By Albert J. Rizzi, M.Ed.
When I was younger, I loved acting and performing in high school. Some of the roles I played were president of Almalou Records in “Bye Bye Birdie”, a degenerate gambler looking to play in the oldest established, permanent floating crap game in New York, in “Guys and Dolls”, and a knight of The Round Table in “Camelot”. I love theater, film, and all the other performing arts.
I had also been drawn to the Oscars, Tonys, and Golden Globes, where among other things the entertainment industry bestows honors to those actors who are exceptional at their craft. Great actors can portray a character that embodies any number of characteristics, sometimes portraying people who are nothing like themselves in body, mind, and spirit. But we allow them to take us away to fantastical places where we enjoy portrayals of people in a time and space that can be imaginary or historically accurate.
Actors who were closeted about their orientation played straight characters, while straight actors played characters from the LGBT community. Male actors played female characters while female actors portrayed male characters. Younger actors, with a little makeup and a hairstyle, portray older characters and so on. In these cases, actors were acting and portraying interpretations of a persona not at all like themselves. Isn’t that what acting is all about?
However, since joining the disability community I have come to appreciate how PWD have been denied the opportunities of acting because of socially antiquated perceptions of Ability. Hollywood is comfortable asking “temporarily able” actors to portray people with a disability as opposed to considering actors with disabilities to portray their community or themselves authentically.
There are very few exceptions.
A U.S. Army vet who lost his hands during World War II, Harold Russell, won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the 1947 film, “The Best Years of Our Lives” for portraying a wounded war veteran.
Marlee Matlin graced the screen in “Children of a Lesser God” where she won the 1986 Academy Award. Fast forward to 2022 and we have Troy Kotsur, an actor who is deaf playing a character who is deaf in the film, “CODA”. Kotsur already won the Screen Actors Guild Award, The BAFTA, and The Critic’s Choice Award for his performance and was nominated for best supporting actor for the Golden Globes and an Oscar in the same category. “CODA” tells the story of a girl, Ruby, who is the daughter of two parents who are deaf; “CODA” is an acronym for “Children of Deaf Adults.” Interestingly, Marlee Matlin, is Kotsur’s co-star in the film.
So here you have two performers who are deaf, playing characters who are deaf in the movies. That makes sense, right? Not so fast. The film industry is inconsistent at best and horrible at worst when it comes to casting roles of characters who have disabilities with performers who have those disabilities. Very often, those parts were given to performers who do not have that disability.
The work of playing people who have disabilities in the movies has largely been done by actors pretending to have that disability. For their effort, they are awarded what is the film industry’s highest honor, an Oscar!
In the 1962 film, “The Miracle Worker”, Patty Duke reprised the role of Helen Keller who was deafblind, in the role she originated in the Broadway production. She won the Academy Award in the Best Supporting Actress category.
John Voight came home with the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as a Viet Nam veteran who became a paraplegic because of his war wounds in “Coming Home” (1978).
In 1982, Linda Hunt won in the same category for the film, “The Year of Living Dangerously”. Hunt portrayed Billy Kwan, a Chinese Australian photographer who was born a dwarf and a man. Some quick research reveals that Hunt is neither Chinese, nor Australian, nor a dwarf, nor a man. I was not able to learn if she has any photography skills. Yet, her performance was so convincing, that she won one of Hollywood’s biggest honors. No one seemed to object to this back in the day.
Dustin Hoffman won his second Oscar for the 1988 film, “Rain Man”. His character, Ray, was an autistic savant. Instead of being critical, all the world seemed only to quote, “I’m an excellent driver” and “Ten minutes to Wapner.”
In 1989, Daniel Day-Lewis won the Best Actor Oscar for portraying Christy Brown, an artist with cerebral palsy in “My Left Foot”. Instead of questioning if an actor with cerebral palsy should have played the role, Day-Lewis became the toast of the town!
Forrest Gump, a character with both mental and physical disabilities, won Tom Hanks his second Oscar for the 1994 film of the same name.
Jamie Foxx portrayed Ray Charles in the film, “Ray” (2004). He won the Oscar for his portrayal of the music legend who was blind.
