Would We Still Call Them Crazy After All These Years?
You used to hear it all the time. Nervous Breakdown - that enigmatic catch-all term for psychological anguish. But what did it really mean? The New York Times wrote on the subject in 2010:
"Decades ago modern medicine all but stamped out the nervous breakdown, hitting it with a combination of new diagnoses, new psychiatric drugs and a strong dose of professional scorn. The phrase was overused and near meaningless, a self-serving term from an era unwilling to talk about mental distress openly. But like a stubborn virus, the phrase has mutated."
Take a look at the stars who 'broke down' and some of the context behind the headlines.
At the 1970 Emmys, Duke drew attention for her incoherent appearance. "The truth of the matter is that my condition had nothing to do with drugs or alcohol. I was having a serious emotional breakdown...Unlike most people in trouble who fall apart in the privacy of their bedrooms, I fell apart on network television." She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1982 - and became the first major celebrity to admit to such. Duke recalls buying three Mercedes in one day during a manic streak just to match her dresses. "You saw Patty Duke, fully put together...[She] goes to her job, knows every word, is wonderful with people on the set. Then, get in the car to go home and it starts. The minute I walk through the door, if there was a kid around, he'd get smacked. People don't think Patty Duke could have done that. But, she did."
Leigh's one-time stepson, Tarquin Olivier believes that Leigh's bipolar episodes intensified after a 1945 miscarriage. In 1953, the former Scarlett O'Har was flying to Los Angeles when she started to hallucinate and attempted to jump out of the plane. She was put in a mental hospital afterwards and treated with electric shock therapy. Tarquin Olivier: ‘It’s a terrible illness that makes you hate the person you love’
In his own words: “My biggest depressive episode look place in May 1980. But because depression affects memory, I don't recall everything that happened. I do remember, vividly, being on the Concorde before takeoff—I was going to England to do some interviews—and bursting into a sweat. It wasn't the usual "Oh, my God, the plane is going to crash" sort of stuff. It was like a malaria attack. They took me off the plane and put me in a limo and look me to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. They tell me I was in such a state of agitation that I kept trying to get out of the limo in traffic and that my assistant, Jo Muchmore, literally had to wrap her arms around me and brace against the door to keep me from bolting.”
Garland infamously struggled with multiple breakdowns and suicide attempts. Her difficulties lead to her being fired from four film productions, including 1967's Valley of the Dolls. Patty Duke (whom we've already touched upon) played Neely O'Hara in the film. She spoke decades later about the incident: "[Garland] was charming and funny -- oh, very funny -- but she was having a problem with alcohol and I don't know about other things...She was very down to earth, so she didn't mind waiting. What I minded was that there were gentlemen around her who supplied her with wine and other things, so when she finally did get called to the set, she couldn't function very well... and she crumbled."
It was 1973 and rumors was running wild about the Queen of Soul being hospitalized for three days in New York. In a Jet article entitled "Aretha Buries Rumors About 'Going Crazy' " reports of a nervous breakdown are described as 'erroneous'. Her hospital stay was the result of acute physical exhaustion, says the magazine. However, a recent Franklin biography quotes Franklin's former booking agent, Ruth Bowen: "Aretha used Jet for decades to clean up and clear up her image. The truth is that she had suffered something of a breakdown but was adamant that the public see her as healthy. I tried to tell her that there is no shame in having mental-health challenges...'Who doesn't know that you have the blues, Aretha?' I'd ask. 'For God's sakes, you're a blues singer. You're supposed to have the blues.' "
The Little Tramp underwent a nervous breakdown during the production of The Circus (1928) which contributed to production shutting down for months. According to urban legend, Chaplin's collapse led to his salt-and-pepper hair turning white. His acrimonious divorce proceedings from second wife, Lita Grey, further delayed the movie's release. "The most surprising aspect of the film is not that it is as good as it is, but that it was ever completed at all," according to historian David Robinson.
The sunny "Que Sera, Sera" singer suffered from panic attacks for years, leading to a breakdown in 1968 upon discovering that her deceased third husband had squandered her money. "Well, I’ve been through everything. I always said I was like those round-bottomed circus dolls—you know, those dolls you could push down and they’d come back up?"
Joel, suffering from depression, attempted suicide in the early 70s after his affair with a friend's wife was discovered by her husband. Joel received inpatient care for depression afterwards. "I thought to myself, 'Oh, great, I couldn't even do this right.' It was another failure." Joel also admits he fell into a "deep, deep depression" after 9/11 and that he used alcohol as medication. "9/11 just knocked the wind out of me and I don’t know even now if I’ve recovered from it. It really, really hurt that man could do that to man...And then there was a breakup with somebody and it took me a while to get me back on my feet again."
