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Academy Awards 2011: Which Myth Will America Choose?

It seems to me that the good father has become more important to this country than the hero, and so I predict the Academy will be leaning more toward the father rather than the hero in its choices.
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Jungian analyst and psychiatrist John Beebe has been a lifelong moviegoer as well as psychological teacher. In his lectures, he often draws on movies as a way to illuminate Jung's theory of psychological types and to discuss the drama of therapy. "Early in my teaching, I learned that if I could get an audience to watch a movie with me," says Beebe, co-author of "The Presence of the Feminine in Film," "we could have a shared emotional experience to discuss what unfolds over the course of a long psychotherapy."

In anticipation of the 2011 Academy Awards ceremony, I spoke with Beebe to gain his insights into America and the movies. The following is an edited version of our conversation:

Pythia: The Academy Awards ceremony is an American ritual that draws millions of viewers worldwide. Is there something mythic about movies and movie stars that attracts us to this spectacle?

Beebe: You could say that movie stars represent "cultural complexes," or current collective attitudes. Only a few become mythic symbols of what Jung called the "Self" -- not our everyday role or personality, but the deepest possible aspect of being human, the whole part of ourselves that most of us encounter only when we dream.

Pythia: That's a profound take on Hollywood -- a place typically described as tinsel town, or fake or hollow.

Beebe: Hollywood is capable of both generating roles that reflect current cultural tastes, and roles that reflect something more authentic and enduring. Take, for example, Academy Award nominees for Best Actress in 1954: Grace Kelly for "The Country Girl" and Judy Garland for "A Star Is Born." There is a scene in "A Star Is Born" when Vicki Lester, the character Garland plays, goes on stage to receive the Academy Award she's just won for Best Actress. As she's making her acceptance speech, her drunken husband walks on stage and interrupts her speech with one of his own. Punctuating it with a gesture of his hands, he accidentally strikes Vicki. In front of everyone who has witnessed this "slap in her face," she does the unexpected, and tenderly helps her husband off the stage.

In this scene, Garland reveals her capacity to transcend the actress and stand up for feeling. Before our eyes, she becomes a symbol of human compassion. At that point, she becomes a permanent "star" -- someone who enters the firmament of overarching humanity beyond personal character. Ironically, Grace Kelly won the award. She was beautiful and proper, but a symbol of the persona -- the public face we put on to meet the world -- and of the rise of American affluence on the world stage in the fifties. Her achievement was no match for Garland's.

Pythia: Garland starred in "The Wizard of Oz." You've said her Dorothy asserts "the power of the feminine" over the tendency of American culture to inflate masculinity. Was Dorothy a feminine hero?

Beebe: Dorothy upholds her values, but she shows more fear than we're used to in a hero. That's where Garland's casting was so brilliant. As an actress, Garland had a capacity to evince vulnerability. You can hear that in her voice when she says "I'm frightened Auntie Em, I'm frightened." And yet she was capable of transcendent feeling; her voice literally goes "over the rainbow."

Pythia: You also describe "The Wizard of Oz" as a movie that gives examples of the different cognitive functions that Jung described in his personality type theory. Can you say more about that?

Beebe: Dorothy's "superior function," or what she is best at, is extraverted feeling. The Scarecrow represents Dorothy's unconscious potential to think. Here you have a beautiful illustration of what Jung means by the "inferior function" -- the part of us that's not adapted to everyday life, that's closer to the unconscious and is harder to control, just as the Scarecrow can hardly control his movements. He has an inferiority complex about his thinking, but as the movie unfolds, it becomes obvious how smart the Scarecrow really is. Apparently, what Dorothy's not great at nonetheless possesses great creativity.

The teaming of Dorothy and the Scarecrow brings together the two halves of what I'd call the "spine of personality" itself. This is the mystic axis between what we're best at and what we're worst at. Taken together, Dorothy and the Scarecrow have a pleasing depth. They bring integrity to the person who has none: the Wizard of Oz, who embodies the pretension of being in control when you're not, and who shows what happens when you try to keep the illusion of the hero going.

Pythia: It seems to me sometimes that America is like the Wizard of Oz; we give the illusion of being in control, but we're not as great and powerful as we would like to think we are.

