Disabilities in the Media: The Movies

by Phil Ivory on July 31, 1997 - 5:00pm

After decades of stereotyped, often demeaning portrayals, has Hollywood gotten any better at showing the complexity of living with a disability?

For better or worse, physical disabilities have been an integral part of the cinematic experience, dating back to the birth of the movies a full century ago.

In 1898, cinema pioneer Thomas Edison produced a film called "The Fake Beggar," its 50-second narrative involving a man who pretends to be blind in order to beg for money on the street. (The scam is revealed when a policeman spots him bending over to pick up a coin. The policeman gives chase. End of story.)

The trend to use disability for frivolous shocks and gags continued through 1908's "Don't Pull My Leg" — a presumably comic tale about a stolen prosthetic leg — and up to and beyond 1989's "See No Evil, Hear No Evil," with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder straining to milk laughs from visual and hearing impairments.

Character types

"There are a lot of comical characters with disabilities, characters who are blind or hard of hearing who don't understand what's going on and look very foolish," says Paul Longmore, associate professor of history and director of the Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University.

"Also, there are many villains with disabilities, and that reflects a very old idea that disability causes a loss of moral self-control," Longmore says. This particular type has flourished through popular characters such as Captain Hook in "Peter Pan," Mr. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life" and the formidable Darth Vader in "Star Wars" (who required a mechanical breathing apparatus to survive).

Martin F. Norden, author of Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies (Rutgers University Press, 1994), cites the "sweet innocent" as another disability character type, one whose roots go back to Tiny Tim in "A Christmas Carol." The popularity of 1994's "Forrest Gump" and Disney's 1996 animated "Hunchback of Notre Dame" remake may in part be due to the enduring power of the "sweet innocent" stereotype.

Norden notes that, in many Hollywood films, disability wasn't even allowed to exist at the end of the story. Either a disabled character would die, or the disability would be cured, as when the blind flower girl recovers her sight in the 1931 Charlie Chaplin classic, "City Lights." Unfortunately, decades of narrow, stereotyped, often demeaning portrayals failed to reflect the complexity of living with a disability and provided no enlightenment on the subject to the able-bodied population.

A step forward

After World War II, Hollywood's depiction of disability took a realistic step forward with the portrayal of a war veteran who lost both hands in 1946's "The Best Years of Our Lives," by Harold Russell who was actually so disabled in the war.

The following decades, which brought us the Vietnam War and a concurrent increase in social activism, spawned films that tackled disability in a more head-on fashion, such as "Coming Home" and "Born on the Fourth of July."

Longmore argues, however, that the old stereotypes still persist, or have been supplanted by newer stereotypes. He cites 1992's "Passion Fish," which is about a soap opera actress who is severely disabled in an accident, as an example of a modern stereotype he terms the "drama of adjustment." In such a story, the disabled main character can only transcend disability by overcoming her own bitterness, self-pity and self-absorption.

"This kind of story reinforces the preferred assumption of many people, that the problem is in the disabled individual," Longmore says. "It ignores pervasive discrimination against people with disabilities, and lets viewers off the hook instead of compelling them to confront their own feelings about disability."

In contrast, Longmore says, a film like "My Left Foot," the true chronicle of Irish writer Christy Brown who was severely disabled by cerebral palsy, gives us a disabled character who confronts other people — including the women he's attracted to — about their fears and prejudices regarding his disability.

"It's a rare film in that it redefines the problem as being societal rather than personal or medical," Longmore says.

Common Concerns

Strangely enough, while many types of disability have been portrayed on film, the neuromuscular diseases in MDA's programs have received scant attention from Hollywood. (The words "amyotrophic lateral sclerosis" are never uttered in the Lou Gehrig bio film, "Pride of the Yankees.")

But even though the disabilities are different, films such as "My Left Foot," "The Waterdance," "Passion Fish," and "Lorenzo's Oil" may strike emotional chords with anyone dealing with a disability, since they dramatize such common concerns as hiring attendant care; striving to attain independence; sticking with physical therapy; improving communication skills; finding romance despite severe physical impairment; and holding hope in one's heart for positive results from medical research.

It's undoubtedly true that Hollywood's attitudes toward disability have progressed since the days of "The Fake Beggar" and "Don't Pull My Leg." It's equally certain that there's still a lot of room for improvement.

The following reviews were written by members of MDA's National Task Force on Public Awareness. Each reviewer is affected by a neuromuscular disorder. All of the films are currently available for rental.

