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Five Movies About People Driven Insane by Their Art

The madness that arises from passion.
Feature | March 23, 2015 | By Travis Vogt

There’s something alluring about the idea of artists driven insane by their ambitions and creations. It’s a romantic notion, this madness that arises from passion. There’s nothing cooler than looking at a painting and hearing that the person who made it went mad. “Maybe he went mad because of this,"  you think, “This painting, this song, this film was so irreducibly important to its creator that it made her snap.” Those who love art enough to believe in its curative powers are also obliged to believe in its power to destroy.

Two of the biggest Oscar winners this year dealt with the maddening aspect of performance. In Whiplash, a young music student is driven to great artistic heights and potential ruin by an amoral, obsessed instructor. Best Picture winner Birdman chronicles an actor grappling with age and irrelevance to a surreal degree during the premiere of his theatrical labor of love.

Observing those driven mad by art assuages our own feelings of inadequacy for not managing to reach for the same stars: “Look at those nutso people who try to make great things. Sometimes their quest for perfection drives them right over the edge into oblivion. I think I’ll stick with my Playstation, thank you very much.”

Theater leads to the best kind of artistic madness: theatrical madness. Actors, playwrights, singers, dancers--they were already crazy enough to pursue work in a ridiculously demanding and competitive field. How much farther down the rabbit hole can they go? You have to watch to find out. (Spoilers ahead!)

Black Swan (2005)

When Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) lands the lead role in Swan Lake, she’s already operating with the barest thread holding on to her sanity. She’s been groomed for success since birth by her, bitter, ex-ballerina mother. Her body undergoes ungodly abuse in the name of keeping her on pointe and within micrograms of her studiously monitored target weight.  Viewing herself as nearly over the hill already in her early twenties, she feels like the role of the Swan Queen might be her last chance at becoming a celebrated dancer. So she gives it everything she has. Everything.

She rapidly undergoes a terrifying psychosis, seemingly dividing in two like the black/white counterparts of the Swan Queen. She runs from unseen enemies, sees terrifying doppelgangers and hallucinates erotic interludes (or does she?). In the end, she has fully embraced the duality of the role. She knows it, too, as she smiles contentedly while bleeding to death by her own hand on stage, just out of sight of the ecstatic audience: “I was perfect.”

The Red Shoes (1948)

Black Swan drew a lot of inspiration from this odd, gorgeous William Powell film. Both films deal with emotionally unstable dancers who perform Swan Lake and lose their minds. I have to wonder if ballerinas actively avoid performing as the Swan Queen at this point (“Actually, I think Jessica is really way better for the role than me, and, um, OOPS! I just fell down pretty hard and sprained my ankle, so…”). It also features one of the most quintessentially British tragedy announcements in movie history: "Miss Page is unable to dance tonight, nor indeed any other night."

Amadeus (1984)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died because of the awesome, dark power of the death requiem that was his final composition. This was all part of a devious plan hatched by Antonio Salieri, a fellow composer who burns with envy toward Mozart’s preternatural gifts. As a result of his murderous jealousy, the lesser maestro wears a disguise and commissions his young protégé to write the music that will send him to his (unmarked) grave. He even writes the gorgeous notes for him, savoring each and every divine movement by candlelight as the great Mozart wastes away in his deathbed. Salieri, wracked with guilt, later tries to confess to the murder but nobody believes him, and he ends up a raving mess, covered in terrible old-man makeup in a filthy 18th century insane asylum.

Of course, pretty much the only thing about this amazing story that’s true is that that there once were two composers named Mozart and Salieri who lived in Austria and knew each other. But the fictionalized story is much more compelling, right? It really says a lot about professional jealousy, the nature of genius and the worthiness of the supremely gifted. I’m going to just pretend it’s real, like that story about George Washington and the cherry tree. He was such a great man; I totally would’ve lied in that situation.

All That Jazz (1979)

Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical opus doesn’t portray a specific incident of madness. The film makes clear that being in front of the spotlight has lead Rob Scheider’s Fosse stand-in to an entire life that is caustically unmoored. His obsession with perfection has him chain smoking, popping pills and obliterating every relationship he holds dear. His iconic, jazz-hands (“It’s showtime!”) ritual in front of the mirror gets more and more haggard and resigned as his too-short life progresses toward its inevitable, agonizing end. 

The show-stopping (and amazingly long) musical finale is a kinetic celebration of self-loathing, narcissism, fear, joy, bitterness and the absolute glory of performance. Several years before his own death, Fosse painted a vivid picture of the mesmerizing tragedy of his life—the warts, the greatness and a hell of a lot of dancing. 

Synecdoche, NY (2008)

I thought it appropriate to end on a movie that might actually drive the viewer mad just by watching it. I once recommended this film to a person looking for “something really dark.” The next time I saw him, he was kind of mad. “Yeah, I know I said I wanted something dark, but now my wife’s mad at me for making her watch that [expletive] movie!” That perfectly sums up Charlie Hoffman’s brutally surreal head-trip.

The late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman stars as a depressive playwright who receives what essentially amounts to a limitless financial grant to produce the magnum opus of his dreams. What he eventually creates goes on for decades, requires a massive domed structure to house and incorporates actual family members, people playing family members, and people playing the people playing his family members.

The movie is far too complex and weird to sum up in any meaningful way here. Suffice it to say, the “play” ends up turning into a vast, bleak, existential void, neatly encapsulating the fear and hopelessness that constantly occupy Hoffman’s thoughts. Did I also mention it’s funny, too? It is, but that won’t make any difference. You’ll walk away from this film much like Hoffman at the very end: stunned, numb and devoid of all delusions of optimism. Sometimes the mirror that art holds up to life isn’t one of those flattering ones; it’s the mirror in the Goodwill dressing room. It's the mirror that you run into every now and again that makes you say “Please God, tell me I don’t look like that.” 

Teaser photo by Kiril Krastev.