I turned the radio on just in time last Friday to hear Fresh Air’s movie reviewer David Edelstein say The Sessions ( a new semi-fictional movie about the life of a writer paralyzed below the neck from childhood polio) was better than some of the other “disability-of-the-week Oscar-bait” pictures he’d seen.
Cynical? Maybe. His statement does have merit, though. Take Al Pacino. He never won an Oscar for any of The Godfather movies, but when he portrayed a blind man doing the tango in Scent of a Woman? Woo-hah! Best actor.
Dustin Hoffman won an Oscar for RainmanRain Man, Daniel Day-Lewis for My Left Foot, JohnJon Voight for Coming Home. Marlee Matlin won best actress for Children of a Lesser God, and plenty of actors and actresses have been nominated, too: Russell Crowe was nominated for best Actor in A Beautiful Mind, Salma Hayek was nominated for best actress in Frieda, Mary McDonnell was nominated for best actress in Passion Fish and Judi Dench for best supporting actress in Iris. Disability-focused movies are nothing new. Turner Classic Movies (TCM) has enough of them in their collection to spend the entire month of October exploring the ways we have been portrayed in film. From the TCM web site:
The Projected Image: A History of Disability in Film features more than 20 films ranging from the 1920s to the 1980s. Each night’s collection will explore particular aspects, themes, or types of disability, such as blindness, deafness and psychiatric or intellectual disabilities. In addition, one evening of programming will focus on newly disabled veterans returning home from war.
Lawrence Carter-Long has been joining TCM host Ben Mankiewicz at 7 pm central time every Tuesday in October to discuss the films they’re showing, which include:
- An Affair to Remember (1957) Deborah Kerr’s romantic rendezvous with Cary Grant is nearly derailed by a paralyzing accident.
- A Patch of Blue (1965), Elizabeth Hartman as a blind white girl who falls in love with a black man played by Sidney Poitier.
- Butterflies Are Free (1972, Edward Albert as a blind man attempting to break free from his over-protective mother.
- Johnny Belinda (1948) Jane Wyman as a “deaf-mute” forced to defy expectations
- The Miracle Worker (1962) Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan and Patty Duke as Helen Keller
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Jack Nicholson as a patient in a mental institution and Louise Fletcher as the infamous Nurse Ratched
- The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) post-War drama starring Fredric March, Myrna Loy and real-life disabled veteran Harold Russell
- Charley (1968), Cliff Robertson as a man with an intellectual disability who questions the limits of science after being turned into a genius.
These movies reflect their times — the TCM retrospective only goes up to the 1980s, before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. I’m hoping that as those of us with disabilities become more of the fabric of everyday society, movie-goers will be subjected to fewer disability-of-the-week Oscar-bait-pictures and see more movies where we’re just part of the scene. So far, though, I can only come up with a couple examples of quality films featuring characters with disabilities in roles that are more in the background: Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), where main character Charles reveals a crisis of confidence to his brother David, who is deaf; and Contact (1997) where Kent Clark, A SETI scientist, is blind and helps Jodie Foster with her research. Know any other memorable movies with characters who have disabilities? Please leave a comment here to let me know. I am, ahem, all ears.