The former Lois Lane has dealt with manic depression for years. In the 70s, she came to believe that her first husband and the CIA were plotting to kill her. Most notably, she had a widely-publized breakdown In April 1996, when, after disappearing for four days, she was found by police in a Glendale, California backyard. She had been living as a street person, and, at one point, had sheltered in a cardboard box. "I was like one of those ladies you see talking to the space aliens on the street corner in New York." Her friend, Rosie Shuster, said at the time: "Margie has the resilience of Rasputin. She just keeps coming back."
Following the release of the singer's 1977 Bat Out of Hell album, Meat Loaf entered a downward spiral involving lawsuits, tax issues, bankruptcy, a drinking problem coupled with the dual losses of his home and singing voice. "Basically, I had a nervous breakdown" Meat Loaf told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "People have called me a 'one-hit wonder,' But I took myself out. I didn't like who I was. I didn't like the people around me. I didn't like my life...For money, I'm not going to destroy myself."
Arguably America's most iconic celebrity, she is remembered as much for her troubles as for her films. 1960 (during her third marriage to playwright, Arthur Miller) was a particularly dark year. The Telegraph reflected in 2010: "That summer, during the filming of The Misfits, Marilyn had a nervous breakdown and complained of hearing voices, a paranoid state for which [Monroe's therapist, Dr. Ralph] Greenson prescribed even stronger doses of barbiturates. ‘There were always new doctors willing to help her into oblivion,’ Miller complained."
Fisher's bipolar diagnosis in the 80s, psychotic break in 1997 and continued issues with mental health became fodder for the various incarnations of her autobiography, Wishful Drinking - including a 2006 one-woman show, 2008 book and 2010 HBO special. From the book: "Having waited my entire life to get an award for something, anything...I now get awards all the time for being mentally ill. It’s better than being bad at being insane, right? How tragic would it be to be runner-up for Bipolar Woman of the Year?”
Francis Ford Coppola
Coppola's wife, Eleanor, wrote in her diary: "I guess he has had a sort of nervous breakdown" regarding the tumultuous filming of 1979 Vietnam classic Apocalypse Now. Coppola himself said "We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane" However, a 2007 Guardian article quotes Coppola: " 'Oh man, all that stuff was exaggerated, greatly exaggerated,' he says, not altogether convincingly. 'I read the other day that I had three nervous breakdowns. I maybe had one little one. And that was through smoking, not overwork. But three breakdowns, I mean, come on!' "
"The emptiness inside me was like a cave." Tierney recounts dealings with depression in her autobiography. After a breakdown in 1955, she spent seven odd years in and out of mental hospitals. Tierney would later describe the 32 electric shock treatments she received: "pieces of my life just disappeared".
According to The Guardian: "Wilson began hearing voices 'saying derogatory things', telling him that he was finished and was going to die soon, a condition that continues to this day. 'Every day,' he nods. 'A daily struggle.' The voices were accompanied by black depressions and bursts of crippling, irrational fear." Wilson recalls a nervous breakdown in the early 60s on a flight. He started screaming, crying, spinning in his seat and collapsed on the cabin floor. "We were really scared for him," said fellow Beach Boy, Al Jardine. "[We were] concerned for him because he was so upset. He obviously had a breakdown. None of us had ever witnessed something like that."
After suffering a 'catatonic nervous breakdown' and one of multiple suicide attempts, the Look of Love singer was treated at Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital, New York. "There is a sadness there in my voice...I was born with it. Sort of melancholy. Comes with being Irish-Scottish. Automatically melancholy and mad at the same time."
The bipolar comedian endured an onstage breakdown during a San Francisco set in 1959. "He was reported to have climbed the mast of a moored historic ship in San Francisco while drunk and naked" according to the Washington Post. The incident led to a mental hospital stay. He experienced another collapse in 1961. From NPR: "So [Winters] asked for a diagnosis. He repeats the doctor's answer in a coy tone: 'It would only upset you.' Winters replied, 'I'll tell you what's upsetting me is the cost of this place.' "
O'Connor, who is bipolar, experienced a prolonged breakdown in 2012 that led to her canceling tour dates. On Jan 11, she tweeted "I'm really un-well... and in danger" followed by "Does anyone [sic] know a psychiatrist in Dublin or Wicklow who could urgently see me today please?" Later that year, she stated in an open letter: "We have now switched me to different medication which seems to be helping a lot but it will still be a slow process until we get levels right and I recover physically. I am extremely tired. A symptom of bipolar disorder is the feeling that one is walking through treacle."
During the filming of Easy Rider, Hopper reportedly held crew meetings with loaded guns on the table. After years of drug and alcohol abuse, Hopper's erratic behavior reached a fever pitch. From the Irish Independent: "By the 1980's, he disappeared to Mexico, having convinced himself that he was being pursued by the mob. There, he had a full breakdown, later admitting that he walked off into the jungle, 'naked, in the middle of the night.' " He was subsequently admitted to a mental hospital.
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