Image: Close-up photograph of a wasp on a blue flower. Image via Laura Collins Britton, lcbritton.com.
I didn’t watch the Oscars for a variety of reasons. First, there was the complete White-Out of the awards nominations, which is just gross, especially in a year with SELMA.
But I heard who won Best Actor and Actress in a Leading Role. Eddie Redmayne won best actor for playing a person with a disability, famous physicist Stephen Hawking (who has ALS). Julianne Moore won best actress for playing a person with a disability (early onset Alzheimer’s disease).
Neither of these actors are people with disabilities similar to the ones they are portraying. Of course they aren’t.
Their wins made me think back to all of the Oscar wins that traded on performances of disability—on freakish circus act performances of disability.
Here’s my off-the-top list of Oscar winners that traded on performance of disability:
- As Good As It Gets
- My Left Foot
- Forrest Gump
- The King’s Speech
- Scent of a Woman
- A Beautiful Mind
- Rain Man
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
- Silver Linings Playbook
- Girl, Interrupted
The list goes on and on. And I’m sure there are many more that were nominated that didn’t win.
And none of the actors who portrayed people with disabilities in the films listed above were actually themselves disabled in the way that they were portraying. Jamie Foxx and Al Pacino are not people with severe visual impairments. Eddie Redmayne does not have ALS (that we know of). Colin Firth does not have severe speech disfluency. Russell Crowe does not have schizophrenia (that we know of). Similarly, Angelina Jolie does not have a personality disorder (that we know of), and certainly not one as severe as the one she portrayed in Girl, Interrupted and won an Oscar for.
So what’s my problem? Shouldn’t we, as a society, and we, as people with disabilities, be, you know, psyched to see people with disabilities portrayed on screen?
No. It’s not that simple.
Like most things, there’s more than one way to do a thing. Most films that trade on disability to garner Oscar nods are doing just that: trading on disability. These films trade on the disabilities of real people to make money and gain prestige while actually excluding people who live with disabilities from that world of money and prestige.
Part of the problem is this: How many in Hollywood can talk about their psychiatric disabilities without fear of repercussions? Because Hollywood is a world where it’s A-OK for top Sony brass and producers to write these words to each other about someone as powerful as Angelina Jolie:
A further leaked email thread between Sony Pictures co-chairperson Amy Pascal and movie producer Scott Rudin reveals Rudin once again harshly criticising Angelina Jolie. In the exchange, published by Gawker, Rudin describes the actress as “seriously out of her mind” as tension mounts over Jolie’s planned film Cleopatra, for which Eric Roth produced a script.
Who in Hollywood is actually going to come forward and give these assholes actual ammo to criticize their mental health?
I know I wouldn’t.
So here we are, in a world where studios race to put out the latest freakshow of a film to win Oscars, but call actors “crazy” behind their backs, shaming them—and all of us—into silence.
Studios do not hire actors with disabilities to play characters with disabilities. It’s like the Globe Theater, dressing men up as women. It stings.
It’s also getting old.
CAVEATS: Bravo to Breaking Bad for recently breaking this trend with RJ Mitte, a brilliant actor playing a brilliant role on a brilliant, if brutal, show. Also bravo to Michael J. Fox who is breaking every trend kind of constantly. I LOVE THE GOOD WIFE basically all the time anyway so go watch it.
If you enjoyed this piece, you will enjoy my book, LIFE OF THE MIND INTERRUPTED: ESSAYS ON MENTAL HEALTH AND DISABILITY IN HIGHER EDUCATION, available at lifeofthemindinterrupted.com and wherever books are sold. Buying my books is a great way to support the online writing that I do for free.