Ten Health-Related Movies

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  • Once upon a time, the depiction of health issues in the movies had a fairy-tale tone. When Greta Garbo fell ill with consumption in “Camille,” she somehow managed to look just as fabulous as she did when she was healthy. And her only sign of suffering was a delicate cough. Now, though, moviemakers show health issues in a more realistic light, with all the suffering, fear, misunderstanding and hope that can accompany a diagnosis. Here are ten health-related movies, and what they can teach us:

    Terms Of Endearment

    Debra Winger’s cancer diagnosis seemed genuinely shocking in this 1983 movie. Not only did it come out of nowhere, as sickness often does, but Winger wasn’t a middle-aged mom. She was a young daughter (to Shirley Maclaine). Winger’s physical pain wasn’t minimized, but her personality was just as strong and caustic as ever.
  • Steel Magnolias Sometimes friends can be just as important – or more important – than family when it comes to giving emotional support during a pal’s illness. This1989 ensemble drama, perhaps the first to earn the name “chick flick,” showed how a group of strong Southern women (including Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts and Sally Field) stuck together when one of their own was suffering.
  • The Help Mean people get sick, too. In the highly praised 2011 movie "The Help," Allison Janney is a racist, overbearing mother who just happens to be living with cancer. Even though she’s wearing a wig – a sign she’s just been through treatment – Janney doesn’t talk too much about her diagnosis and has apparently decided to just get on with her life.
  • Autumn In New York Richard Gere and Wynona Ryder make a stunning May-December couple in this 2000 story of a middle-aged playboy and a younger woman who’s been diagnosed with a fatal tumor.The movie was panned for its somewhat unrealistic portrait of terminal illness, but let’s face it, a little sugarcoating on this frightening issue is OK once in a while.
  • The Hours Richard Brown, played by Ed Harris, is a gay poet who had a heartbreaking childhood and is now in the last stages of AIDS. When his friend, played by Meryl Streep, says optimistically, “You still have good days,” Harris gives a sardonic little laugh and says, “Not really.” In this 2002 movie, the portrayal of his physical deterioration, and the deterioration of his physical environment, make for one of the most sobering portraits of illness in recent years.
  • Stepmom Can a wife dying of cancer actually teach her ex-husband’s girlfriend to take her place as mother to the couple’s kids? It might seem unrealistic, but in today’s atmosphere of blended and single-parent families, anything could happen. And as your life becomes more and more of an ordeal, you might be ready to forgive and do what’s best for your family. The 1998 movie features Susan Sarandon as the wife and Julia Roberts as the girlfriend.
  • Outbreak Unfortunately, this terrifying movie, about a lethal virus, wasn’t completely far-fetched. It came out in 1995, around the time when fear of the Ebola virus reached its peak. As Rene Russo contracts the virus, which causes massive bleeding and almost immediate, agonizing death, we see towns being quarantined like medieval cities beset by the plague.
  • Dying Young Julia Roberts, who’s just been betraye by her ex-boyfriend, takes a job as a private nurse in this 1991 movie. Her patient: Campbell Scott has an advanced case of blood cancer. They’re determined not to fall in love, but they do, and that’s all the more painful because they’re both so young, and their life together will be over so soon.
  • One True Thing Caregiving for a loved one can be a profound experience, but it’s also draining and at times enraging. Renee Zellweger finds that out when she gives up a big job in Manhattan to care for her dying mother (Meryl Streep). No sugarcoating here: the father who begged his daughter to come home isn’t really interested in caregiving himself. Without giving away anything, let’s just say that this 1998 movie explores another, more controversial end-of-life issue.
  • Iris Dame Judi Dench, herself just diagnosed in real life with age-related macular degeneration, portrays the brilliant English novelist Iris Murdoch. Once considered among the most brilliant literary figures in Britain, Murdoch is suffering from Alzheimer’s and growing less and less able to care for herself. But no matter how far her mind has gone, one thing is still present: her devotion to her caretaking husband, John Bayley (played by Jim Broadbent.) As an Alzheimer’s Association slogan says, “Memory fades, but the love remains.”