observations and opinion
Note: this piece points out the bizarre relationship of Hollywood film awards to portrayals of disability (by non-disabled actors). It deliberately uses some antiquated, now painful terminology in reference to certain disabilities. If offense is taken, my advice is “don’t take it”. Being offended is something we do, not something done to us. If you can’t see the word “crippled” without going crazy (or the word “crazy” for that matter) there’s no shortage of reading material elsewhere.
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I’ve seen Eddie Redmayne once, in the role of an insufferable dolt in the film of Les Miserables. The guy can sing pleasantly but when all the script allows you to do is warble while gazing moonily at Amanda Seyfried, who knows if you can act? Apparently Mr. Redmayne can – hence his Best Actor Golden Globe for playing Stephen Hawking, and an Oscar nomination that smells a lot like a winner. Not only can he act, he can act crippled.
You don’t see the word “crippled” much anymore but in recent days, we hear the word in a rising tide of complaint about able-bodied actors “crippling up” – playing someone with a disability. This raises the hackles of some who think the part of a disabled person should be played by, well, a disabled person. It is analogized with “blacking up” (wearing blackface to appear of African extraction).
The analogy is stupid (blackface has its own unpleasant history and is heavily loaded with negative stereotypes). However, there’s some logic to asking why disabled actors don’t get cast. People with disabilities face a world of barriers and obstructions the rest of us do not. If there’s a job opportunity where being disabled isn’t just a limitation, but in fact a plus, why the hell not hire the handicapped candidate? An idea which might have denied Mr. Redmayne the role of a lifetime, but for the fact that Stephen Hawking becomes disabled over the course of the story. He had to start on his feet, fall down a few times and only then land in the wheelchair. That’s an easier transition (possible is the better word) than the reverse.
Not that we don’t see people who are disabled, “un-crippling up” sometimes: Lionel Barrymore, familiar to you as the dread Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life” spent the last decade or more of his career playing men who liked to sit in chairs – because Barrymore couldn’t stand up. A more arcane example is that of Howard McNear, who half-way through the run of “Andy of Mayberry” suffered a stroke affecting his mobility. After that, Floyd sat around the barber shop a lot. And of course, we have the most famous example of a disabled person pretending otherwise, namely Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who entered the White House and departed it dead 12 years later, most people none the wiser that he couldn’t really walk. He could just pretend to walk, with the help of strong aides and “ten pounds of steel” on his legs.
That was all decades ago, when disabilities were hidden for fear of bigoted response. But even in our allegedly enlightened age, when we are more conscious of removing barriers – even now, when visual effects can hurtle spaceships through black holes and paint dead men into music videos, we don’t “able-up” the handicapped actor. It seems to be more work to hide an actor’s infirmity than it is for an actor to pretend he has one. There may be other reasons too.
Pretending to have a disability seems to draw actors – it’s interesting, challenging and I suspect, conceals a host of deficiencies in one’s actual acting. And if the actor is in the movie business, being cast as someone with a disability is something else too: it’s irresistible Oscar bait. The Academy Awards have been around for almost 90 years. Tarnished at times, dreary and dull far too often, the show and the prize still somehow manages to be the biggest show on earth (not counting the Super Bowl). And in its nearly ten decades Oscar has repeatedly fallen into the waiting, often wheelchair-bound lap, of an actor who played the part of someone disabled. Whether a character is an addict, physically infirm, diseased or mentally disordered, there’s an unusually high likelihood of being nominated and a pretty good chance of winning, too. Here is an actually random assortment of examples:
Leaving aside the addicts (who get their own list here), there are at least two sub-categories of these parts: characters who are developmentally delayed or challenged, as opposed to those who suffer some form of temporary or permanent mental illness. The developmentally delayed or mentally handicapped characters do really, really well on Oscar night. Memorable wins went to Dustin Hoffman (Rainman), Geoffrey Rush (Shine), John Mills (Ryan’s Daughter) and Tom Hanks (“life is like a box of chocolates” alright, Forest Gump). Memorable losses include Sean Pean (I am Sam). If Ernest Borgnine wasn’t supposed to be developmentally delayed in Marty, he sure seemed like it (and won best actor).
The curse of mental illness has afflicted an almost endless list of Oscar nominees. Oscar nominated mental illnesses include: Bradley Cooper (great, although he lost in Silver Linings Playbook), Angelina Jolie (a winner in Girl, Interrupted), Russell Crowe (fascinatingly crazy in A Beautiful Mind), Robert deNiro (zombie-esque in Awakenings), Olivia de Havilland (The Snake Pit, great psycho ward movie name,eh?) Most famous of all perhaps was when Jack Nicholson won for his portrayal of an immensely funny, but crazy guy in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Ellen Burstyn was bat-shit crazy in Requiem for a Dream (everyone in it is pretty depressed). Jimmy Stewart was nominated as the maybe crazy, maybe not but genial lead with a best friend giant invisible rabbit named Harvey. Peter Finch won, deservedly, as the “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it any more” over-the-brink anchorman in Network. (His co-star Faye Dunaway’s character wasn’t meant to be crazy as the TV network VP, but she sure was close to it).
