Tuesday, February 28, 2012

My Favorite Female Movie Characters: Lisa Rowe (Girl, Interrupted)



   If there’s one type of character I like, it’s a crazy bitch. Women who are insane, scorned, vengeful, or just not quite all there tend to be my favorites. (There are no fewer than 5 on this list, depending on who you ask.) However, the Crazy Bitch that tops them all is definitely Lisa Rowe, a reckless young sociopath who delights in chaos, disorder, and the power she has over others. The film is ‘Girl, Interrupted’, based on the novel of the same name by Susanna Kaysen. As an avid fan of the book and the film, for very different reasons, I feel that I understand Lisa better than someone who has only watched the movie. Much was made over the character that Angelina Jolie created, (she even won an Oscar for her fearless, disturbing performance), but Lisa Rowe was a real person, who really did live in a mental hospital for a while, and that is infinitely more exciting.
      Lisa is a side character in a story that is mostly about Susanna, a young girl growing up in the late sixties and discovering that life is kind of difficult. She has suicidal thoughts, is recklessly impulsive with her sexuality, has problems with drugs, and has an overall gloomy outlook on life. She is the complete opposite of her mother, a bubbly socialite who wants Susanna to get married and settle down. Susanna is a writer, and as is the wont of many writers, tends to brood over her problems until she finds herself so isolated and desperate that she attempts suicide. She is then committed to a mental hospital for ‘a rest’, and ends up staying there for six months. At first, she is horrified; the women around her show various levels of being ‘crazy,’ from anorexia to nervous disorders to homosexuality to catatonia. She feel starkly out of place, and even refuses to admit that she actually tried to kill herself. Her first night at the ward, she encounters Lisa, who has been caught from her second or third runaway attempt and has been returned to the ward by force.
       Lisa is wild, reckless, impulsive, violent, magnetic, and cold. She speaks without a filter, seems to be indiscriminate with her sexual encounters, and can and will bully the other inhabitants of the ward to get her own way, or just to frighten them. None of the others cross her; they respectfully, if begrudgingly, grant her enough space. She has proven time and again that she has no sense of morality, no impulse control, and no conscience, and while she is mostly just mean-spirited and not outright harmful, one easily gets the sense that harming someone wouldn’t bother Lisa at all.
      Throughout the course of the film, Susanna moves from being afraid of Lisa to genuinely admiring her. While Lisa’s diagnosis seems to be sociopathy, Lisa doesn’t see it as a sickness. As far as she’s concerned, she’s just free of societal conventions. Crazy people can do whatever they want and they can get away with it, because they’re crazy. Susanna envies this quality; Susanna dislikes the clean-cut, prissy society she was born into and longs for the freedom to disregard the conventions expected of her and do her own thing. Lisa’s magnetic personality attracts her, and at one point, she even develops sexual, and possibly romantic feelings for Lisa. Lisa seems to regard Susanna with some sort of friendship, but also a complete detachment. She seems to like her, but the viewer does not get the idea that if Susanna were to disappear, Lisa would not notice or care. The one person Lisa seems to truly respect is the head nurse, played by Whoopi Goldberg, who is the only person in the hospital whom Lisa cannot manipulate.
        In a dramatic departure from the book, Lisa and Susanna escape from the ward and plan to move to Florida, to play Cinderella and Snow White in Walt Disney World. They stay at the home of a very disturbed former patient (Brittany Murphy), who was released from the hospital due to her father’s influence, not due to her health. Lisa bullies the girl so painfully and so cruelly that she inadvertently contributes to the girl’s suicide, and then feels no remorse in stealing the money out of the dead girl’s pocket. This is a wakeup call to Susanna; she begins to lose her respect for Lisa and realize that Lisa is ill, that this is not something to aspire to be, and that she is not safe in Lisa’s company.
       The interesting part about Lisa's interaction with the other patient is her tactic for hurting the girl. She doesn't say anything untrue; in fact, she says what everyone else would say if they lacked a mental filter.  The whole ward has known about the girl's unstable persona, as well as her uncomfortable and entirely too-intimate relationship with her father, they just have the good manners not to discuss it. Lisa doesn't. Lisa brings up very plainly that the reason the girl's father moved her into a house and out of the ward is so he can have better access to her, and that the girl actually craves her father's attentions. These accusations, disturbing and terrifying to most, seem all too true to this girl, who doesn't admit to or deny any of these accusations. To this end, Lisa isn't cruelly manipulative: she is cruelly honest. 
        In the book, it is written that Lisa has a history with hard drugs, and when another girl named Lisa is admitted to the ward and claims to be a junkie, Lisa Rowe has to establish her dominance by challenging the new Lisa’s authenticity as a ‘shooter.’ She badgers the new Lisa so shamelessly that she unhinges the new Lisa's self-awareness, and she begins to doubt herself and her own history. Lisa Rowe does this just to provoke her and establish herself as the superior Lisa. Eventually, the new Lisa is released, and as Lisa Rowe returns to the ward from another escape attempt, she ominously quips, “I saw the new Lisa. She’s a real junkie now.”
          The heart of ‘Girl, Interrupted’ is about the legitimacy of some mental illnesses. Susanna herself carries the label of ‘borderline personality disorder,’ a disease whose symptoms sound remarkably like every teenage girl in the world. Lisa’s diagnosis of sociopathy, or as we call it now, antisocial personality disorder, seems only to exacerbate a culturally unacceptable free-spiritedness, as well as an impulsive sexuality that didn’t fit in with the norms of her world. Are these characters crazy? The film, it seems, would have us believe so. The book, on the other hand, isn’t certain. The real Susanna Kaysen wrote that she ran into Lisa many years after leaving the ward and discovered that Lisa had a child and was holding down a job. Was she truly insane? Or did the world she lived in create a monster for her, from her, without giving her a chance? It seems that Kaysen believes the first: as she notes with some wry humor, “Every window in Alcatraz has a view of California. Just as you can see us, we can see you."

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