Gradually, over time, we have seen more and more people with disabilities in acting roles on television and in the movies. This week, NBC Universal vowed to continue that trend by committing to audition actors with disabilities for every project, a commitment to “creating content that authentically reflects the world we live in.” NBC is the second such studio to make such a commitment, after CBS made a similar commitment in 2019. I think it is incredibly important for people with disabilities to be portrayed on screen. Just folks working, as actors.
I’ve always been a believer our attitudes toward and comfort with people with disabilities in public life is improved if they are “just there.” Not flattering or overly sentimental portrayals, just presence. My kids grew up on our street with a girl (adult woman now) who has significant developmental disabilities. Maddie is just there — she’s part of life on Bowerman Street; she’s part of life in general. There were two dozen school-age kids on our street and all of them grew up with her and learned – as is so often the case in life – that having people with disabilities around as part of your life is no big deal. They went out into world as better people for it.
This is the best step Hollywood could take, by hiring more actors with disabilities. It needs to be more than just having characters with disabilities, however. The Ruderman Family Foundation recently published a report stating that only 22% of roles portraying people with disabilities were filled by actors who were authentically disabled. My youngest daughter enjoys streaming the show Glee, which is about a high school singing club. One of the characters is a person in a wheelchair who, to my surprise, during a dream sequence one episode, arose and started dancing to Michael Jackson’s Bad. This is how I came to know that the actor was playing someone in a wheelchair, rather than an actor in a wheelchair playing a talented high school student. This was a bit disappointing. Better than nothing, but a bit disappointing all the same.
Of course, unless you are playing yourself, you are always trying to portray someone you are not. It’s called acting. And the skill set required to be on Glee is world class, so it may not be that simple to find actors in wheelchairs who fit the bill (and there is also a character on Glee with Down’s Syndrome who is being played by someone with Down’s, to their credit). I think Hollywood would do well just to consider all characters in movies and think, “Is there a reason this couldn’t be played by someone with a disability?” An actor who uses a wheelchair can’t play Jason Bourne, but there were many meaningful characters in the Bourne movies that weren’t scaling buildings, fighting bad guys, and jumping through windows.
Sometimes, when they want the person with a disability to be that guy, it gets complicated. A few years ago, Ben Affleck made a movie called “The Accountant,” about an adult with autism who is an accounting savant with the combat skills of a Green Beret. He is an off-the-books accountant for various organized crime and underworld figures, who keeps finding himself in positions of having to go on killing rampages in order for justice to prevail. It is truly a bizarre movie, finding about the oddest way imaginable to turn an accountant – and a person with high-functioning autism – into an action hero. It’s not terrible as far as action movies go, but it is troubling to watch a character with autism violently kill. It is what heroes do in these movies, but it is still unsettling. I don’t know that we’re better for it.
In the movie, he receives his synthesized, intelligence audio directives from a female character known as “The Voice,” who (spoiler alert) turns out to also be someone with a more severe form autism (and, true to form, played by someone who does not have autism). Ultimately, I think perhaps the cause of showing the talents of people with autism might have been better served if she – the brains of the outfit – had been the only person with autism in the movie, rather than having the Ben Affleck character running around killing dozens of folks.
Still, Hollywood has made progress. Several years ago, I started a library of historical Hollywood movies focused on disabilities. The history of Hollywood and disabilities is, to understate, hit and miss. There are wonderful movies like The Miracle Worker, about the relationship between Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan. If You Could See What I Hear was a wonderful slice-of-life movie about musician Tom Sullivan. And Fear Strikes Out is a compelling look at the world of mental illness through the eyes of major league baseball player Jimmy Piersall.
Others were not so good. Some were awful. None was stranger – or worse – than the movie called Freaks, made in 1932, and starring former vaudeville performer Wallace Ford. The first sentence of the plot synopsis on Wikipedia sets the unfortunate tone for this unfortunate movie: “A conniving trapeze artist named Cleopatra seduces a carnival sideshow midget named Hans after learning of his large inheritance…” One guesses that if you just stopped right there, you’d be doing yourself a favor. And you’d be right.
The main premise of the movie is that a “normal” person couldn’t or wouldn’t fall in love with a person with dwarfism, and wouldn’t look to associate herself with the other carnival characters in the movie – the bearded lady, Siamese twins, various actors missing arms and legs, someone who is half man and half woman, and two female characters with significant developmental disabilities known as “Pinhead Pip” and “Pinhead Zip.” In my opinion it is a truly awful film, and a depressing and dreadful depiction of people with disabilities that is painful to watch, even though the characters with disabilities are, by comparison, clearly the good guys.
There is one brief, but truly memorable, scene in the movie, however. Although it has no impact on the plot – whatsoever – there is a 38-second scene (available on YouTube) where Prince Randian, an actor with no arms or legs, while listening to another character’s soliloquy, is shown going through the complex, multi-step process of lighting his own cigarette. It’s impressive. It’s the most – and perhaps only – impressive thing in this ridiculous film.
Needless to say, Hollywood has come a long way. There are far more realistic and authentic portrayals these days of people with disabilities. There are far more roles being created for and filled by people with disabilities. This is good. I applaud NBC Universal and CBS for these important steps. People with disabilities are part of life. If art imitates life, they should be part of our art, as well. Finding ways to work people with disabilities into realistic roles will make for better movies. And it will be better for all of us.