Wanna win an Oscar? Play a character with a disability

October 21, 2012 • Posted in blindness, radio, Uncategorized by

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.

Kim On October 21, 2012 at 8:37 pm

“Being There” (main character has an intellectual challenge), “Coming Home” (paralyzed Vietnam veteran), “Who’s Afraid of Gilbert Grape?” (morbidly obese/agoraphobic mother, intellectually challenged brother)

bethfinke On October 22, 2012 at 8:29 am

Aha! But does Chauncey Gardiner in “Being There” have an intellectual challenge, or is he a genius? I love that movie, thanks for mentioning it here.

Kim On October 22, 2012 at 8:43 am

Yes, I hesitated to include “Being There” for that exact reason. It’s one of my all time favorite movies!

Carl On October 21, 2012 at 8:57 pm

Theory of Flight, — it’s about a woman who has ms and is determined to have sex before her death,. I’ve heard that in the movie The Sessions that you referred to here the man with polio hires a surrogate for this purpose, too.

bethfinke On October 22, 2012 at 8:30 am


Kim On October 21, 2012 at 9:03 pm

Sorry, the above movie is called “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”

bethfinke On October 22, 2012 at 8:40 am

Ah, yes and it was Leonardo DiCaprio’s first ever Academy Award nomination (for best supporting actor). The first time I’d ever heard of him.

Robert Ringwald On October 22, 2012 at 7:47 am

One time my daughter was finishing one film and starting another. They overlapped for a couple days so that she was working days on one and nights on the other.

I played a nightclub pianist on the first film. She and I had a scene together where I am playing piano and I talk her into singing a song. The film was titled “Once Upon a Time” and was made for the Lifetime Channel.

Since I was in LA for my scene, I went with her to the other film. When I walked up to the Craft service table (The table with all the snacks) someone asked if I was playing Dr. (so & so), can’t remember the name.

I said no.

Then I went up to the set and someone else asked me the same thing.

I was beginning to wonder. I had just filmed a scene in a movie and now everyone is asking if I was playing a part in this film. “Do I now look like an actor?”

It turned out that there was a part in the film for an actor playing a physician who had gone blind. They saw me with a white cane and assumed that I was playing the part.

As it turned out, the actor playing the blind Dr. was sighted. I knew him as he had played the principal in “Breakfast Club” a another film that my daughter had done.

bethfinke On October 22, 2012 at 8:41 am

Bob, you are a superstar.

nbollero On October 22, 2012 at 8:51 pm

How about Sneakers? 90’s movie with Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dan Ackroyd and the very cool David Straithairn (now in the Lincoln movie and many others) playing a blind man on their team of guys who make a living by breaking into banks to let them know about their security problems. Cute movie.

I do have to make a case for Frida though. I really didn’t think it was about her disability or focused on that; although what she went through was intense. I think it was more about the brilliant/crazy intellect that she had and shared with the brilliant/crazy Diego Rivera at a very interesting time in history.

You are right about Four Weddings and the deaf brother; that story is just woven in and seems completely natural. Plus he is cute in his own right even next to Hugh Grant. If only that had chosen another actress! ugh!

bethfinke On October 22, 2012 at 9:16 pm

Appreciate your sharing your view of Frieda – to be honest, I never saw it myself.
The one “disability movie” you & I both saw and loved, Nancy: Murderball! This
For any blog readers who haven’t seen this documentary – rent it now! It follows the professional and private lives of the 2004 U.S. Wheelchair Rugby team. But just like Nancy says about Frieda, Murderball isn’t really about disability, it’s more about our ideas of masculinity. That was my take, at least…

Kim On October 23, 2012 at 7:32 am

Oh, I loved “Sneakers.” Remember the scene when David Straithairn was kidnapped? The team was trying to figure out where he was. He said he could hear what sounded like a “cocktail party.” He was hearing geese on a lake in a park. Now, every time I hear geese honking, they remind me of a loud cocktail party!

bethfinke On October 27, 2012 at 9:04 am

So much for the myth about us having a heightened sense of sound…!

Janet On October 24, 2012 at 10:17 pm

Of Mice and Men, Len. To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson, Boo Radley and Bob Ewell. Beloved, Beloved, Sethe and Denver.

bethfinke On October 27, 2012 at 9:05 am


S. Bradley Gillaugh On October 25, 2012 at 2:21 pm

Are you considering wheelchair users? Lional Barrymore continued a long career for many years confined to a wheelchair. As did his sister, Ethel. Roles that involved walking actors in wheelchairs include Raymond Burr as Perry Mason, Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July, Robin Williams in Don’t Worry, He won’t Get Far on Foot.

Another blind character who was just “one of the boys” is Justin Kirk in Love! Valor! Compassion!, Terence McNally’s play and movie.

nbollero On October 26, 2012 at 11:03 pm

Brad, you are killing me. Dr. Strangelove! How could we have missed that one.
I never saw that Robin Williams movie….must be about Callahan. I read that book and it was good…..he and his buddy getting stuck in their wheelchairs on the railroad tracks after drinking…..He died about a year or so ago. What a sense of humor….

bethfinke On October 27, 2012 at 9:06 am

Yes, Dr. Strangelove. Brilliant.

Deborah Darsie On October 27, 2012 at 7:51 pm

i am sam – Sean Penn played a father with an intellectual disability.

bethfinke On October 29, 2012 at 10:54 pm

Never saw (okay, never *heard*) that one, but recall hearing a lot of good things about I Am Sam when it came out. Will put it on my list now, thanks for the reminder!

Elaine Kramer On May 14, 2013 at 10:18 am

Hi Beth
J was so sorry to hear of your recent stay in the hospitl. so happy you are now on the mend. Stay well and hope see ya soon at Me Myself and I. Take care

Ed On January 9, 2014 at 6:27 pm

It’s “Rain Man,” not “Rainman” and Jon Voight, not John Voight.

bethfinke On January 12, 2014 at 2:50 pm

As I always say, everyone needs an editor! I’ve made the changes — thanks for letting me know.

Let Trans Artists Tell Trans Tales | Secular Shethinkers On June 2, 2014 at 9:42 pm

[…] of privilege but that’s a rant for another day). It’s how I initially felt about movies with mentally ill or disabled characters I enjoyed, until my education and interactions with disabled people corrected my misconceptions. […]

Let Trans Artists Tell Trans Tales | Dori Mooneyham On January 28, 2015 at 6:56 pm

[…] is a product of privilege but that’s a rant for another day). It’s how I initially felt about movies with mentally ill or disabled characters I enjoyed, until my education and interactions with disabled people corrected my misconceptions. […]

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