Portrayals of death, disease, and disorder have yielded some of film's most indelible performances: Debra Winger's turn as a dying mom in Terms of Endearment, Jack Nicholson's obsessive-compulsive rituals in As Good as It Gets. Hollywood has certainly learned how to use health problems to tug at our heartstrings. But just because a performance is emotionally powerful doesn't make it accurate.
In honor of Oscar season, we've asked Health.com's medical experts to review some of Hollywood's most memorable health-related roles. In the following slideshow, they separate fact from fiction and help you decide what you canand shouldn'tlearn about health and medicine from the silver screen.
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Type 1 Diabetes
Steel Magnolias (1989)
In this classic ‘80s chick flick, Julia Roberts plays a young woman with type 1 diabetes who unexpectedly gets pregnant. Though her doctors advise against it, she decides to have the babyand pays for it with her life when her kidneys fail.
Medically speaking, the movie’s tragic storyline is “very, very far from the truth,” says endocrinologist Richard Hellman, MD. “Many young women with diabetes who saw this movie shied away from having babies because they were convinced that if you get pregnant, you die. The reality is, for women with diabetes pregnancy is difficult but very doable."
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Something's Gotta Give (2003)
Sixty-something ladies’ man Harry Sanborn (Jack Nicholson) has a heart attack during foreplay with his 20-something girlfriend (Amanda Peet). At the hospital, an ER doctor (Keanu Reeves) orders an IV of nitroglycerin. When informed that it could be fatal if mixed with Viagra, Harrywho moments earlier had denied taking the drugyanks the IV out of his arm in a panic.
“There is some truth in this portrayal,” says Matthew Sorrentino, MD, a preventive cardiologist at the University of Chicago Medical Center. “Most heart attacks occur without any major provocation, but physical activity (including sexual activity) can precipitate a heart attack on occasion.”
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Terms of Endearment (1983)
This tearjerker chronicles the feisty relationship between Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) and her cancer-stricken daughter Emma Horton (Debra Winger).
The NYU School of Medicine's Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database credits the film with tackling the "unmentionable" status of cancer diagnosis and for calling attention to the issue of pain management during terminal illness. In the film's most memorable scene, Aurora beseeches the nurses: "My daughter is in pain, can't you understand that? Give my daughter the shot!"
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Depression & Talk Therapy
Ordinary People (1980)
A sailing accident that claims the life of his older brother leads a teenage boy to attempt suicide. The teen subsequently enters treatment with a psychiatrist, who helps him to cope with his depression, survivor’s guilt, and emotionally distant family.
The therapy scenes are “an unusually accurate portrayal of how good talk therapy works,” says Ken Robbins, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. "In old movies, mental health professionals are often portrayed as very controlling. Ordinary People was one of the first popular movies to give a much more accurate understanding of what happens in talk therapy."
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Al Pacino plays an L.A. detective who visits Alaska to investigate a murder. The midnight sun and a guilty conscience resulting from a tragicyet opportuneaccident combine to give Pacino’s character a vicious case of insomnia.
“Pacino’s portrayal of the ravages of sleep deprivation is strikingly accurate,” says David M. Rapoport, MD, director of the sleep medicine program at the NYU School of Medicine. “The acute combination of intense workplace stress and an altered sleep environment would indeed be enough to produce most of his symptoms. The movie also accurately shows some of the things people do to help insomnia: hide the clock, darken the bedroom, take the phone off the hook.”
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A rustic French village, a little chocolate shop that serves magically delicious treats: cute setting for a movie, dangerous hangout for a diabetic. So we learn in Chocolat, when a chocolate-loving diabetic played by Judi Dench dies after one too many truffles.
According to Dr. Hellman, the movie’s message is a mixed bag. “It points out that diabetics who are trying to be like everyone else and who eat what they want to eat have a terrible price to pay,” he says. “But the spin could have been a bit different. Having diabetes doesn’t mean you have to be an ascetic. It just means you have to be aware of your body’s needs and try to achieve a balance so that you are well protected.”
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Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
As Good as It Gets (1997)
The rituals of a cranky writer played by Jack Nicholson are front and center in this film: He compulsively turns the locks on his front door, flicks the lights off and on three times before entering a room, assiduously washes his hands with Neutrogena, and dances over and around sidewalk cracks.
“This was a particularly good portrayal of OCD,” says Dr. Robbins. “If you talk to somebody with OCD, they’ll tell you that they’re afraid that something terrible will happen if they don’t check the locks six times or wash their hands for an hour and a half. And if they try to stop sooner, their anxiety is so severe that they just can’t do it."
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Away From Her (2007)
In this wrenching drama, the loving bond between a retired couple named Grant and Fiona is tested by the latter’s advancing Alzheimer’s disease. Due to her memory loss and erratic behavior, Fiona decides that she must move to a nursing homewhere she unexpectedly grows enamored of another resident.
“Grant’s torment at leaving his beloved wife in an institution is disturbingly real, as is his guilt,” notes medical historian Jacalyn Duffin, MD, PhD, in the NYU Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database. “However, for anyone familiar with dementia, credibility is stretched by Fiona’s own decision to leave home, the rule of no visits for a month, her selective recollections, and the relatively harmonious ending.”
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Super Size Me (2004)
If the weight gain shown in this film seems strikingly real, it’s because it is. Using himself as a guinea pig, documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock set out to measure the effects of eating at McDonald’s three times a day for 30 days.
The changes in his body were dramatic: Thanks to all the saturated fat, calories, and carbs, Spurlock gained 25 pounds, his cholesterol shot up from 160 to 230, and he experienced liver damage and mood swings. “I was amazed at how bad I felt all the time,” Spurlock told the BBC.
In 1983, this film took home five Academy Awards, including those for best picture, best actress (MacLaine), and best supporting actor (Jack Nicholson). More than 15 years later, it earns another from the Health.com staff for its stark and moving portrayal of cancer pain.
Even the most lifelike on-screen suffering is a far cry from the real thing, however. Terms of Endearment may be the best of the bunch, but it still shows Hollywood's tendency to gloss over the hard facts of illness. "Movies often get at the emotional side," says Julia Smith, MD, PhD, of the NYU Cancer Institute, "but they are typically unwilling to address the real physical dissolution that comes from the disease."
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