Oscars so Abled? The Overwhelming Frequency of Non-disabled Actors Portraying Disabled Characters
Aaliya Gilbert, Science & Technology Editor
Ever since Dustin Hoffman won the Oscar for Best Actor playing Rain Man, half of Best Actor Oscars have been won by men playing characters with significant disability. The 2018 Academy Awards have recently graced our screens; including Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar-winning performance last year in The Theory of Everything as motor neurone disease (MND) sufferer Stephen Hawking, 14 of the last 28 Best Actors portrayed characters facing considerable mental or physical barriers. In a wider sphere, disabled actors in the UK account for only 1.2% of those on television, whilst research by the Ruderman Family Foundation in 2016 found that in the USA 95% of television characters with disabilities were played by non-disabled actors. Of the recent Best Actress winners who have depicted disabled characters, the only authentic portrayal, where the actor/actress had the same illness as the character they were playing, was Marlee Matlin’s debut performance as a deaf school janitor in Children of a Lesser God (1986): the first notable film since the 1926 silent film You’d Be Surprised to feature a deaf actor or actress in a major role. It seems that the phenomenon of non-disabled actors playing disabled characters is widely accepted, and often the revered pinnacle of the actors’ career.
14 of the last 28 Best Actors portrayed characters facing considerable mental or physical barriers
There are some questions that are salient to ask here. Firstly, is this problematic? It is excruciatingly rare that disabled characters roles are given to disabled actors. Of course, this would be easier for some roles than others; it would be pragmatically difficult and possibly callous to cast an actor with early-onset MND to play Stephen Hawking. Asking an actor to mentally fast forward to when their own condition has eventually deteriorated seems decidedly insensitive; having to embody their future reality so directly would could be traumatic for these actors. However, there are a myriad of less complicated examples where an actor who has experienced the same obstacles in their illness as their character could have been employed, especially since there are talent agencies specifically for disabled actors. For example, as actor RJ Mitte illustrates in the series Breaking Bad, it is plausible that an actor with genuine cerebral palsy can portray a character with this disability. However, in My Left Foot (1989) writer and artist Christy Brown (who could control only his left foot due to the disease) was characterised by Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis. The controversial casting of Alec Baldwin last year as a visually impaired man in the film Blind received backlash from disability campaigners, some of whom claimed the film used ‘disability as a costume’. This eerily echoes earlier examples of critically-acclaimed films. Oscar winners Jamie Foxx and Al Pacino in Ray (2004) and Scent of a Woman (1992) respectively both depicted blind characters. Although both gave engrossing and energetic performances, one imagines that blind actors would have gifted these roles a more poignant honesty, in addition to increasing the representation of disabled people in the film industry.
Similarly, it may be feasible to have had actors who have previously suffered from certain mental illnesses portray characters with the same conditions. For example, it may have been inspiring to have actors who have previously suffered with alcohol dependence playing the roles of Otis Blake and Ben Sanderson in Oscar- winning productions Crazy Heart (2009) and Leaving Las Vegas (1995), who were depicted by Jeff Bridges and Nicolas Cage. Of course, this could be insensitive: it may be triggering for actors to vividly and repeatedly relive their mental illnesses and previous social problems for the sake of delivering a genuine performance. However, this is an issue which would have to be evaluated and resolved case-by-case for the specific actor and illness in question. For instance, Marti Noxon’s recent dramatic film To the Bone (2017) stars Lily Collins as a young woman named Ellen with anorexia nervosa, years after the actress overcame her own eating disorder. Collins stated ‘I wanted to be able to best exert my experiences on [Ellen] by going to the lengths I felt comfortable going to as an actor’. This is a felicitous example of a character flourishing on- screen because the actor profoundly understood their character off-screen.
Of course, it is acutely clear that casting the distinguished actors that preceded to win an academy award for best actor is entirely for commercial and mercenary purposes. Casting directors tend to opt for renowned names, and alarmingly few of these are disabled. However, this is a moral paradox; until a disabled actor is cast in a high budget film, they will not become critically esteemed names in the first place. This also raises the fundamental quandary of the scarcity of disabled actors being cast in non-disabled roles. In other words, the desire of disabled actors not to be defined by their disabilities in the roles they play. This is undoubtedly where casting norms would ideally lie, where an actor’s disability is not a glaring detriment in casting decisions. Creative industries should be embracing and celebrating diversity, not neglecting it.