The eloquent British actor, Colin Firth, got the Best Actor Oscar for his king’s speech impediment, playing George the VI in the 2010 film, “The King’s Speech”.
In the 2014 film, “The Theory of Everything”, Eddie Redmayne portrayed famed physicist Stephen Hawking, who lived with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) for most of his life. He was so convincing that Dr. Hawking commented, “I thought Eddie Redmayne portrayed me very well. At times I thought he was me.” The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seemed to agree, as Redmayne won the Best Actor Oscar for his convincing performance.
Those are only some of the winners. I have not even mentioned those who were nominated for playing characters with disabilities but did not win. For example, Tom Cruise for “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989), Sean Penn in “I Am Sam” (2001), Russell Crowe for “A Beautiful Mind” (2001), and Sally Hawkins in “The Shape of Water” (2017).
Nor am I talking about actors who were not nominated for their portrayal of PWD such as Jessica Lange in “Frances” (1982), Denzel Washington in “The Bone Collector” (1999), or Brian Cranston in “The Upside” (2017).
Some critics would argue that authentic representation of people who have disabilities should be played exclusively by actors with disabilities. But acting is about creating a persona, imaginary or real. The job of the actor is to do just that—act!
Actors with disabilities portraying characters from the disability community represent something truly authentic and inclusive. But, PWD also have dreams of landing that leading role and seeing their names in lights, just like the dreams of all those “temporarily able” performers. Ignoring, dismissing, or marginalizing actors because they have a disability is just wrong.
I would suggest, with a little creativity, which Hollywood is known for from time to time, screenwriters could come up with a “reasonable accommodation” and develop characters that are complex, yet flexible enough to accommodate an actor of Ability. Regardless, we should always consider talent first, and disability second. “Don’t Dis My Ability” because I am a skilled actor who happens to be blind, deaf, mobility impaired, or neurodivergent.
While some may think this is a new conversation, society has, for decades, overlooked and ignored performers with disabilities despite their innate talents as actors and performers. Including actors who happen to have a disability and valuing their talents and skills as performers, is good for the box office just as authentic inclusion of PWD has proven to be for corporations and their bottom lines. As you have heard me say, time and time and time again, authentic inclusion is just plain old good business sense, and you can take that to the proverbial bank! Isn’t it high time that the film industry focuses on becoming authentically inclusive? I say it is.
One of my favorite actors, Sir Patrick Stewart, addressed this issue in a recent interview in The Guardian newspaper. Sir Patrick is famous for his role as Professor Charles Xavier in the blockbuster X-Men movie franchise based on the comic books characters. Xavier gets around in a wheelchair while in real life, Sir Patrick does not.
“I think the argument, while coming from a very good place, is a resistance to creativity in the work that we do,” said Stewart. “I respect and understand the feelings, but I think we would be denying people experiences and performances by saying, ‘No, no, no, it’s not appropriate you should do that.’”
That begs the question: Should a lesser performer get cast only because they have that particular disability?
Also, there is tension between the authentic portrayal of a character with a disability and a movie star’s drawing power at the box office. I understand that. The film industry is art, but it is also a business. If the name on the poster will not put asses in the seats, there is a problem. Isn’t it better to have the film made than not made at all?
That said, there needs to be more room in Hollywood for actors who have disabilities to play all roles their skills as an actor can support.
There seems to be hope for authentic representation of Ability in film, on stage, and television. Aside from Troy Kotsur in “CODA”, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” (2019) had an actor with Down Syndrome, Zack Gottsagen, actually play a character with Down Syndrome. In the “A Quiet Place” movies, Millicent Simmonds who is deaf portrays a daughter who is deaf in a dystopian future.
It seems “the times they are a-changing” and Hollywood has turned that proverbial corner.
Even Madison Avenue is increasingly onboard with authentic representation of Ability in advertising. We are now seeing amputees and models from the disability community represented, but that is a blog for another day.
At My Blind Spot, aside from our work in making sure the digital world is accessible and usable for people of all abilities, we advocate for authentic inclusion of Ability in both our social and corporate cultures and that includes the entertainment industry! If you want to know more about what we do, contact me at Albert@myblindspot.org.
In the meantime, if any movie producers are looking for a leading man in his fifties who happens to be blind, “I am ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille!”