards Best Picture category have undertaken serious depictions of psychological disorders, such as Oppenheimer’s portrayal of the film’s namesake Robert Oppenheimer’s profound depression and aborted homicide attempt, or The Holdovers, which reveals the character Tom’s paranoid schizophrenia and early dementia. Reflecting on previous Best Picture wins, such as last year’s comedy drama Everything Everywhere All at Once, 2021’s comedy drama CODA, or even 2020’s Nomadland, none of these films explicitly discuss mental health struggles or has mental health at the forefront of their story lines, and this shows – only approximately 7% of all Best Picture nominees in the last 50 years have explicitly addressed mental health crises and care (Bahr, 2023). This is backed up in a recently published original article which evaluates over 1.6 million reviews, that moral salience in reviews was strongly associated with film success (Huang, 2024). More specifically, the “moral salience of care, fairness, loyalty, and authority is positively linked to film performance.” Topics on “care” and “fairness” may prove difficult in films such as Barbie, that dives into an overarching topic of gender disparity in the “real world,” or with Killers of the Flower Moon, a film about corruption and greed in pursuing oil wealth.

The Nominees

2024 Best Picture Nominations

  • American Fiction
  • Anatomy of a Fall
  • Barbie
  • The Holdovers
  • Killers of the Flower Moon
  • Maestro
  • Oppenheimer
  • Past Lives
  • Poor Things
  • The Zone of Interest

Among the nominees for the 2024 Academy Awards’ Best Picture category, an assortment of films have surfaced, each with its own take on mental health themes. American Fiction delves into the complexities of mental illness, following a struggling writer's journey to confront his inner demons. Anatomy of a Fall explores the psychological struggles of its characters as they navigate a tragic accident and its aftermath. Barbie tackles identity and societal pressures as its protagonist navigates the challenges of conforming to societal expectations. The Holdovers sheds light on mental illness stigma, following a group of individuals as they confront societal prejudices and misconceptions. Killers of the Flower Moon weaves mental health themes into its historical narrative, examining the impact of systemic injustices on individual well-being. Maestro and Oppenheimer introduce thought-provoking concepts related to mental health, as their protagonists grapple with personal and ethical dilemmas. Past Lives and Poor Things employ dark humor and satire to shed light on mental health issues, exploring the absurdities of human behavior and coping mechanisms. Finally, The Zone of Interest confronts uncomfortable truths about human nature, intertwining mental health themes with a haunting exploration of morality and redemption. Overall, this year’s films offer deeper and more nuanced portrayals of mental health, which will hopefully serve to raise awareness about mental health through their portrayals in cinema.

The Accuracy of Mental Illness in Cinema

As already mentioned, a large group of the nominated films for this year’s Best Picture have grappled with topics regarding mental health. While raising awareness for mental health disorders are important, misleading portrayals of symptoms and behaviors can be counterproductive. Dr. Danny Wedding, author of the popular book Movies and Mental Illness, provides psychological ratings of nearly 1,500 films, according to the diagnostic criteria of DSM-5 and ICD-11. In Wedding’s first article supplementing his book Movies and Mental Illness, he critically examines The Holdovers, which didn’t “handle mental illness all that well.” Inaccurate or overly exaggerated representations of serious mental disorders can perpetuate the misconception that those diagnosed are likely to be dangerous, and so the question is, in the push for mental health awareness, can films hinder progress as well as advance it?

Academy Award nominated Best Picture film notably mentioned in Movies and Mental Illness is Oppenheimer. Dr. Wedding specifically points out how cinematography plays a role in elevating the complex character that Cillian Murphy embodied. Oppenheimer’s life challenges, shown on screen through lighting, sound, and angled shots, helps to illustrate the mental health problems that he confronted during his career as a physicist. Whether a movie falls short of the current understanding of mental health, or if it perfectly encapsulates the issue at hand, Dr. Wedding emphasizes that such movies can still be enjoyable, as the cinema is also to entertain.

If you are interested in hearing more from Dr. Wedding, listen to a webinar recording about the book, where he discusses his new book Movies and Mental Illness, his passion for films, and how films can be used to understand psychopathology.


Bahr, R. (2023). Mental Health Visibility Only Goes So Far at the Oscars. <https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-features/oscars-2023-mental-health-visibility-best-picture-1235302169/>

Huang, J., Yang, J., Zhu, J., (2024). Moral Salience in Film Reviews Associated With Film Success. Journal of Media Psychology. <https://doi.org/10.1027/1864-1105/a000416>

Oscars.org | Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. <https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/2024>

Wedding, D. (2023). Movies and Mental Illness: Using Films to Understand Psychopathology, 5th edition. Hogrefe Publishing.

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