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From Angel to Devil: Images of Nurses In Film

By Barbara Eisner Bayer

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Hollywood is famous for creating characters that are larger than life, and nurses are no exception. Throughout the history of filmmaking, nurses have been portrayed in a variety of ways: heroine, sex object, heartless witch, consummate caretaker. Are these celluloid images accurate? Do they reflect the true heart and soul of nurses, or are the characters glamorized (or vilified) for dramatic purposes? Maybe it's a little of each.

Heroic angel: the 1920s and 1930s
People typically encounter nurses during vulnerable times-when they're sick, needy, and dependent. It follows that they project the image of "heroic angel" onto their white-clad caregiver. This type of cinematic nurse began during the silent film era with Nurse Marjorie (1920), the story of a virtuous and heroic Scottish woman who attends to the local gentry. In 1936, the first of several biographies of the most famous "heroic angel" nurse of them all, Florence Nightingale, hit the screen in The White Angel. While it wasn't critically well received, it was praised for its admirable portrait of this unforgettable woman.

Sometimes, however, the angel is martyred. Nurse Edith Covell (1930) tells the true story of a nurse who helped men escape from the Germans during World War I to safety in Holland and France. The title character is ultimately betrayed and shot to death for heeding her conscience.

Military might: the '40s and '50s
Filmmakers seem to adore military nurses. They revere their wartime sacrifices and portray nurses as tough, committed, capable healers, performing their duties with calm and flair.

The 1943 film So Proudly We Hail stars Paulette Goddard, Claudette Colbert, and Veronica Lake as Red Cross nurses stationed in the Pacific during the World War II. Strong and courageous, they exhibit pride in duty and country. Also to be reckoned with is Donna Reed, starring in the 1945 film They Were Expendable. Reed is a WW I army nurse who deals with constant tragedy while maintaining her grace and dignity. These images do nurses proud.

By the 1950s, images of nurses on the silver screen became more personal, as plot lines focused on their romantic (rather than their professional) lives. Some examples include Patricia Neal in Operation Pacific (1951), Mitzi Gaynor in South Pacific (1958), and Jennifer Jones in the 1957 remake of A Farewell to Arms.

Consciousness, or lack of it
As the feminist movement made its voice heard in the '70s, a new age of stereotypes burst forth. In Robert Altman's black comedy MASH (1970), we were introduced to "Hot Lips" Houlihan, whose high values, expectations, and libido are ridiculed by smug, wisecracking male surgeons during the Korean War. Nurse Houlihan's commitment to the injured troops, however, is first and foremost.

This decade also saw the birth of a new genre-the nurse film. Roger Corman, creator of these exploitation pics, wanted to put assertive and independent women back on the screen. This led to a series of five features, including Student Nurses and Private Duty Nurses, that portray RNs as sex objects in uniforms.

In 1975, one of the most famous, and perhaps most negative, image of a nurse hit the screen in the character of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. As she tries to maintain order at any cost in a chaotic mental asylum, Nurse Ratched establishes the stereotype of nurse as witch. Her sadism ultimately leads to the death of one patient and the electroshock treatment of another (played by Jack Nicholson). Louse Fletcher captured the Academy Award for Best Actress, the first time an RN brought home an Oscar.

Reel getting real
The films of the past two decades are portraits of nurses struggling with the reality of their work commitments, and the toll it takes on their personal lives. Alfre Woodard gives two mesmerizing and multi-dimensional performances as a nurse in Passion Fish (1992) and Miss Evers' Boys (1997). Another study of a nurse's complicated devotion to her patient can be seen in The English Patient (1996). And Whoopi Goldberg's portrayal of a mental-hospital nurse in Girl, Interrupted (1999) is in direct contrast to crotchety Nurse Ratched; she's strict and powerful all right, but she has a heartfelt desire to see her patients heal.

Nurses in the new millenium
A few years into this new millennium, ladies in white are holding their place in feature films. In Pearl Harbor (2001), a group of young, beautiful, and innocent nurses mature quickly as the tragedy of WW II takes over their lives. The image of nurse as girl-next-door appears in Catch Me If You Can (2002), where the innocent spirit of a young RN is enough to make con man Leonardo di Caprio want to settle down and reform his criminal ways.

Will filmmakers continue to reflect the public's changing perception of nurses? A1999 survey carried out by MORI, the largest independently-owned market research company in the United Kingdom, discovered that 80 percent of the people polled regarded nurses as "extremely hardworking" and "caring and understanding." Only 6 percent of that group regarded nurses as sex objects. So grab your popcorn, sit back, and enjoy the more positive images of nurses on the silver screen. Image is everything.



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