Since the turn of this century, at time of writing there have been 10 films that included a disabled person as the protagonist or a supporting character that have been nominated for Oscars. Out of those films only 4 have won the Oscar for best actor/actress and one of those films didn’t win anything at all. This list includes animated features of which there have been no nominations despite the criminally underseen Mary and Max being released to critical applause but unfortunately not released to a wide enough audience. Out of the live action shorts that have been nominated for Oscars there have been two that were nominated that included a disabled character as the protagonist or supporting character – they both won (Stutterer in 2016 and The Silent Child in 2018).
There is an ongoing cliché in awards ceremonies that if you play a real person, royalty or somebody with a disability then you are more likely to win an Oscar. This cliché has been so prevalent that many have tried and failed to garner a nomination. In the past two years alone there have been alleged attempts at the Oscar bid by Jake Gyllenhal (Stronger) and Joaquin Phoenix (Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot) to which both were snubbed by the Academy. Then there are the more blatant attempts like Cuba Gooding Jr. in Men of Honour where he played Carl Brashear, the first African American man to become a diver in the Navy only for him to lose a leg and then get reinstated as a diver. Also, in Born on The Fourth of July Tom Cruise played Ron Kovic, a Vietnam vet who lost the use of his legs after the war and became an anti-war protester. Both actors attempted to play a person with a disability only for the Academy to once again ignore them.
So, what is the problem with playing a disabled person in a movie? Personally speaking, as a disabled person myself (Spina Bifida if you must know) then there are many different reasons why able-bodied people playing disabled people should not continue. There are also many reasons why portraying a disabled person should not be the pinnacle of acting achievement. Firstly, and most obviously, when an able-bodied person plays a disabled person then if they are doing their job correctly then they are doing just that. They are playing a person – with a disability. There may be an argument that the person playing a character with a disability is just acting but where is the acting in playing a disability? An actor sitting in a wheelchair is just sitting in a wheelchair, an actor playing a blind person more often than not is just wearing dark glasses and carrying a white stick. For an actor to play a disability, it turns the disability into a spectacle. The audience never truly believes that the actor really has a disability because they are familiar with him or her so the physicality of the performance is only an illusion that the audience never really truly buys into.
There is another thing that makes it into arguments for hiring an able-bodied actor that plays a disabled person. The idea that an able-bodied person is more likely to be a star so their name will bring in an audience. This argument also falls down easily because every single actor is famous because somebody gave them a chance. In a big film with an A-list cast there is always the opportunity to cast an unknown disabled actor in the main role, regardless of whether the character is disabled or not but this seems to never happen. However, this has to be carefully done when a cast is put together because with my experience, only the lowest Z-list actors may be attracted to this kind of project because they may think that to be seen supporting a disabled person would lift their public image. I should know after being approached for a picture by ex-goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar (true story). If done correctly then a talented disabled actor could be given their big break, even if it means having to play a real person in an uplifting biopic about a person with the same disability as them.
There are disabled actors that have broken past this barrier though, such as Peter Dinklage and Marlee Matlin. However, they have both had to fight to get into roles where their disability wasn’t the defining trait of the characters they played. Even then, they are a rare example of a disabled actor whose talent outweighs their disability. Disability is often seen as something to ‘overcome’ or when a character in a film achieves something then it’s extra special because in the audience’s eyes it must be even harder to achieve anything because they cannot imagine having a disability themselves. Movies often play on this idea, so a disabled person is either an inspirational beacon because the things they do lift them up as a person and negates their disability or they’re a victim in a horror movie who survives despite being in a supposedly vulnerable position that the audience believes must be the case because they’re disabled. Sometimes they’re even a villain (usually in a Bond film or again in a horror movie).
Disabled characters are rarely ever allowed to just be a person with a disability and I think a lot of the problem is that audiences have become accustomed with associating disability with a plot device. The wheelchair is the McGuffin or the autistic savant is the key to the secrets that the villains want to get their hands on. So, when a character is introduced as having a disability, the audience are immediately on alert to try and figure out how their disability plays into the plot. Chekhov’s gun has a lot to answer for.
There are many films that include disabled people in prominent roles such as in the poignant and touching My Feral Heart. There are many disabled actors such as R. J. Mitte and Mat Fraser. There are also those with disabilities who are more than capable of telling their own stories such as Ben Lewin (director of The Sessions) and… well you get my point. When a disabled person is given the chance to direct, write or act in a story that is about a person with their disability then they may be able to tell a different story that doesn’t rely on the tropes and clichés that is so often associated with disability in cinema. The use of a disabled actor or filmmaker also adds authenticity because there may be things that a disabled person can draw from experience that an able-bodied person may overlook or misunderstand. As for the able-bodied actors, when they are left without the roles of a disabled character to play because they are all filled by disabled actors then maybe they could turn to one thing to keep their career going – they could simply continue acting.
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