Psoriasis on the silver screen: The one place where your spots disappear

| Steve Bieler

If you’re past a certain age, you may remember the TV commercials and magazine ads for Tegrin, a coal tar-based medicated soap, back in the 1960s. “You call it ‘just dry skin,’ the tagline went. “Your doctor may call it ‘the heartbreak of psoriasis.’ ”

Even though these ads ran more than 50 years ago, many people still recognize that phrase, “the heartbreak of psoriasis.” This testifies to the power of advertising.

But what about the power of story? When will TV or the movies tell us a story about psoriatic disease? From Brian’s Song to The Sessions, filmmakers have introduced us to leukemia, anorexia, polio, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, multiple sclerosis, cancer – you name it.

But where’s psoriasis?

We haven’t found many examples. A character with psoriasis occasionally pops up on TV or in the movies. The character’s skin condition is sometimes named (as with Neil on Family Guy), but sometimes not (one of the servants in the biopic Mr. Turner).

This leaves us with exactly one story starring a character with psoriasis: The Singing Detective.

The Singing Detective was a six-part BBC series that ran in 1986 and starred Michael Gambon (more familiar today as Professor Dumbledore) and, in a small role, the young Jim Carter (Carson on Downton Abbey). In 2003, the series was made into a musical crime comedy starring Robert Downey Jr., Adrien Brody, Robin Wright Penn and Mel Gibson. It’s the story of Philip E. Marlow, a mystery writer with the world’s worst case of erythrodermic (full body) psoriasis.

The show was created by the English writer Dennis Potter, who lived with psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis until his death in 1994. He once wrote about his condition: “Either you give in, or you survive and create something out of this bomb-site which you’ve become—you put up a new building.”

Marlow’s psoriasis, and the accompanying psoriatic arthritis, are so severe that he has to be hospitalized. He spends much of his time hallucinating about a character he calls “The Singing Detective” who sings his way through a mystery that’s never solved.

Dr. Frans Meulenberg, currently a researcher at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, published an interesting analysis of the BBC series in “The Hidden Delight of Psoriasis” in the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) in December 1997. You’ll have to register to read it, but the sign up is free.

Meulenberg’s article also discussed psoriatic disease in literature. He noted that John Updike, best known for The Witches of Eastwick, had psoriasis and wrote about it extensively. For example, there’s his main character in the novel The Centaur and in the short story “From the Journal of a Leper,” as well as the memoir “At War with My Skin” (one of several essays in the book Self-Consciousness).

On the other hand, Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, also had psoriasis, but he referred to it only once in his 17 novels. The disease gets a one-page mention in Ada.

Meet “the world expert on dermatology in the cinema”

It’s not as if characters with skin problems don’t appear in movies and on TV. They do. But rarely are they cast in a positive light, according to the dermatologist Dr. Vail Reese.

Reese explores skin conditions in cinema on his site, “The majority of films use skin disease to convey a character’s devious motivations. Very few films depict characters with skin disease sympathetically,” he wrote. “Skin disease does not represent inherent evil, but rather a difficult and at times disabling condition. Films such as Mask and Philadelphia can be used to remind us of the ostracization that can result from skin disease.”

Reese lauded the film version of The Singing Detective for its realism, particularly the depiction of treatment options and psychological impacts. Though he noted that “most people with psoriasis will fortunately never have psoriasis as severely as that shown in these scenes from The Singing Detective,” his real concern about the movie was the focus on the Downey Jr. character’s psychotherapy sessions, which result in absolutely clear skin.

“While stress seems to make psoriasis flare, blaming Downey’s entire condition on a ticked-off inner child isn’t fair to those that suffer through psoriasis,” Reese wrote. “Psoriasis has many triggers in addition to stress, including dry skin, infections and skin injury. Psoriasis can be heartbreaking, but heartbreak is not the sole cause of psoriasis.”

The heartbreak of psoriasis is not limited to the disease either. There’s also the staring, the unkind remarks and the shunning. There are at least 7.5 million people in the U.S. and more than 125 million on the planet with psoriatic disease. Surely they would love to buy a ticket to see a movie about someone like themselves. A sympathetic story with engaging characters might be just what the dermatologist ordered. 


Driving discovery, creating community

For more than 50 years, we’ve been driving efforts to cure psoriatic disease and improve the lives of those affected. But there’s still plenty to do! Learn how you can help our advocacy team shape the laws and policies that affect people with psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis – in your state and across the country. Help us raise funds to support research by joining Team NPF, where you can walk, run, cycle, play bingo or create your own fundraising event. If you or someone you love needs free, personalized support for living a healthier life with psoriatic disease, contact our Patient Navigation Center. And keep the National Psoriasis Foundation going strong by making a donation today. Together, we will find a cure.

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