Then there are the dangerous types. Sissie Spacek was scary-then-supernaturally crazy in Carrie. Bette Davis played a wacko ex child star in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane who torments her crippled sister played by Joan Crawford. (Crawford wasn’t nominated but did win a BAFTA as best foreign actress for her wheelchair bound performance. So that’s an honourary mention.) Robert de Niro was inarguably nuts in Taxi Driver, I’m sure we will all agree (he was more amiably but still obviously disturbed in Silver Linings Playbook.) Stanley Tucci was really creepy and crazy in The Lovely Bones. Gloria Swanson was of course the absolutely totally frickin’ bananas star of Sunset Boulevard (but like Tucci, she lost). And then of course, there’s the most famous of all the movie crazy ladies:Glenn Close (super-scary-bunny-boiling-bananas in Fatal Attraction). Persons with less severe but still debilitating emotional and mental problems draw support: Tim Hutton won as a suicidal teen in Ordinary People. Bobby Darin lost as a sweet but messed-up veteran in Captain Newman M.D. Jessica Lange was deeply tragic as Frances Farmer in Frances (but lost). Jack Nicholson was amusingly neurotic and won in As Good as it Gets. Anne Hathaway had just been hatched from rehab when she ruined her sister’s nuptials in Rachel Getting Married. She was so good in that, it was hard to watch. Montgomery Clift should have won as the terribly afflicted witness in Judgment at Nuremburg. Brad Douriff too in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (he lost to George Burns, if you can imagine, who won because he had stayed alive so long). You might not think Holly Hunter’s character Jane in Broadcast News merits a mention here, but I defy you to find many better portrayals of OCD. She lost in that movie, but won a few years later as a mute musician in the portentous The Piano.
It’s also worth noting, grimly, that there was a time when homosexuality was medically deemed an illness and portrayed as such in film: Estelle Parsons was a pretty off-kilter and repressed lesbian in Rachel, Rachel (nominated for best supporting actress); Shirley Maclain was more muted as a repressed gay teacher in The Children’s Hour (who did the appropriately homosexual thing for films and killed herself). Maclain got a Golden Globe but not an Oscar nomination; Fay Banter, as the viciously homophobic gossip monger, got the Oscar nod. Today, SHE would be considered nuts.
Matt Damon won an Oscar for writing Good Will Hunting, but he was also nominated as best actor for portraying the emotionally disturbed genius.And speaking of genius, let’s not forget how best actor nominee Kirk Douglas had a field day cavorting about as a semi-demented, ear-slicing Vincent van Gogh. And what famous, slightly demented historical figure has been portrayed twice as the title character of a film, with the actors portraying him both nominated for the Best Actor nod?
(Give up? That’s Anthony Hopkins and Frank Langella, in “Nixon” and “Frost/Nixon” respectively).
The things that go wrong with our bodies, from birth or afterwards, prove magnetic to the people who choose Oscar nominees and winners. Severe physical handicaps always get attention on Oscar night: ask Daniel Day-Lewis (a winner in My Left Foot), John Hurt (The Elephant Man – who had it worse?). And to be fair, you’d have to include Brad Pitt’s go as “Benjamin Button” even if his reverse-aging disability isn’t really, you know, real. Hilary Swank won her second Oscar playing a paralyzed athlete (Million Dollar Baby). Other serious disabilities get nominated too: Alan Arkin was deaf in “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”. Tom Cruise was paraplegic in Born on the Fourth of July. Let’s remember Laurence Olivier, whose portrayal of Richard III was “about” being disabled but wasn’t exactly not about it, either. Jane Wyman won best actress as a deaf-mute in Johnny Belinda. Holly Hunter was just deaf when she won in The Piano.
Let’s not forget diseases: Ingrid Bergman got TB in Going My Way and had to move to a nunnery in Arizona. Tom Hanks won for AIDS in Philadelphia and Gary Cooper for Pride of the Yankees (he played Lou Gehrig, so you know what he had). Deborah Winger lost when she died of cancer in Terms of Endearment (sorry if that spoils the ending). Meryl Streep lost with a nasty case of syphilis in Out of Africa. Emily Watson had severe and fatal MS as the real-life classical cellist Jacqueline du Pre in Hilary and Jackie. Watson was good in that. On the other hand, Ali McGraw may be the best example ever of a terrible performance by a not-very-good actress nominated for an Oscar because her character has a terminal disease (Love Story).