Creative industries should be embracing and celebrating diversity, not neglecting it.
It is tempting here to draw parallels with racial disparities between actors and the characters they are portraying. Is the concern similar to when brit Ben Kingsley won Best Actor for depicting the title character in Ghandi (1982) and no Indian actors were even considered for the role? Or when Emma Stone was chosen to play part-Chinese, part-Hawaiian and part-Swedish character Allison Ng in Cameron Crowe’s 2015 film Aloha? Although these are modern examples, racial miscasting and whitewashing has been flagrant in Hollywood since before the Academy Awards were established. White actors have long caricatured various races by wearing blackface or yellowface, often grossly exaggerating perceived cultural stereotypes. Many readers will remember Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of a Japanese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Even pre-dating the use of colour in films, the classic 1919 silent film Broken Blossoms features American actor Richard Barthelmess as Chinese man Cheng Huan. This demonstrates a pervasive underrepresentation of minorities in Hollywood, which is is still deeply entrenched in this industry.
Furthermore, the current climate of thinkpieces increasing awareness of this, one may expect (or at least hope for) the talents of racial minority or disabled actors not to be nonchalantly dismissed in roles where their depiction would be legitimate and authentic. A central aim of black actors portraying famous black characters, such as David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. or Denzel Washington as Malcolm X, is to characterise black life and history to represent the black community, and to educate and enlighten those outside of it. This is fundamentally different to for example, Colin Firth’s mimicry in The King’s Speech (2010), where the goal is to distort his wholly normal speech so much so that the audience truly believe he struggled over every syllable, or for the audience to sincerely feel that Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook (2012) went through the same daily battles as someone genuinely experiencing depression. Some may argue that our attitudes to disability and illness should have by now evolved past the current thinking that this impersonation warrants our most treasured and admired award for acting.
The paucity of disabled actors portraying disabled characters is also potentially pernicious because these disabled characters are often unrepresentative of most people with the disability. Owing to the fact that the general public have had limited encounters with many of these disabilities, there is a harmful possibly that when they see an exceptional instance in cinema, they may develop a distorted view. Films often (understandably) deal with extraordinary or remarkable situations or people. Ordinarily, this can lead to captivating escapism in film, but in the case of exceptional disabled characters, can lead to an unrealistic portrayal of that condition. Let us consider Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance as Rain Man (1986). Approximately only one in ten people with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) have savant skills. Does this acclaimed film therefore lead the public to assume all people with ASD are prodigious mental calculators with superb recall? In a similar vein, does Natalie Portman’s Oscar-winning performance in Black Swan (2010) cause the public to think that all those suffering from psychosis and hallucinations become prolific ballerinas who dance their most coveted roles perfectly, despite not receiving help or treatment for their mental illness? Without accurate representation of such conditions, the answer is most likely yes. Although this is ambitious to ameliorate, employing more disabled actors to communicate roles that share their disability would most likely lead to more prudently realistic representations.
One factor to consider is that portrayal of these disabilities by influential actors, even though they are not themselves disabled, bring these conditions to the forefront of popular culture. Public awareness of these illnesses and disabilities is being constructively raised as a result of such eminent films. After public appreciation of a disability has been heightened following an illustrious film, one can also imagine that an influx of donations to charities supporting those who have it might occur. This is especially meaningful for little-known and rare conditions, such as MND. Furthermore, even if a condition is well-known to the general public, exposing the everyday tribulations faced by people who have it through film, (providing these are realistic) is valuable in increasing sensitivity and empathy toward those with the illness or disability. For example, Julianne Moore’s dignified Oscar-winning performance in Still Alice (2014) as a linguistics professor with early-onset familial Alzheimer’s Disease, delicately illustrates the daily challenges that come with a progressive deterioration of memory and demonstrates how a family can be integral in maintaining their loved one’s quality of life. Even Tom Hanks’ performance as Forrest Gump (1994) allows the audience to peer into the world of bullying children with physical disabilities or marginal intelligence can endure. Moreover, Marlee Matlin’s aforementioned fierce performance in Children of a Lesser God (1986) conveys the schism that can occur in the deaf community over whether deaf children should learn to speak out loud. It also depicts the realities, conflict and tenderness alike, of romance between someone deaf and someone hearing.
