People go nuts all the time or are found wandering down the street in only their underwear and a deranged smile, and the only thing this earns most people is a trip to the funny farm and a reputation among their friends and family for being completely bonkers, which is sad because, really, these people should be applauded for getting the help they need. (There. There is the standard “Mental illness is not a joke and should be treated with the utmost respect and gravity” line which will surely be demanded by the humorless drones who get a wild hair up their asses about this sort of thing. Calm down, people, there’s no need to go crazy.) But famous people are different. They just are. Not only are they made of a special blend of gold, honey and angel dust, when they go crazy, the whole world inevitably knows about it, not just their loved ones. This is the price of fame. Celebrities are also different in that there seems to be something in their makeup which is not just conducive to fame but also to mental illness. It’s that thin line between genius and insanity, and that’s what we’re here to explore today.
Oh, Britney. It seems like just yesterday you were parading down the hallways of a fake high school in a short skirt and with an invitation to sin in your eyes. But actually, yesterday you were probably busy talking to imaginary ponies and zonked out on a handful of meds. Because even more vivid than your carnal video escapades are the images of you with a shaved head and crazy eyes being hauled off to the loony bin for your own protection. Yes, after months of wading through a mess of drug rumors, erratic behavior and assorted Federlines, Spears found herself institutionalized for a week in early 2008 at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. It was only a week, but it was enough to take her from America’s Troubled Sweetheart to America’s Punchline. She’s never really recovered publicly from it. But what the hell, she’s richer than you and everyone you know put together and so I’m guessing she’s not too broken up about it. Still, the world mourns the loss of her innocence. And also those short skirts.
James Taylor is one of the few celebrities on this list who managed to go on to bigger and better things following his institutionalization. A sensitive, creative kid, Taylor found himself collapsing under the weight of a deep depression towards the end of his high school days. It got bad enough that Taylor committed himself in 1965 to McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. There, Taylor recuperated for nine months, managing to earn his diploma through the hospital’s associated Arlington School. Taylor actually credits the hospital with saving his life, providing him a reprieve from the big bad world. Of course, it probably didn’t hurt that being in the nuthouse also kept him from having to serve in Vietnam. I mean, if you’re going to have your life saved in the emotional and mental sense, you might as well splurge and get your life literally saved while you’re at it. Taylor later wrote his famous song "Fire and Rain" in memory of his time in the nuthouse, which means that his stay in the mental hospital not only saved him mentally and saved him from possibly dying in a foreign war, but it also provided the inspiration for perhaps his biggest hit. No wonder he seems cool about the experience.
Look, being stuck in a gold bikini and chained up by a giant slug with a long slimy tongue and a penchant for eating live frogs and freezing dudes in carbonite would make anyone go mad, even the lovely Princess Leia. And at the age of 40, apparently the memories of her enslavement became too much for Carrie Fisher because she finally broke down and was committed to a mental hospital after years of alcohol, drugs and wild insanity. There, Fisher says she was taken off all of her various medications and spent the next six days wide awake. Deprived of sleep and, well, sanity, Fisher began to imagine that the people in the little magic box known as the television were speaking directly to her and it wasn’t until her doctors played around with her medicine that Fisher was able to reemerge and begin rebuilding her life. Today, Fisher manages the manic depression which lies at the root of her problems with medication and, uh, electroshock therapy. Which seems a little extreme, but what the hell, it seems like it works for her. After all, recently, she has emerged as sort of an avatar for perseverance with her book and one woman show, both titled Wishful Drinking. Plus, she ended up choking out that fat slug with the very chain he kept her on, so she got some closure there. She did make out with her brother, though, so she’s still got some things to deal with.
Call it early research for her role in Girl Interrupted. Of course, in 1990, when Ryder checked herself into a mental hospital, that movie was still years away from being made, but still, we’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she had some sort of premonition that such a role was on the horizon. Or maybe she just really, really needed a break. After dropping out of The Godfather: Part III, Ryder apparently felt like the world was kind of an asshole, because she went straight to the nuthouse. She left after only staying there a couple of weeks and later claimed that it was basically a waste of time, that they didn’t have any answers for her, and that her recovery from exhaustion, anxiety and depression was just a matter of deciding to move on with her life. Well, then. Good news, crazies! Winona Ryder says you can just decide to be better! But even though she apparently thinks her stay at the funny farm didn’t help her, we can all agree that she deserved to be confined for at least a couple of weeks for dropping out of The Godfather: Part III and subjecting us all to the horror that was Sofia Coppola as Mary Corleone.