Beebe: In "The Wizard of Oz," you get a completely new American myth -- a myth in which finally nobody pretends to be on top of anything. People are running scared, and they don't know how they're going to make it. At the end of the movie, Dorothy is able to get back home to Kansas and be re-connected to her world in a real way. The movie has a marvelous down-home quality, like something you'd find at a simple little store. This would be the attitude that I'd like to see America take -- to move out of being the greatest country in the world and just be a "good enough" country; to get past the hero and turn into a good citizen of the world.

Pythia: Moving forward, what cultural themes do you see reflected in some of this year's nominations for Best Picture?

Beebe: I don't think it's accidental that "The King's Speech" came out at a time when a lot of people were worried that Obama was not speaking out enough.

Pythia: That's a very interesting link to make. Can you say more?

Beebe: Obama, who is not interested in resurrecting the hero myth, is post-heroic. He's interested in the archetype of the good parent. He wants us to be better parents, and he wants to protect the infrastructure and take responsibility for the country. But at the same time, Obama has had a reluctance to be assertive in the bully pulpit. Some have felt that he was being too cautious, and that he needed to come forward. He finally came through in the beautiful speech he gave in Tucson and his State of the Union address. After hearing from their president, the public brought his ratings up.

King George VI of England needed to master his fear of public speaking in order to help his people deal with their fears at the terrifying moment that World War II began. By combining courage to lead with the humility needed to face his speech problem, he became a "wounded healer" who helped his country -- the right king for his people at their most trying time. So "The King's Speech" drew on the historical precedent to the situation Obama faced of someone who worked on his reluctance to speak out in order to become an effective father figure for his country -- an example of a collective issue being mirrored and resolved in a brilliant film.

Pythia: What other film reflected a collective issue?

Beebe: "The Social Network." It's a beautiful piece of filmmaking, but the subject is quite repellent. It epitomizes what American competitiveness and greed look like when they become the only values. It shows the new go-it-alone entrepreneur who is not concerned with providing a livelihood for anyone but himself.

Pythia: Does "The Social Network" say something about the darker side of the hero as an American myth?

Beebe: Yes. The portrait of Mark Zuckerberg -- a lonely, heroic figure who can't, finally, take care of anyone but himself -- makes one question whether being heroic is the best thing. In "The Black Swan" Natalie Portman also plays an extremely heroic type. In "The King's Speech," George VI rises to the occasion of history, which in his case takes a private sort of courage. In the end, he becomes an effective king, but as portrayed by Colin Firth, he is never exactly heroic. He is able to become a father to his country because he humbly accepts help. Similarly, Annette Bening in "The Kids Are All Right," is not playing a heroine -- she's incarnating the archetypal good father, as channeled by a woman protecting her home.

So we can say "The King's Speech" picks up the wish of our country for a certain kind of fatherly leadership, while "The Social Network" confronts us with our shadow of living for heroic success. If the Academy rewards "The King's Speech" or Colin Firth and Annette Bening, that suggests we're more interested in the father archetype. If it chooses "The Social Network," or Jesse Eisenberg and Natalie Portman, I would take that as our country's unwillingness to give up the hero archetype. It seems to me that the good father has become more important to this country than the hero, and so I predict the Academy will be leaning more toward the father rather than the hero in its choices.

Pythia: Turning from the collective to the personal, can watching a movie be like therapy?

Beebe: Yes, a good film can help us metabolize our life experiences. I think the problem for all of us is finding a coherent narrative out of our existence. Like therapy, a movie does that for us, distilling years of experience into a story. When the story works, it has an animating effect on us. We walk out of the theater feeling better; we don't know why we feel better, especially when there has been a lot of pain in a movie, but we do. If we don't, something is wrong with the film!

Movies, which are the reflections of a filmmaker responding to the human condition, are also models that show us how to develop the capacity for reflection. They enable the audience to hold complex states of mind in a creative way -- a state that's not unlike our dreams. We do the same thing when we go into therapy. We're not master filmmakers, but if we watch our dreams over a period of time, they show a process of reflection on our experience. Working with them in therapy can strengthen our consciousness; as consciousness grows, so does our ability to fully engage with this life that is so perplexing and upsetting, but also marvelous.


Jung and Film II, The Return, edited by Christopher Hauke and Luke Hockley. London & New York: Routledge (forthcoming).