5 Worst Visually Impaired Characters In Cinema. The new year has inspired me somewhat. There’s something about the year 2020 that has given me an idea on how to celebrate the new year and to talk about cinema. So, ignoring all the sight relating puns you were probably expecting from such an article, here are the 5 worst visually impaired characters in cinema history.
AT FIRST SIGHT (1999)
Based on a medical paper by Oliver Sacks M. D., At First Sight tells the story of two people who fall in love and one of them just happens to be blind. Virgil Adamson (Val Kilmer) is a massage therapist who lives with his sister, Jennie (Kelly McGillis). Amy Benic (Mira Sorvino) is a stressed businesswoman who has just broken up with her boyfriend. So, when the two meet they quickly fall in love. That is until Amy emotionally blackmails Virgil into getting an operation to restore his sight.
However, when Virgil’s sight does indeed come back, Amy starts to realise that she’s getting bored with all the experiences that Virgil is having for the first time. Before Virgil regains his sight, the clichés come thick and fast (Virgil wears big, dark glasses, uses a white cane, touches Amy’s face so that he knows what she looks like), but even after he regains his sight, it is clear that despite experiencing clear vision for the first time, Virgil is a moron.
There are many incidents throughout the film that suggest Virgil may not have the required intelligence to get by in life. He sees himself in the mirror and rather than realising it’s his reflection, Virgil walks towards the mirror and bangs his head suggesting that his level of intelligence is akin to a dog that barks at its own reflection. Later in the film a therapist, Phil Webster (Nathan Lane) shows Virgil an apple and a picture of an apple telling him that they are different. Despite being blind all his life I’d be pretty sure that Virgil would know the difference between a three-dimensional physical object and something that was drawn on paper, even if he couldn’t see it, but the film assumes that blind people have to be guided like children to understand the world around them. Then there’s my favourite part where Virgil stands in oncoming traffic in order to get a better understanding of visual perspective. Virgil is a moron.
Oh, where do I start with Daredevil? Daredevil was created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett in the mid Sixties. Blinded during a chemical accident, the chemicals gave him extraordinary powers so that despite his sight loss, mild mannered attorney at law, Matt Murdoch (Ben Affleck) could do incredible things. Thus, the super crip is born. Super crip referring to disabled characters that have superpowers as a way to ‘make up for’ their disability (think Professor X and more recently Freddie Freeman who becomes Captain Marvel Jr. in Shazam). Their superpowers usually revolve around their disability or are the complete opposite to compensate for what the hero has lost and Daredevil is no different.
Don’t get me wrong, Daredevil is not a bad character and the representation in Marvel/Netflix’s TV series is much better, but the infamous superhero movie from the early 2000’s is bad for more reasons than Daredevil himself. The script is terrible, the characters are cartoonish (even for a film based on a comic book) and there are scenes such as the infamous see-saw fight scene and the laugh out loud funny scene where Matt uses the rain and his echolocation powers to see what Elektra looks like – despite having to run his fingers across a wall in his own apartment in another scene. The whole thing is extremely corny and completely at odds with any superhero films released around the same time. Daredevil is a great visually impaired character in the right hands but the first attempt to bring him to the silver screen is a laughable disaster.
Director Michael Mailer, when asked in an interview about casting Alec Baldwin in the role of a blind character which could have gone to a blind actor responded with accusations of cultural fascism and argued that it discredits any actors who have won awards for playing disabled characters. It’s a good thing then that under Mailer’s direction, Baldwin was never in any danger of winning any awards.
After her husband is sent to jail after being indicted, Suzanne Dutchman (Demi Moore) is forced to do community service. There she meets Bill Oakland (Alec Baldwin) a partially sighted literary professor who needs somebody to read his student’s work to him so that it can be properly assessed – because apparently text to speech devices don’t exist… So, after a while Suzanne and Bill get to know each other and inevitably fall in love. It’s not exactly the most original plot but it’s the ridiculous portrayal of Bill’s sight loss that is so funny. There is of course the cliché of the big, dark glasses and the white stick, but thanks to the script and the direction, Bill’s visual impairment is inconsistent and at times on a superhuman level.
For example, Bill and Suzanne are arguing about opening a window and when Bill wins, Suzanne decides to take off her blouse because she is too hot and Bill can’t see her anyway. However, Bill immediately senses that Suzanne has done something unexpected, not because he heard her taking off her blouse, but because he can smell the difference in the air. This plays on the common misconception that when a person loses one sense then their other senses are heightened.
This misconception probably comes from when a seeing person sees a visually impaired person do something that they wouldn’t think they could do they put it down to some extra sensory power. In reality these things come with practice. Just as any person learns to put one foot in front of the other and not trip over their feet (some do better than others), visually impaired people learn to do things to navigate the world that feels as natural as sighted people find reading or watching TV. Visually impaired people do not become bloodhounds when they lose their sight.
SCENT OF A WOMAN (1992)
Charlie Simms (Chris O’ Donnell) is a prep student who after a little trouble at his university needs money to pay for a trip to go home for Christmas and after some digging, he finds a job looking after a blind war veteran Lt. Col. Frank Slade. Frank is difficult to get on with, erratic and irrational, but as they get to know each other, Charlie and Frank start to realise that there’s more to life than what they’ve been given.
After seven nominations, it seems The Academy thought it was about time that Al Pacino finally received the most coveted award. It’s just a shame that it was for Pacino’s worst performance. Frank is loud, brash and not an easy man to get along with and Al Pacino turns up the obnoxiousness of his visually impaired character to cartoonish levels, coupled with his constant expression of ‘hoo-wah!’ it soon became one of the most parodied performances in film history.
Pacino also falls into the trap the so many actors do when playing a blind person, they stare into the middle distance, not so much to convince the audience that they were blind, but to convince themselves that if they don’t focus on anything in particular then it will enhance their performance – it doesn’t. This led to a famous scene where Pacino is in the middle of the street and falls over a trash can. However, when Pacino fell over it meant that it was because he relies on his sight to make sure things like that don’t happen, visually impaired people rely on other things so therefore when this happens it just highlights an able bodied person playing a disabled character. Pacino’s Oscar win was definitely won because ‘it was about time’ and not necessarily because he deserved it.
SEE NO EVIL (1971)
Finally, we come to the most common use of a blind character in cinema – the victim. Sarah (Mia Farrow) lost her sight during a horse-riding accident and while staying at her extended family’s house in the country, she soon realises that her entire family have been murdered by a ruthless killer – and she’s next. See No Evil follows Sarah as she stumbles about, mostly with her arms stretched out in front of her, as she desperately tries to escape death. Unfortunately, this pursuit goes on for so long that the audience is given very little time to empathise with Sarah. As her situation gets worse and worse, those with a darker sense of humour (like me) may even find Sarah’s increasing peril unintentionally funny, to the point where the audience stops caring for her, wishing that the killer would finish her off.
Presumably a visually impaired victim is the easiest because it gives the audience an instant fear of what would happen to them if they were blind. This enforces the idea that not only blind people, but all disabled people are vulnerable, naïve and trusting. Sarah’s revelation that her family have died is quite ridiculous as well because it plays on the audience’s assumption that just because a blind person cannot see then they are not aware of their surroundings. Surely if anything the smell would have given her a hint, let alone the eerily quiet house.
Time and time again, cinema has made out that visually impaired people are vulnerable, gullible, superhuman or occasionally evil. The fear of the unknown is what makes filmmakers put blind characters in these roles and so what people see in cinema is how they think they are reflected in real life. Maybe in future filmmakers will have a clearer vision as how to portray visually impaired characters properly. I knew I’d get a pun in there somewhere.
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