Is Hollywood’s Obsession with the Disabled Genuine?

Rain Man

Hollywood likes to give Oscars to actors who give dedicated performances of people who are challenged physically or mentally; but they show hesitation when things get too real and a character and actor have the same condition.

By Andrew Moodie

When it comes to the Oscars, there are certain types of films you can always count on to win an award, whether it’s the brilliantly made war film, a lavish adaption of a classic novel, or a biopic about a historical icon. But in recent years another kind of film the Oscars pay a lot of attention to has surfaced and has since become something of an obsession for them. I’m talking of course about the portrayals of the disabled and how they often win the best actor/actress awards.

First of all we should understand what would attract a performer to take on the role of someone who is or was disabled. I think it’s what the role would ask of you, and if you were willing to accept that challenge, and if it’s agreed that the actor went above and beyond, and gets an Oscar for their performance, then your hard work has paid off.

Examples of this start in 1988’s Rain Man, where autistic savant Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman) goes on a life-changing journey with his selfish brother Charlie (Tom Cruise), who thinks he might be able to use his brother’s savant abilities to his advantage, but as clichéd as it sounds he learns otherwise and it makes him a better person. In the end Hoffman took a Best Actor award and Barry Levinson took best director. And while it did improve public awareness for autism and destroy some misconceptions about it, it couldn’t escape making a stereotype, used by the media, that a majority of people on the spectrum possess these savant skills.

This kind of Oscar winning performance quickly appeared again a year later in 1989 with Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Christy Brown in My Left Foot, who had cerebral palsy and yet manged to harness control of one of his feet and forged a career as both an artist and writer. Besides the disabilities there’s one key difference between Babbitt and Brown. One is the product of a well-researched script by a pair of screenwriters, one of whom met a real autistic savant named Kim Peek, and on the other hand Brown was a real person.

Over the next few years film would see countless Oscars going to actors for characters who were in some way disabled. Like Al Pacino as the blind but quick-witted and fast-living war veteran Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman. Then you have Jamie Foxx as the blind but real soul legend Ray Charles and Nicole Kidman as bipolar-suffering novelist Virginia Woolf.

The portrayals don’t just apply to real people and these heavy dramas, as Jack Nicholson demonstrated in As Good as it Gets where he plays a writer with OCD who also comes across as very misanthropic. But as the clichés demand, he changes thanks to looking after a dog and even pays medical expenses for an acutely asthmatic boy, just so that he can keep contact with the boy’s waitress mother. Despite already having an Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nicholson took home another best actor Oscar. Let’s also not forget Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump who is born with below average intelligence, a curved spine and wears leg braces as child, but still succeeds as a ping-pong champion, a football star and runner. And somehow also manages to serve in Vietnam.

People with disabilities are often born with them, so can portraying someone who became disabled in their adult life produce the same results? If Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking (who acquired Motor Neuron Disease while studying at Oxford tells us anything) in The Theory of Everything the answer is yes, it can.

But what happens when you get someone who actually is disabled to play a disabled character?

Well, it varies. Marlee Matlin received an historic best actress Oscar for 1986’s Children of a Lesser God, first such award to be given to a deaf actress. But nearly 32 years later, the same failed to happen for the highly praised performance of Millicent Simmonds (who is deaf in real life) playing a deaf character in the horror film A Quiet Place.

An argument has come up a few times recently stating that disabled roles should only go to actors with that specific disability. In 2019 Bryan Cranston gave an interview defending his portrayal of a wheelchair-bound man in The Upside where he was responding to the debate that Hollywood actors are taking roles from the disabled minority. He voiced the fact that the objective of an actor is to be someone else. I happen to agree with him – acting is about giving an interpretation of someone who may be wildly different from you, not playing a slightly fictionalised version of yourself.

The PEanut Butter Falcon

Some did take that idea to heart, as Zack Gottsagen (who has Down’s Syndrome) was cast in The Peanut Butter Falcon as a character with that same condition and the film was praised for its authentic casting. I can understand this but I don’t agree that we should restrict able-bodied actors to able-bodied roles, and disabled people shouldn’t only be allowed to play disabled roles. It’s all about range and finding a way to balance the two..

TV has also been making a lot of noise in the disabled area, with Freddie Highmore as autistic surgeon Shaun Murphy in medical drama The Good Doctor. There is also Keir Gilchrist as Sam in Netflix comedy-drama Atypical, and Max Vento as Joe in BBC Drama The A Word.

What do these actors have in common? They all play characters with autism but don’t have it themselves. But they give such acclaimed performances that whether they actually have the condition or not shouldn’t be a deciding factor at all.

What happens when you go halfway, and get a disabled actor to play a character who does not share the same condition – like Atticus Shaffer who has Osteogenesis Imperfecta but spent nearly a decade playing Brick Heck in the hit sitcom The Middle. Brick is portrayed as highly knowledgeable, loves reading, but he has quirks and is socially introverted. It was suggested the character had Asperger’s syndrome, and despite that never being confirmed Shaffer still gave good and acclaimed performances.

Asperger’s has had in a hand in film longer then you might think, as it’s known to cause someone to become very knowledgeable on a key subject. It’s said that Asperger’s is what led to Dan Aykroyd’s ghost obsession which would influence him to write and star in the hit film Ghostbusters.

It’s also been implied that famous directors also have also exhibited Asperger’s, just that no one really picked up on it. Examples include Stanley Kubrick who was very demanding to work with and made meticulously crafted work, and Tim Burton. The latter was informally diagnosed by his former wife Helena Bonham Carter as he displayed several behaviours typical of someone who is on the spectrum – like working with the same actors almost every time.

So what to take away from all this? It’s that Hollywood like to give Oscars to actors who give dedicated performances of people who are challenged physically or mentally; but they show hesitation when things get too real and a character and actor have the same condition. If you’re an able-bodied actor playing a disabled role and get an Oscar, good for you and don’t let negative criticism get in the way. And for the disabled performers, they maybe do have a condition but don’t get an award.

Portrayals of the disabled, especially with autism, have come a long way in the last thirty years and we can take heart that more such actors now appear on screen, Oscar or no Oscar.

Andrew Moodie

Andrew Moodie was born on 19 November 1999. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was the first film he saw on the big screen at the age of five and he has been a keen admirer of films ever since. He expanded his film taste and knowledge through the years before deciding to become a film critic at seventeen and write articles relating to the film industry. He started reviewing films through a blog called The Truth About Movies, now upgraded into a professional website called Andrew Moodie Film Review.

When not reviewing and writing articles he enjoys listening to old music and film scores, exercising regularly and is rather an obsessive reader.

2 Comments

  • Excellent article! I agree that non autistic actors like Freddie Highmore can play autistic persons; it is no different than an actor playing a different sexual orientation than their real life one. I love that Andrew Moodie started his love of film with Freddie Highmore! I too am an #actuallyautistic fan of his work.

  • I love that you started your love of film with Freddie Highmore! Thank you for your comments about The Good Doctor! I agree that non autistic actors can play autistic persons; it is no different than an actor playing a sexual orientation that is different than their actual orientation.

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