Being a little crazy can be a positive force

Winston Churchill was a marginally bipolar alcoholic, Abraham Lincoln was a manic depressive and Mahatma Gandhi had a chronic dysthymic personality disorder. But all that, mind you, worked in their favor.

That is the argument put forth by a distinguished academic in a new book titled “A First-Rate Madness: Discovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness.”

I found the book oddly reinforcing for this reason: Working with stars and filmmakers over the years I’ve often asked myself, “Are they crazy, or am I?” Now I know that being at least a little crazy can be a positive force.

The book’s author, Nassir Ghaemi, is director of the Moods Disorders Program at the Tufts U. Medical Center (I never knew mood disorders could be structured into a entire program) and he insists that many of history’s great leaders benefited from their disorders because “abnormal leaders are needed to meet abnormal challenges.” Churchill’s mood swings, Ghaemi argues, helped the politician predict Hitler’s irrational strategies.

Applied to the arts, it could be argued that great works tend to be both startling and disorderly and hence emerge from artists who are disordered temperamentally. The aberrant behavior of stars from Charlie Chaplin to Marlon Brando has been richly documented. But the tradition of erratic behavior goes back to Sarah Bernhardt, the legendary actress who toured with a pet alligator and a python in the early 1900s to shock her Victorian audience.

Filmmakers have often matched their stars in extreme behavior, Stanley Kubrick was so obsessive about an equally compulsive personality, Napoleon, that he worked for more than a decade to prepare what he admitted would be the most expensive movie ever made — but never made it. (Chaplin also failed with a Napoleon movie in 1922). Some 1,712 pages of Kubrick’s notes, drawings and correspondence, filling three volumes, were published this year by the Taschen Press in a massive book titled “The Greatest Movie Never Made.”

An admirer of Kubrick, Francis Coppola labored for three years through multiple cuts and reshoots of his epic “Apocalypse Now,” acknowledging that he went through cosmic mood swings in trying to come to terms with the film’s irrational protagonist, played, appropriately enough, by Brando.

Explaining all this in his book, Ghaemi observes that “depression makes leaders more realistic and empathetic and mania makes them more creative and resilient.”

That may very well be true, but random bouts of depression and manic behavior have also destroyed many movies and careers. Dennis Hopper, after the mindblowing success of “Easy Rider,” dedicated himself to excess in pursuit of art, both in photo-graphy and film. His second movie, appropriately titled “The Last Movie,” stalled his career as a filmmaker for almost a decade.

The key to success in politics or the arts, Ghaemi believes, is to make manic craziness work for you, not against you.

John F. Kennedy, Ghaemi posits, did both. His recklessness and “hyper sexuality” became part of his charm. At the same time his misuse of anabolic steroids and amphetamines caused him to become “psychiatrically erratic,” resulting in occasionally disastrous decisions, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion.

None of us know as yet whether Muammar Gaddafi required amphetamines to fuel his tribal traumas, but he managed to harness his erratic behavior to sustain four decades of absolute power.

To gain further insight into all this, I plan to arrange a lunch between Nassir Ghaemi and Lady Gaga. Both are students of flamboyant behaviorism. But while Ghaemi has only turned it into a book, Lady Gaga has made into a business.

Sarah Bernhardt would have been envious. Column Calendar: Monday: Peter Bart Tuesday: Peter Caranicas/Cynthia Littleton wednesday: Brian Lowry Thursday: Andrew Barker/David S. Cohen Friday: Tim Gray/Ted Johnson

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