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker. Rated R.

"To be or not to be?..." This phrase from Hamlet's soliloquy is uttered repeatedly by Christy Brown, an artist with a severe disability masterfully portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis.

Born with cerebral palsy, which prevents him from walking and causes him great difficulty in speaking, to a very large, poor Irish-Catholic family in Dublin, Christy Brown was raised at home in the face of strong pressure from friends and the community that he be placed in an institution.

"My Left Foot," a true story, relates Christy's struggles with physical inaccessibility, the communication barriers he encounters as a result of his disability, and social stigma that causes him to be perceived as a "vegetable" and a "cripple" by family and friends alike.

In one scene, Christy heroically crawls down a flight of stairs to get help for his mother, who had collapsed at the bottom of the stairs. But onlookers assume that Mrs. Brown fell while carrying Christy up the stairs, and lament that he must be a tremendous burden to his mother.

As a young boy, Christy manages to shatter his family's assumptions about his intellectual abilities when, using his left foot, he scrawls the name of the one person who always believed in him — "MOTHER" — on the floor of the Brown home.

Christy cultivates his talent for painting, which he is able to pursue by grasping a brush with his left foot. This talent is discovered by a beautiful young doctor who works with Christy on his speech therapy. Christy's speech rapidly improves and his affection for the doctor grows.

Listening to Christy's improved diction, Mrs. Brown (Fricker) sadly exclaims, "There's too much hope in his voice." This foreshadows Christy's most crushing experience as he learns that his beloved doctor is engaged to be married. This news, coupled with Christy's alcoholism, causes him to plummet into an abyss of self-loathing.

Healing begins for Christy and his family through the construction of an accessible room of his own that affords him the dignity, autonomy and privacy necessary to continue his painting and to write his memoirs, typing them with the big toe of his left foot.

During a reading of his newly published book, Christy becomes very attracted to the nurse assigned to act as his personal assistant. When she rejects his offer to meet him for a drink, Christy declares, "You're afraid of me! You're afraid of yourself!" The nurse responds to this declaration and the beauty of his written words and consents to have a drink with him. (They were married shortly thereafter.)

The scenes in which Christy is bludgeoned by social stigma are very painful for me to watch. But "My Left Foot" is a must-see for anyone who has ever experienced social isolation or struggled with self-acceptance, and for those seeking a deeper understanding of what it means to be a person with a disability in Western culture.

Chris Rosa
Flushing, N.Y.

Starring Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodard, David Straithairn. Rated R.

"Passion Fish" is a film that takes the viewer on a slow but steady journey from tragedy to triumph, from bitterness to sweetness, from inner turmoil to inner peace.

Not having personally experienced a sudden dramatic loss of physical ability, I can only imagine the nightmare the main character, May-Alice (McDonnell), has to endure as, due to an accident, she goes from being a healthy ambulatory person to a virtual prisoner of her own body in one day.

Because I'm affected by muscular dystrophy, I have become accustomed to gradual debilitating changes within my body over many years. That hasn't made life easier, but has given me more time to adapt to losses in body function.

In "Passion Fish," I watched what seemed to be a natural progression through the five stages of mourning — from denial to anger to depression, etc. until the protagonist came to accept and deal with her loss.

At first, May-Alice finds her only salvation in a bottle. The women sent to provide May-Alice with skilled nursing care all seem to be ill-equipped to deal with her physical needs and her psychological state. But May-Alice's anger and bitterness are challenged when she meets Chantelle (Woodard), a nurse whose soul is as lost as her own. The film takes on a new twist as May-Alice's and Chantelle's needs for each other deepen. Chantelle's struggle with chemical dependency renders her as needy as May-Alice.

A positive transformation takes place within May-Alice as she accepts and takes control of her life, learning to appreciate old friends, nature and the person within. She finally regains her self-respect when she refuses to compromise her dignity by returning to acting work to portray a helpless misfit. Her self-esteem and confidence resurface as she reestablishes relationships with those she cared about outside her sheltered world.

The film provides a fair depiction of a person coping with a newly acquired physical disability. Unfortunately, most of us don't find the Chantelles of the world to encourage and/or force us every step of the way. Aaah ... the movies!

Shelley Obrand
Davie, Fla.

Starring Nick Nolte, Susan Sarandon and Zack O'Malley Greenburg. Rated PG-13.

