ZELIG: Woman Psychotherapist in Movie

Sanja Borovečki-Jakovljev, IPA psychoanalyst, Zagreb, Croatia



Writing about Leonard Zelig, main character in Woody Allen’s docufiction movie “Zelig”(1983), fictional Francis Scott Fitzgerald said: “Wanting to be loved and accepted, he distorted himself beyond measure, but finally not aggravation of many but only the love of one woman had changed his life.”

This is very nice remark, which once again shows the power of love; we may even say that in this remark we might find some traces of Kohuts theory of empathy, Alexander’s theory of corrective emotional experience, Winnicots theory of importance of holding environment. But the problem still is, that woman who loved Zelig (and saved him) was his therapist, his psychoanalyst who acted out her countertransference feelings and became first his mistress and finally his wife.

I would like to discuss about that transference-countertransference relationship from two different points of view.


First one would be to analyze Eudora Fletchers (Mia Farrow) personality from the remarks we got in movie. The way her Mother (Jean Trowbridge) presented herself, family and young Eudora could stimulate our phantasm about Eudora’s infantile experiences, her conflicts and possibilities to mirror herself in Zelig’s (Woody Allen) traumatic infantile experiences. We could discuss what could make her so ambitious, but at the same time so shy and suppressed in her female role (till she started to cure Zelig at first by accepting mothers role, and later discovering sexuality in herself).

So, I think that we could make some hypothesis what kind of inner conflicts could force Eudora to act out in relationship with her patient. In movie her mother was presented as rather harsh woman, realistic, without efforts to protect family secrets (she spoke openly about Eudora as strange child, competitive with her more successful sister, about her husbands alcoholism and depression). I doubt that such a mother could have been very protective and empathic towards young Eudora either. Father seemed at the same time distanced and weak. That family constellation reminds me too much on Zelig’s family, where mother was presented as main authority in a family (she beat even her husband), while father was weak, depressive man. His heritage to his son while being on his dying bed was a message: “Life is a meaningless nightmare of suffering. So the only advice I can give you is to save a string”.

It is rather obvious that Eudora couldn’t identify with her mother in her female role. Instead of that she has chosen her profession as main source of narcissistic gratifications, dreaming about becoming famous scientist. At the beginning Zelig seemed to be ideal object for getting such a gratifications. In the movie she said: “I wanted at first to use Leonard in development of my career, but soon I became attached to him”. It seems to me that she could mirror in his helplessness and intelligence. At the same time he needed someone who could identify with him, and try to understand and protect him; who could accept him the way he was. They needed each other and at the same time mirrored in each other.


At the beginning of their therapy Eudora took “mothers role”; she decided to take him in her village house, to give him neutral environment. First weeks of therapy, as therapy didn’t succeed, Eudora became more and more depressed, while Leonard was in rather good condition (could we say that we saw projective identification on work?) The crucial moment in therapy was when Eudora changed the roles; for being able to do so, she had first to empathize with Leonard and identify with him. As therapy and movie goes on, trough relationship with Zelig she discovers her sexuality and become his wife. Once again we could say that they both used each other, and helped each other to grow up.

Another point of view from which this relationship could be analyzed is for me even more intriguing at the moment. I am thinking about the cliché of presenting female psychotherapists in American movies.

According to Gabbards investigation, from 1930 more than 100 movies with female psychotherapist have been realized in Hollywood. And almost all of them tell a woman that they cannot have at the same time career and successful marriage and family life. Every female analyst is portrayed as lacking a stable relationship with a male: she is either a divorce, a widow, a “spinster” or married to a former patient. In those rare instances in which female therapist is married, she is usually in a process of being dumped by her husband (“Mr. Jones” (1993), “Prince of Tides”(1991) ). The only two films in which that cliché was excluded were “Private worlds (1935) and “Last embrace” (1979).

So, according to a cliché, female therapists are either to frustrated, ambitious, even phallic women, or woman of physical beauty who is displayed as a sex object for the visual pleasure of the male patient and male audience. But in both circumstances, female therapist falls in love with her male patient, usually (in 30 % of movies) acts out that love feelings being totally unprofessional (what is even more intriguing when we know that male therapists have three times more often sexual affairs with their patients in reality), and finally finds her “true nature and happiness in a wife or mothers role”, discovering that she no longer needs her work since she has found fulfillment in a man. Traces of that we could also find in Zelig, when Eudora stopped to treat her patients and took a role of “ famous therapist, companion of famous patient”.

That cliché started with Dr. Constance Peterson’s (Ingrid Bergman) character in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” (1945) , and continues till today. I think that all mentioned points of that cliché we could trace in a way in which Eudora Fletcher was presented to us (from her physical appearance to her expression of mood and taught).

Finally, we could try to understand a cliché.

One hypothesis could be that American filmmakers couldn’t understand that close, confessional aspects of the therapeutic situation, often involving discussion of the patient’s love life, do not invariably lead to sex.

The other hypothesis would be connected with male fear of early mother-child relationship, fear of overprotected and powerful pregenital mother, fear of dependence child feels towards that mother. The cliché could be defense against fantasies that a woman analyst might use her power to tame men in a submission and render them helpless and dependent – she will invade him, will control him and will know every corner of his psyche (don’t forget that Eudora had to hypnotize Zelig to approach to his fears!).

The only way to escape from those fears would be to castrate female analyst by proving himself more therapeutically potent, by “curing” their analysts and “making them a real women”.

1. Gabbard G. & Gabbard K.: Psychiatry and the Cinema. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press; 1999
2. Gabbard G. & Gabbard K: The female psychoanalyst in the movies; J.Am.Psychoanal Assoc. 1989 37(4): 1031-1049
3. Schill T, Harsch J, Ritter K: Countertransference in the movies: effect on beliefs about psychiatric treatment. Psychol Rep. 1990 67(2): 399-402
4. Schneider I: The theory and practice of movie psychiatry. Am J Psychiatry. 1987 144(8): 996-1002
5. Wedding D, Boyd M.: Movies and Mental Illness: Using Films to Understand Psychopathology. City, ST: McGraw Hill College Div; 1998
6. Walker J: Couching Resistance: Women, Film, and Psychoanalytic Psychiatry. Univ of Minnesota Pr; 1993

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