Hey, remember that one Superman movie when Lois Lane went nuts and was found hiding naked behind a woodpile, missing her teeth and ranting and raving incoherently? I think it was in that same movie where Superman battled Richard Pryor and the dude from Two and a Half Men. Or maybe that’s what actually happened to Margot Kidder in real life. Yes, in 1996, Kidder finally cracked completely after a long run of weird and crazy shit. Bottoming out, Kidder found herself arrested and tossed into the crazy house for a while until she calmed her ass down, which wasn’t easy because she suffers from manic-depression. Thankfully, the episode seemed to serve as a wakeup call for Kidder, who started to take her mental health more seriously, and since then she claims not to have had a manic episode thanks to natural medicine. There’s no word on whether Superman stood by her during her trials and tribulations, but then again, Superman had his own issues to deal with after falling off of a kryptonite horse. I’m sure she understands.
Before hooking up with John Lennon and assassinating the Beatles, Yoko Ono was just a struggling artist, a rebellious young hipster with rich parents who tried to make her own way in the world before being overcome by a failed marriage and a severe depression, both of which combined to send her back to Japan and her parents, who quickly committed her to a mental hospital. A friend of hers, Anthony Cox, managed to spring her from the nuthouse and the two of them quickly married. A baby named Kyoko soon followed, but so did the end of the marriage and Yoko returned to the United States where she soon met Lennon and, well, you know the rest. Sure, sure, some would call Ono an aggressive social climber who veiled herself in a pretentious mixture of avant-garde gibberish and the fame of her husband, but her stay at the mental hospital reveals a woman of deep sadness who probably just wanted to be loved for herself. Or, you know, maybe all that other stuff is true and she was just a spoiled rich girl who threw a hissy fit and her parents ended up calling her bluff. Either way.
In her day, Vivien Leigh was considered the most beautiful woman in Hollywood. Unfortunately, she was also considered batshit crazy, suffering several breakdowns, the worst of which resulted in a stay in a mental hospital and a round of aggressive shock-treatments which supposedly left burn marks on her head. Despite all this, Leigh, who was bipolar, although no one really knew what this was at the time, managed to remain a star. She won an Oscar for A Streetcar Named Desire even though her disease had wreaked havoc on her personal life. Vivien Leigh had the bad luck to live in an era which didn’t understand how to treat mental illness other than as some sort of ugly secret to be crudely attacked with barbaric methods and covered up with drugs and alcohol. Her story is one of the most tragic on this list because if doctors only knew what in the hell they were dealing with, who knows what Leigh could have accomplished or how she’d be remembered today? As it is, she had a fairly legendary career and is remembered as one of Hollywood’s preeminent beauties and actresses. Which is astounding when you consider that she could barely function in real life.
One of the godfathers of punk rock, before Joey Ramone became an icon he was just a mixed up kid with problems just like the rest of us. Sure, most of us don’t end up pulling a knife on our brother and mother before being sent to a mental hospital for a month, but still. Indeed, it seems that young Joey Ramone suffered from schizophrenia and according to the official report from the hospital, he also suffered from low self-esteem, was paranoid, and, well, was basically an all-around f*ck up. Which, well, that basically sums up punk rock, doesn’t it? In any event, Joey Ramone, despite looking like Howard Stern if he was missing a couple of chromosomes, managed to overcome his issues and become a global icon and a hero to millions of disaffected kids. Which, let’s face it, is a hell of a lot more impressive than anything you’ve ever done.
Oh, poor Marilyn. Like some sort of superpowered mutant hybrid of the Britney Spears, Carrie Fisher and Vivien Leigh entries on this list, Marilyn Monroe is as famous for her fragile mental state as she was for her blonde bombshell sex appeal. In retrospect, Marilyn never really had a chance. She had a long history of mental illness in her family -– hell, her mother died in the nuthouse –- and she spent most of her adult life being passed back and forth in between various famous men like some sort of prize. So it makes all the sense in the world that in 1961 she finally found herself confined to the one place she feared most –- the mental hospital. Tricked into going by a doctor who told her she just needed a place where she could chill out for a while, Marilyn was quickly thrown into a padded room. Sadly for Marilyn, after being released things didn’t get better and she continued to spiral downhill, used up by powerful men like the Kennedys and left to die alone of an overdose. It’s hard to say what Marilyn Monroe’s life would have been like without all the craziness and if she had gotten help earlier because her whole identity is inextricably bound with the various tragedies of her life. In short, she wouldn’t be Marilyn Monroe without being a nutcase. And eventually, that led her to the same place it led her mother: a mental institution and a sad death.
Originally published on July 19, 2011.