The subject of mental illness was not dealt with much in the arts in 1962. When it was, it was usually built around offensive stereotypes and labels: “crazy,” “nuts,” “loonies,” etc. The only exceptions I know of prior to David and Lisa are Now, Voyager (1942), The Snake Pit (1948), and The Three Faces of Eve (1957). These were all sensitive and respectful to the mentally ill (The Snake Pit was rightfully very critical of the general state of mental health care at the time); they used the best knowledge available at their respective times regarding the types of illness they dealt with, although that was extremely limited.
Psychological expertise was still limited in 1962, but Dr. Theodore Isaac Rubin was one of the most influential psychologists who changed this. Especially between the 1950s and 1970s, his writing helped to de-stigmatize mental illness and to educate the masses. His short story “Lisa and David,” a fictionalized compilation of many of his real experiences, was the basis for Frank Perry’s film which brought Dr. Rubin’s important work to a larger audience. The film, set in a mental hospital with all teenaged patients, never tells its audience any diagnoses for its characters. David (Kier Dullea), a patient, suggests that his fellow patient Lisa (Janet Margolin) is schizophrenic, but the film never confirms or denies David’s suggestion. From a current perspective, Lisa’s diagnosis would most likely be a dissociative disorder, and David’s would be OCD and generalized anxiety disorder.
The lack of specificities regarding the diagnoses is crucial to the film’s impact toward de-stigmitazation. It takes both nature and nurture seriously without favoring one over the other in why any of the patients behave as they do. They are sick organically, but they are also deeply wounded emotionally. Since no false dichotomy between nature and nurture is evident, the film interacts with the spiritual truth that we live in a fallen world where nobody’s body or mind is perfectly healthy. This truth is illustrated beautifully in a scene where several patients take a walk together and stop by a train station where a rude, bigoted man bullies them, and their bold, unified response points to the reality that he is just as sick (though in a very different way) as they are (see that scene here).
David and Lisa is predominantly about two relationships: obviously the relationship between the two title characters and also the relationship between David and Dr. Alan Swinford (Howard De Silva). Both of these relationships are hindered by David’s fears. His fears are vividly displayed through dream sequences that are among the greatest scenes in film history (see the film’s first dream sequence here). Many look at David and Lisa as a romance, but the movie never gives any indication that the main characters have anything resembling attraction for one another. What they do have for one another (and what David and Dr. Swinford also have for one another), however, is a relationship that confronts each other other’s fears and forces them to face those fears. As those fears are worked through, the characters learn to choose love rather than the the fear that previously blocked their abilities to give and to receive love. By thoughtfully and sensitively showing the lives, struggles, and progress of mentally ill patients, David and Lisa also provides a stunningly strange, profound, and moving portrait of the truth that love casts out fear.
Stumble Alert: There is no objectionable material in this film. Its depictions of mental illness, however, are realistic and intense. As such, the film is not appropriate for children not mature enough to understand the topics at hand.
Watch David and Lisa: This movie is currently available for free with an Amazon Prime account. You can also see it in its entirety on Youtube (click here), but I cannot find any copyright information for the movie, so it is possible that this video will not last long).