The Oscars: Hollywood's Biggest Night and Why it Matters to Medicine and Public Health


Jennifer Chevinsky

Publish date

February 16, 2015

by Macey Henderson and Jennifer Chevinsky

The Oscars, or the glamorous Academy Awards, are known as the biggest night for Hollywood’s actors and for its big ratings for the mass media. For days following this gala, the media reports on the outfits worn, Oscars won, and perhaps most passionately, they begin to critique the process and decisions of the prestigious American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (i.e. “The Academy”). But why should the medical and public health community care about the Academy, the big name nominees, or the ultimate winners?

An Oscar win means positive attention for the film, director, and actors. Similarly, for films with a message, intense awareness of the cause can follow a big win. For example, Al Gore did not become a climate change celebrity because of his work within the government. It was his Oscar-winning documentary that made climate change a cause celebré. We have argued before that the mass media has a responsibility to provide the public with evidence-based messaging, however that is not generally expected from popular cinematic productions. Films can provide stellar representations of human suffering, or reinforce misinformation as it pertains to particular health data and medical conditions.

Films portraying patient and family narratives in medical and social situations that challenge our ideas, values and institutional belief systems are well known in Oscar history. Past movies that have portrayed these issues realistically, shining a light on disparities, have aided in constructive social and cultural change such as happened with the film Philadelphia. Getting attention from the Oscars can lead to worldwide critical financial support, research, and advocacy of otherwise under-recognized societal and health-related concerns.

This year we want to focus on two films that are being represented at the Oscars for Best Actress and one that did not make the cut. All three of the films display strong female characters facing physical, mental, and emotional challenges that are not generally considered to be ‘sexy’ – Alzheimer’s disease, heroin addiction, and chronic pain. We will ask you to think about some critical issues as you watch, and to consider the effects these films could have on medical and public health fields.

Based on a fictional book, Still Alice (2014) stars Julianne Moore as a linguistics professor, wife, and mother who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. By taking a pathology that much of the public is familiar with and pairing it with a strong female character, this film pushes the audience to consider themselves in the same position. The film conveys feelings of loss of control that are so much a part of Alzheimer’s disease. By choosing the early-onset form to focus on, however, we wonder whether this film brought a kind of glamour that is absent in reality. After all, most Alzheimer’s patients are not considered to be among Hollywood’s most beautiful women. Alzheimer’s can be debilitating, both for the individual with the condition, and the family, friends, and caregivers who experience the ongoing feelings of loss. The Alzheimer’s Association has been encouraging research and providing needed advocacy on this disease for many years and is using this film to raise awareness and money. We are interested to see how this film will affect the placement of Alzheimer’s disease on the public agenda.

In the second film, Wild (2014), Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) embarks on a journey through the Pacific Crest Trail to find herself after losing her beloved mother to cancer. Based on a memoir, Cheryl is dealing with mental and emotional trauma from divorce, all while in recovery from heroin addiction. Throughout the film, she is on a journey to return to the girl her mother raised her to be, running away from the woman she has become. The film gives us a look into the life of a ‘heroin abuser,’ showing the stigma that continues to be present. We think this film has attempted to display the complexity of drug addiction, moving beyond the antiquated categorization of addiction as an inherently moral problem. In other words, while the film highlights the stigma, it also shows that addiction does not occur within a silo. The publicity for the movie has led to donation campaigns for the Pacific Crest Trail Associations, however we wonder whether these campaigns really address the underlying issues conveyed in the film. We are hopeful that some of the attention will be focused on the mental health and addiction programming in the United States, and how we can provide better services for those who are coping with trauma and addiction.

While Cake (2014) starring Jennifer Aniston as Claire is not on the list for an Oscar, we think it is another great movie portrayal of mental, emotional, and physical anguish. Most interesting is the complexity of the character’s physical pain and related treatment with pain medications. Claire is treated as just another “drug seeker” when her doctors cannot find a reason for her continued pain and don’t have the time to explore her narrative. Health care providers only have ten to fifteen minutes to assess their patients, unlike the 102-minute-inside-view that we have of Claire’s trauma and suffering. Because pain is subjective and can’t be measured clinically, these individuals are left open to face an incredible amount of judgment. Even in the film, Claire is ultimately dismissed by her doctor. Although this film was not nominated for an Oscar, we think it is important for there to be continued discussion on the stigma around chronic pain. In fact, the Arthritis Foundation has tagged on to this film, with the President and CEO quoted as saying, “More than 50 million Americans – at least that many – suffer from chronic pain, like seen in the movie ‘Cake.’ We applaud the efforts… for bringing this important issue to the big screen.”

The most powerful films capture reality and put it in front of us to wrestle with. The aforementioned movies bring mundane issues to the big screen, and in doing so, have the potential to shape the future of healthcare in America. We hope these films will bring attention to Alzheimer’s disease, addiction resources, and chronic pain. While film directors are not reporters, and therefore do not have the same responsibilities to the public, it is important to recognize that the content of film still has a lot of power to shape society. Because of this power, we think it is important for healthcare providers bioethicists, and public health experts to pay attention to events like the Oscars.

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