Saturday, December 11, 2010

Why is Hollywood preoccupied with disability?

From Liam Lacey at The Globe and Mail in Toronto:

In The King’s Speech, which opens Friday, Colin Firth’s performance as George VI, the British wartime monarch who had a bad stammer, will undoubtedly earn him an Oscar nomination. Other possible Oscar nominees in theatres now include Anne Hathaway, for her role in Love and Other Drugs as a young woman with Parkinson’s disease. Then there’s Jeff Bridges as a one-eyed marshal in True Grit, and James Franco, who graduates to amputee status over the course of 127 Hours.

Disability has always been a preoccupation of the Hollywood story – and image-making machine. The list is long and familiar: As Good as It Gets, Avatar, A Beautiful Mind, Forrest Gump (pictured), My Left Foot, Rain Man and Scent of a Woman. “The academy is a veritable dictionary of diseases, both physical and mental,” writes Emanuel Levy in his book All about Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards.

Sometimes it seems all those worthy movies about addiction, alcoholism, amnesia, autism, blindness, disfigurement and paraplegia are sacrificial offerings to the movie muse, so the studios can keep on making more frivolous films that celebrate youth, speed and beauty.

One interesting shift is that the disability-rights lobby has begun to get involved in the conversation. Hollywood’s affliction addiction was satirized in Ben Stiller’s 2008 film Tropic Thunder, in which Robert Downey Jr. discusses the error of going “full retard” (as in Sean Penn’s I Am Sam) as opposed to “half retard,” when vying for an Oscar.

Disability-rights groups, who have become increasingly prominent during the past few Oscar seasons, didn’t care for the joke. The 2009 Oscars also saw protests against Jerry Lewis receiving the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award because of his offensive comments about people who use wheelchairs. There were also protests in 2005, for nominations for Million Dollar Baby and The Sea Inside, both about quadriplegic characters who are taken off life support.

You might wonder why people with disabilities aren’t more grateful to Hollywood for its efforts. To answer that, try watching Bonnie Sherr Klein’s 2008 National Film Board documentary, Shameless: the ART of Disability (you can see it on the NFB website) in which five people have a pyjama party, each picking one Hollywood depiction of disability.

Humorist David Roche, whose face is disfigured, picks The Elephant Man. Catherine Frazee, a poet and professor, who uses a wheelchair, picks Heidi, the movie where the plucky Shirley Temple inspires another little girl to get out of her wheelchair and walk.

You quickly grasp that Hollywood’s portrayal of characters with disabilities is, when not offensive, typically ridiculous.

There are a lot of useful things to learn from the growing field of disabilities studies. An essay by Michael Hayes and Rhonda Black in the Disability Studies Quarterly (Spring, 2003) analyzes the pattern Hollywood films typically use: (a) confinement, (b) hope for rehabilitation, (c) denial of rehabilitation, and (d) reconciliation to confinement. At the heart of the critique is the point that the films’ focus on pity, or sadness about another’s condition, is all about confinement: Poor them, kind us.

While dabbing our eyes this Christmas over some of these award-calibre performances, it might be useful to ask ourselves a few questions: Is this a disabled character or just a character with a disability? Does their impairment make them saintly, super-human or villainous? Does the movie imply the character’s only release from their condition is through death?

To put the issue in seasonal terms, we should be still able to say, “God bless us, every one,” without buying the whole pitiful turkey.