Voters lean on disability crutch
Playing characters with affliction often gives actors head start on competish
By SHARON KNOLLE
Even the most casual awards season fan is aware that certain kinds of roles are considered Oscar bait.
They are those performances where an actor portrays someone with a physical or mental handicap, such as Dustin Hoffman as an autistic savant in "Rain Man" or Holly Hunter as a mute in "The Piano." But while these kinds of roles are often showy, like Al Pacino's tangoing blind soldier in "Scent of a Woman," they aren't always Oscar shoo-ins.
"It used to be common knowledge that disability would help an actor get an Oscar, around when Daniel Day-Lewis won for 'My Left Foot,' but I don't think that's true any longer," says one veteran Hollywood publicist.
Although playing someone with a disability has often been perceived as more of a challenge to an actor, many other factors come into play, such as a thesp's popularity offscreen, length of his or career and of course, the performance.
While Tom Hanks swept to his second Oscar by the playing slow-witted lead in 1994's "Forrest Gump," Gary Sinise, who in the same film played a double amputee, lost out to Martin Landau as aging horror legend Bela Lugosi in the supporting actor race that year. Denzel Washington's corrupt cop in "Training Day" won the 2001 actor race over Russell Crow's equally praised performance as schizophrenic John Nash in "A Beautiful Mind."
Merely playing a disabled character doesn't always lead to Oscar: Sean Penn netted a nomination for his developmentally disabled character in "I Am Sam," but Cuba Gooding Jr., in a similar role in "Radio," did not.
"Actors highly covet these roles because they perceive them as the ultimate stretch and a means of showing off their acting chops," says Martin Norden, author of "The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies." "In addition, Hollywood filmmakers have often associated disabled character roles with pain and suffering -- qualities that have some appeal at the box office."
"Essentially, all drama is about conflict and overcoming obstacles, whether it's 'Coal Miner's Daughter' or 'My Left Foot,' " says John Connolly, president of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
Dramatic physical transformations of all types have proved popular with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
"When you're playing a real person, it's very hard to approximate that person's physicality," says Connolly. "Daniel Day-Lewis didn't suffer from cerebral palsy like Christy Brown did, but it's the inner fire he brought to the character that matters. Portraying that which they are not is a noble pursuit for an actor."
In many films like this year's biopics "Ray," and "The Sea Inside," the disabled character is the lead role: It's their story, so they naturally take center stage. But that doesn't mean that the leads are the only ones who benefit come Oscar time.
The role of caregiver or a loved one who helps or hinders a person a the disability can also be a plum one. Jennifer Connelly took home a supporting Oscar for playing John Nash's long-suffering wife, Alicia, in "A Beautiful Mind"; Jim Broadbent won a supporting actor statuette as Iris Murdoch's loving husband in "Iris."
"If there's truly strong writing, acting and direction, it's also reflected in the other characters in the film," says Connolly.
In some cases, everyone benefits: Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker took home awards for "My Left Foot," Hunter and Anna Paquin both won for "The Piano," and Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke both scored Oscars for "The Miracle Worker."
"I think it all comes down to the writing and if the writers understand disability and they've done their homework, then they're going to get that right," says Jeff Shannon, a Seattle-based film critic who is a quadraplegic.
But is Hollywood sometimes guilty of distorting the reality of being disabled in order to sell an uplifting story? "I would say almost always, particularly when it comes to issues of prejudice, discrimination and even basic day-to-day concerns like transportation and access. Far more often than not, the most well-intended, uplifting films ignore or grossly minimize the daily realities of life faced by people with disabilities," says Norden.
"'A Beautiful Mind' is an example of a very popular and deep-rooted attitude," says Shannon. "It makes people feel good to praise a disadvantaged person who somehow overcame their adversity. We always want to elevate people and put them up on a pedestal, so when somebody with a disability achieves something, that's what they do.
"There are two operative stereotypes in movies: The angry, bitter, villainous disabled person and the hero who overcomes adversity and there's very little middle ground. The only time there is middle ground is when it's being handled by very sensitive and intelligent writers who are either very aware of disabilities, like Waldo Salt was with 'Coming Home,' or they (are) disabled people themselves like Neal Jiminez ('The Waterdance'). To this day, 'Coming Home' and 'The Waterdance' are probably the only two films that get being a paraplegic right."
On the issue of whether it's appropriate for able-bodied actors to continue to play disabled roles, Shannon says, "I can't imagine any actor, able bodied, or disabled, who could have played Christy Brown better than Daniel Day-Lewis. It's like he was born to do that."
Adds Gail Williamson, an advocate for performers with disabilities, "I appreciate it when it's a celebrity playing the role that would bring a fan base to the story. What you hear from Hollywood is that there's not a big enough name out there, and yet there would be no Marlee Matlin if they didn't take a chance on an unknown for 'Children of a Lesser God.' "
So far, deaf actress Matlin and "The Best Years of Our Lives" star Harold Russell, who lost his hands in World War II, are the only disabled actors to have taken home Oscars, and it was for playing characters with their same disabilities.
"You wish they'd be more insistent on authenticity and actually hire a disabled person," says Shannon, "but it comes back to what actors are hired to do. They're hired to pretend."
Date in print: Tue., Dec. 7, 2004
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