Public awareness of these illnesses and disabilities is being constructively raised as a result of such eminent films.
Additionally, bringing certain diseases to fame on screen may aid in diminishing the stigma that envelopes them. Going further, it may even encourage positive public behaviours such as attending regular doctor appointments to check for certain conditions. A pertinent example here is Tom Hanks’ and Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar-winning portrayals of characters with HIV/AIDs in Philadelphia (1993) and Dallas Buyers Club (2015) respectively. In Philadelphia, Tom Hanks’ character Andrew Beckett assiduously hides his illness, and is unfairly dismissed from his job because of it. He then copiously struggles to find legal representation, with one potential lawyer being unjustifiably terrified that he has contracted HIV simply from casual contact with Beckett. During the eventual trial, the defense repeatedly claim that Beckett brought AIDs upon himself through engaging in homosexual sex and is therefore, not a victim. Perhaps by exposing the very real discrimination experienced by those who are HIV positive, the film helps to abate the prevalent stigmatisation, that has improved tremendously, but still exists today.
Another crucial question to examine would be why are we as an audience so fervently fascinated by those with disabilities? Does this fascination gracelessly spill over into fetishisation or exoticism, with us placing a global and not always accurate microscope on marginalised bodies? One could argue that popular culture seems to be more intrigued by disability as a metaphor in film as opposed to a real phenomenon that happens to real people. As a society, we seem to be obsessed with the unusual, the strange, the distant. The unique tantalises and seduces an audience with overemphasis. What can result is a sensationalised exaggeration. The creative industries constantly grasp at novelty and exhilaration, which is why it comes as no surprise that directors have uncovered the power of disabled figures to conjure titillated responses from audiences.
Does this fascination gracelessly spill over into fetishisation or exoticism, with us placing a global and not always accurate microscope on marginalised bodies?
This would collectively seem to imply that disability sells. It sells firstly because Hollywood capitalises on our zealous attraction to the ‘different’. Secondly, because they profit from making an audience feel altruistic and humanitarian about supporting what they perceive to be a charitable cause. For instance, it makes some viewers feel accommodating and benevolent to detest watching electroconvulsive therapy in a psychiatric hospital be administered to beloved Oscar-winning actors Geoffrey Rush in Shine (1996) after his character suffers a mental breakdown following a manic episode, or Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), after serving a short sentence on a prison farm. Thirdly, some Oscar-winning films capitalise on using facets of disabilities the general public may feel they can personally empathise with to evoke a feeling of familiarity in the viewer, regardless of whether they have the specific disability or mental illness. For example, some viewers would feel a particular empathic affinity to Jack Nicolson’s character in As Good as it Gets (1997), who has obsessive-compulsive disorder, avoiding stepping on pavement cracks or having an excessive fear of germs. Do these things capitalise on disability and mental illness in a problematic way? Or has increased awareness of disability campaigns in recent years seen a move from oppressive curiosity in film to disability activism?
The sheer famine of disabled actors portraying disabled characters seems to me to oppose the very nature of inclusivity
This discourse evidently raises a multitude of challenging questions to be dissected. The populous pool of actors with Oscars under their belts after depicting a disabled character implies this is almost an unspoken test of an illustrious actor’s fortitude. The sheer famine of disabled actors portraying disabled characters seems to me to oppose the very nature of inclusivity, at least in the context of plots that centre on marginalised people. It is not surprising, but it is certainly disappointing. However, with audiences becoming ever more adept at recognising the misrepresentation of race, gender and sexuality, there is a glint of hope that Hollywood will soon start to wholly acknowledge the lack of representation of disabled people. Last year, Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) probed the subtleties and nuances between race and disability with black protagonist Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and blind art dealer Jim Hudson (Stephen Root). This year, John Krasinski insisted on casting on a deaf actress (Millicent Simmonds) in a pivotal role in new thriller A Quiet Place, with Simmonds teaching the whole cast American Sign Language. Hopefully, productions like this will aid in paving the way towards a cinematic evolution with much improved representation of disability. This being said, in considering such poignant questions, I feel it is vital not to overlook our still significant and very resonant fetishisation of difference.