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Hollywood Debates Who Should Play Disabled Characters

Hollywood Debates Who Should Play Disabled Characters
(Daniil Peshkov/Dreamstime.com)

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Wednesday, 24 January 2018 02:44 PM Current | Bio | Archive

Quick — what do Daniel Day-Lewis, Patty Duke, Colin Firth, Jamie Foxx, Holly Hunter, Marlee Matlin, Al Pacino, Eddie Redmayne, Harold Russell, and Jon Voight have in common? If you guessed that they have all won Academy Awards you’d be right but, to make a finer point, they have all received Oscars for their performances in movies by playing people with physical disabilities.

Some — make that most — people would consider these performances to be examples of stellar acting, but if the brain trust at the Ruderman Family Foundation (RFF) had any say in the matter, only two of those listed above actually deserved those awards. Care to take a guess of which two that might be and why? Well, of course they would be Matlin ("Children of a Lesser God") and Russell ("The Best Years of Our Lives") as they are the only two above performers with disabilities playing persons with a disability.

Founded in 2002, the RFF is a philanthropic organization with two mission statements: strengthening the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community and promoting the inclusion of disabled people into society. While both causes are highly commendable, neither of these missions seems particularly hard to sell. It’s a safe bet that Jews in Israel and those in America share a great deal of common ground and discriminating against people with disabilities is not only uncool, it’s been illegal in this country since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990.

A 37-page white paper released by the RFF in July 2016 declared that disabled persons were the least represented minority group in the acting community and stated that while disabled people make up 20 percent of the population, only five percent of disabled character parts on TV and in film are actually played by disabled actors. The foundation also likened this perceived slighting to that of #OscarSoWhite.

Since the release of the 2016 white paper, the RFF has been pointing out films that feature able-bodied performers playing disabled or disfigured characters and why this is such a bad thing. Has the RFF pondered that if casting directors would only consider auditioning five percent of performers available to them they might be limiting their choices?

In the past nine months the RFF has set its sights on five theatrically released films, four that have already come out and one very high profile title arriving later this year. In all but one of these movies, the disabled character is a person who at some point in the narrative is not disabled, which at the very least becomes problematic.

The first of these movies — the just average romantic weeper "Me Before You" — came out in June and of all the films on the RFF hit list it is the (relatively) most deserving of their scorn. This is not because of the non-use of a disabled actor in a role but because this character — after becoming disabled (spoiler alert ahead) decides to commit suicide because they are disabled. This is sad on a number of levels but it has nothing whatsoever to do with the casting of the film but rather the concept and writing.

Making barely a dent at the box-office in July but still ruffling the RFF feathers was "Blind," a low-budget indie starring militant liberal blowhard Alec Baldwin as a novelist who loses his sight in a car accident. Could a blind actor with a profile on a par with Baldwin have played a character previously with sight convincingly? Probably not.

"Stronger" — the movie about Jeff Bauman, the man who lost his legs in the 2013 Boston Marathon Terrorist Attack — was released in September but drew the ire of the RFF a full eight months earlier. Their big beef was with director David Gordon Green who didn’t even consider casting a disabled actor for the part of Bauman but instead hired the Oscar-nominated, high-profile, quite bankable Jake Gyllenhaal in the role, who turned in a magnificent and convincing performance in a very good but not great movie.

Out in October was "Wonder" starring Julia Roberts and Jacob Tremblay ("Room") as a nine-year-old boy with an unspecified facial deformity who was beginning his first year at a traditional school after years of home-schooling. Again the RFF accused the filmmakers of not considering a disabled actor for the part. A question for the RFF: just how many facially-disfigured, nine-year-old Caucasian boys are in possession of a SAG card and ready to play this role? Tremblay did a great job in just another OK movie.

Slated for release in May, "Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot" might be the left-leaning philanthropic organization Ruderman Family Foundation’s (RFF) most plum and ripe target to date. In the film, Joaquin Phoenix stars as the late satirical cartoonist John Callahan, a man who, when compared to Gary Larson ("The Far Side") makes the latter appear as safe, tame, and innocuous as Bil Keene ("The Family Circus"). A quadriplegic since the age of 21, Callahan’s work was bold and daring, yet primitive as he had to draw with both hands which only added sardonic flair to his often twisted subject matter.

Drenched in satire and black humor, Callahan’s single-panels not only made light of disability, it openly mocked disabled people. This begs the question: is it acceptable for a disabled person to make fun of other disabled people? If Callahan wasn’t a quadriplegic, could he ever even have been published? If a non-disabled person had produced the type of blunt and jaggedly-pointed cartoons as Callahan would they have been deemed an evil pariah? Is it solely because they were made by a disabled person that made it all OK? Did anyone at the RFF even familiarize themselves with Callahan’s cartoons prior to calling out director Gus Van Zant and Phoenix? If not they should and prepare themselves to be quite shocked.

This sounds an awful lot like Spike Lee admonishing Quentin Tarantino for including the “N” word in his movies. It’s generally considered acceptable for a black director to do this in a film (or in music) but when a white director (or singer) does the same exact thing, its racism. You can’t have it both ways. A single word or work of art should not be judged on the race or physical limitations of the artist but rather what the artist produces and how said work is received, interpreted, and/or appreciated.

It’s worth noting that Tarantino’s highest-grossing film to date ("Django Unchained") was a movie about a liberated, pre-Civil War slave (Jamie Foxx) who became a bounty hunter and legally killed many white people. No one on the left voiced any complaints about the “N” word used in this film but had major issues with the heavy use of the “N” word in Tarantino’s post-Civil War follow-up "The Hateful Eight."

Although they have yet to make their opinions public, the RFF could add perhaps another name to their you-don’t-deserve-that-Oscar list in March. Fully-deserving nominated actress and a co-front-runner in the lead category is Sally Hawkins who plays a mute maid in director Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece "The Shape of Water." Before the RFF considers speaking out they should consider that during a fantasy sequence in the film (no spoiler ahead), the Hawkins character is not mute.

The left really has to begin being more careful on how they pick their battles. The PC police are rapidly losing their already tenuous grip on reality. Are we getting to a point where (mostly liberal) filmmakers will be forced to hire the disabled because of a quota system? Does everything on the planet have to be equal all the time? Is everyone in the acting community due a metaphorical participation trophy merely by owning a SAG card? Whatever happened to succeeding on one’s own skills, talent, and merits? If you are a disabled person who acts, should you get the gig you want solely because of your physical limitations or because of your talents as an actor?

I don’t relish the duty of delivering bad news but must do so here with the RFF and anyone subscribing to their well-intended but delusional manner of their view of the Big Picture. Filmmakers and movie studios produce works to make money and hopefully win awards and so do with the most authentic means possible. They have to market products to audiences open to the suspension of disbelief and including a person or persons with real-life disabilities is not going to heighten or enhance said disbelief.

Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets and is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and he recently co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle. Over the last two decades, Mr. Clark has written over 3,500 movie reviews and film related articles and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. critics. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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Quick — what do Daniel Day-Lewis, Patty Duke, Colin Firth, Jamie Foxx, Holly Hunter, Marlee Matlin, Al Pacino, Eddie Redmayne, Harold Russell, and Jon Voight have in common?
hollywood, disability, actors, characters
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2018-44-24
Wednesday, 24 January 2018 02:44 PM
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