More modest physical limitations have earned nominations: Colin Firth (he won stuttering in The King’s Speech) and Gerard Depardieu (Cyrano – seriously, that nose has to be considered a disability). James Stewart was deaf in one ear in It’s a Wonderful Life – a minor disability but one that made a difference to the plot.
And then there are the blind: Al Pacino won as a very loud, obnoxious sightless man in Scent of a Woman. Jamie Foxx won as very loud, talented blind Ray Charles. Audrey Hepburn lost as a lovely, charming blind woman in Afraid of the Dark. Anne Bancroft won as the nearly-blind Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker. Patty Duke won as her blind, deaf and dumb student, Helen Keller.Edward Albert got a Golden Globe nomination for Butterflies are Free, but it was Eileen Heckart who won the Oscar, for playing his domineering mom.
Indeed, family members and other caregivers do well. Aside from Heckart, Jennifer Connolly won as best actress for being married to John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. Susan Sarandon didn’t actually have a disease in Lorenzo’s Oil but she was nominated in it. Helena Bonham Carter too, as the lovely Queen Elizabeth bucking-up stammering hubby George VI (winner Colin Firth, who was also helped out by nominee speech coach Geoffrey Rush). Bruce Davison did a beautiful job getting nominated for playing a man tending his AIDS-afflicted lover in Longtime Companion. Judd Hirsch was nominated as the psychiatrist helping Tim Hutton; Robin Williams won as the psychologist helping Matt Damon. Minnie Driver was nominated as the girl dating Damon. The aforementioned Ann Bancroft of course wasn’t just semi-blind, she was also the teacher and caregiver of Helen Keller. And Grace Kelly won for Best Actress in 1954 as the long suffering wife of alcoholic Bing Crosby.
And then there are the addicts.
Speaking of alcoholics, the personal ravages of addiction (mainly to alcohol or drugs) is fodder for some pretty extravagant performances. The most elegant of these, in my opinion, is Katherine Hepburn’s heavy-lidded drug-addled mother in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. Much of the time, heavy boozers are depicted as loud, angry beasts. Here is an off-the-cuff list. Interestingly, very few of these nominated performances earned an actual Oscar (they’re noted with an asterisk).
This category has special importance to me, insofar as one film in particular – The Days of Wine and Roses – informed me, as a child, that drinking all the time was an illness, and that it might be treated. This led me, at age 11 or so, to launch a spectacularly unsuccessful campaign for certain relatives to join AA. Even in that failure, I found some hope. Lemmon and Remick will always be honorary Oscar winners to me. And the song actually won.
The ones who weren’t pretending Among the dozens of nominees mentioned above, some may have suffered emotional or mental troubles, and certainly some were addicts. But only two, who I can think of, had physical disabilities which they portrayed in their Oscar-winning roles. The first was Harold Russell a returning World War 2 veteran who lost his arms in combat. In “The Best Years of Our Lives” Mr. Russell, who had never acted before and wouldn’t really again, won an Oscar, playing a returning World War 2 veteran who lost his arms in combat. He was good too, for a guy who doesn’t act.
The second was Marlee Matlin, the deaf mute lead in Children of a Lesser God. Ms. Matlin brought a sublime grace and power to her role and, to the limited extent she has worked since, continues to exude intelligence. She won Best Actress, deservedly, in 1986
And the winner is…
You know they stopped using the term “and the winner is” some years back, because it suggested that everyone else nominated was not a “winner”. And so they went to “the Oscar goes to…” which is much nicer. The Oscar continues to go winners who play disabled characters. Examining this history – and you know I missed some examples – one is struck by the very high premium placed on parts where characters are disabled or otherwise afflicted with illness or disability. Maybe this is because playing someone disabled demands more of an actor; maybe the drama of some illnesses elicit memorable performances. Or maybe Academy voters are just really sympathetic to characters who are disabled and want to be nice. It is probably a mix of all these ingredients.
Whatever it is, one can say this about the American film industry: the percentage of disabled characters which achieves film prominence appears very much greater than the incidence of disability in the real population. And that’s a switch. Film fiction may be the only place where the disabled have a greater chances of success than anywhere else in the universe. Not the real disabled, of course. The pretend ones.
Postscript January 19, 2015: I left out The Hours. The Hours alternates between the past and present day, depicting mental illness and depression leading to suicide (Nicole Kidman, who also had to “un-pretty up” for the part and in parallel, Ed Harris dying of AIDS.) Kidman who the Best Actress Oscar; Harris was nominated and so was Julianne Moore in the suffering spouse category. The movie had ten Oscar nominations and countless other prizes. My inadvertent omission of The Hours is proof of just how huge this category of film really is.
Postscript January 25, 2017: Inexplicably I omitted Nicholas Cage’s “Leaving Las Vegas” portrayal of an alcoholic, for which he was awarded the Oscar for Best Actor. Thanks to DLW!