"If a person cannot move, cannot see, cannot speak, how can we know what is in the soul?" wonders the father in "Lorenzo's Oil," a true story of a family's struggle to save their son, Lorenzo, who was found to have the rare degenerative disorder, ALD, at the age of 6.

Because the acting by Nolte and Sarandon as the parents is superb and the dialogue believable, you can't help but be sucked into this film. If there is any difficulty, I'd pinpoint it to Nolte's awkward Italian accent.

The first half deals with acceptance of a fatal diagnosis, parental feelings of blame and guilt for transmitting the genetic disorder, and, ultimately, education and empowerment. The transition from naiveté to active championing of Lorenzo in his fight, despite opposition from other parents, is the essence of this gripping film.

The second half is so wonderfully positive, you pat yourself on the back for enduring the earlier heartache, such as the scene when a compassionate Sarandon whispers to her child that, if he wants to, it's OK to let go and "fly to Baby Jesus."

The film is not for the squeamish. But knowing it's a true story, one is left with hope beyond measure. It's a rough ride but well worth the journey.

Jan Blaustone
Nashville, Tenn.

Starring Frederic March, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Dana Andrews, Virginia Mayo and Harold Russell.

The widely acclaimed (seven Academy Awards) 1946 movie, "The Best Years of Our Lives," opens with three World War II servicemen being demobilized and returning to their hometown with some trepidation about their adjustment back to civilian life.

One of the veterans, a sailor named Homer, lost both his hands. Homer uses prosthetic "hooks" very skillfully but is apprehensive about how they will be received by his family and, most especially, his fiancee. He tells her: "All I want is for people to treat me like anybody else, instead of pitying me."

After a warm but awkward reception at which Homer is predisposed to view his family's reaction as pitying, he takes refuge in his Uncle Butch's bar with the two other veterans. There Butch counsels Homer, telling him that "Your folks will get used to you and you'll get used to them."

Today, over 50 years later, people with disabilities and mainstream society are still getting used to each other. Times have improved, however. In 1946, Homer, unlike the other veterans, is not expected to be able to work. Today Homer would find more support from civil rights laws, disability groups and from the emerging disability culture, helping him with access to mainstream society and with his self-esteem.

In the end, Homer learns that self-pity can be just as debilitating as the pity of others and that he does not have to go it alone. Harold Russell, who portrayed Homer, was a paratroop sergeant who lost both his hands in a hand-grenade explosion. For his role as Homer he won an Academy Award for best supporting actor and a second special Academy Award "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans."

This movie, which dared to use as an actor a person with a disability, brought to the public's attention how difficult it can be for people with disabilities to find their place in mainstream society. Russell found his place as a business executive and, in 1964, President Johnson appointed him chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped.

Bill Altaffer
Tucson, Ariz.

Starring Eric Stoltz, Wesley Snipes, William Forsythe and Helen Hunt. Rated R.

"The Waterdance" provides great insight into what a person goes through when life is suddenly altered by a disability. Eric Stoltz plays a young writer who becomes a paraplegic as a result of a hiking accident and must recover in a multiethnic rehabilitation center.

There he meets two other paraplegics, played by Snipes and Forsythe, who themselves are learning to adjust to their disabilities.

The movie does an excellent job of realistically dealing with the issues that confront many newly disabled people — especially their personal relationships. The handling of the main character's relationship — both emotional and physical — with his girlfriend (Hunt) is especially honest.

Yet the thing I liked most is that the movie showed that, though their lives were altered dramatically, the characters, for the most part, learned to move forward in a positive way. The movie was written and co-directed by Neal Jimenez, who was paralyzed in a 1984 accident.

Matt Schuman
Greeley, Colo.

Starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke.

"The Miracle Worker" seems to have been ahead of its time in its accurate portrayal of disability. The film shows us that the young Helen Keller (Duke), blind and deaf from infancy, was treated as little more than a family pet before the arrival of her teacher, Ann Sullivan (Bancroft).

One of the central themes is how family attitudes tended to emotionally handicap young Helen. The movie effectively depicts the family's low expectations of their disabled daughter and gives us a look into how physical disabilities were equated with mental disabilities in an earlier era.

The portrayal of Helen and the other characters is accurate and forthright. The filmmakers don't hold back to protect our sensibilities, and instead provide a no-holds-barred view of the tragedy and the triumph of growing up and overcoming severe disability.

David Sheffield
Silsbee, Texas

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