Disability At the Movies

Guest Post by Debbie De Palma, with research assistance from Yaseen Fawzi

As Colin Firth is poised to win an Oscar for his portrayal of a king unable to speak due to severe stuttering in The King’s Speech (2010), and as we have watched Claire Danes receive numerous accolades for her portrayal of Temple Grandin, a successful woman with autism, one might notice a strong link between disability and great performances at the movies.

 

Many of the most memorable roles played by men and women revered for their acting ability have involved playing a person with a disability.  Likewise, many of these demanding roles are based on the lives of real people with disabilities.

 

A Google search reveals the number of beloved films with a disability theme, and the stars featured in them.  There were Oscar-winners Anne Bancroft (as Anne Sullivan) and Patty Duke (as Helen Keller) in The Miracle Worker (1962).  The real Sullivan guided young Helen, unable to see or hear, despite her own visual impairment.  Who does not remember Dustin Hoffman as Ray Babbitt in Rain Man (1988), a character based on the life of one of the most extraordinary savants of all time, Kim Peek?  Peek, who was afraid to speak in public before the success of the movie, toured the country, sharing his extraordinary mental gifts with audiences of young and old alike.  In that instance, it was the fictionalized Rain Man who affected the real person on whom the character was based.  Who could ever forget Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump (developmental disability) or the Vietnam War veteran (played by Gary Sinise) who made his fortune shrimping and writing a business plan from his wheelchair.  In these few examples, there are two much-lauded films that featured not one, but two heroic characters — The Miracle Worker and Forrest Gump.

 

Imagine anyone but Daniel Day Lewis playing the remarkable Christy Brown in My Left Foot (1989 — cerebral palsy). Think back to Sean Penn’s sensitive portrayal of a loving father with a cognitive disability in I Am Sam (2001).  Remember Russell Crowe’s magnificent characterization of Nobel laureate John Forbes Nash in A Beautiful Mind (2001 — schizophrenia).  Recall the powerful performance of Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck (1987 — physical disability) and Marlee Matlin, a woman who is deaf portraying a woman who is deaf, in Children of a Lesser God (1986).  A very recent personal favorite of mine is a much less accessible film, but worth the hunt to find it.  Featuring Bollywood super-star Shahrukh Khan, My Name is Khan (2010) introduces audiences to a larger-than-life character, a South Asian man who has Asperger’s Syndrome.

 

There are other real people with disabilities whom the great stars of the big screen have brought to life.  Many others.  Most were neither kings nor Nobel laureates.  But they, and so many others among us who have a disability, possess the same ability to make people think and to make people wonder.  As we await the results of the voting by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on February 27th to see if Colin Firth will take the Best Actor prize for The King’s Speech, we are grateful to all those in the movie industry — actors, writers, directors, producers — who have used powerful stories of tragedy and triumph involving disability to help us all be more aware of the beautiful and mysterious ways in which disability and ability are so often interwoven, and of the myriad ways in which people with disabilities bring out the best in those around them.  We have seen this time and time again on the big screen, and we could see it more often in real-life, if we allowed ourselves to do so.
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