The Award Goes to…

Annually on a Sunday in February the Dolby Theatre rolls out a red carpet. Shiny vehicles deliver celebrities to moments of early evening glamour. Flashbulbs click-click and capture the beauty on display. Snarky television personalities commentate on every visual aspect: clothes, hair, make-up, but no Mani Cam this year. Small victories.

Glitz. Awards. Speeches. What’s missing from the Oscars, an American culture institution? In a word, diversity. Who determines the highest accolades in the film industry? There are over 6,000 people, the Academy voters, who cast ballots to crown the victor. The Los Angeles Times publishes demographics of the voters. Basically it’s older, white guys. Efforts by the current president to be more inclusive have started, but it’s going to take time as Academy membership is for life. Other sources have pointed out that not only are the Academy voters a bit homogeneous, they are not aligned with the greater American moviegoing public either.

I want the Los Angeles Times breakdown of Academy voters to show not just race, age, gender, but disability and sexuality status, too. Minorities deserve representation in the voter pool. When that idea fails to dominate on virtue, there’s another way. Executives know money talks. Increased ratings and sales mean revenue. To boost ratings of the ceremony broadcast like Netflix and Amazon Studios have shown on alternative network TV, diversity would help.

Let’s focus. Which area of Oscars non-diversity will I analyze? Big surprise, disability. In 2013, 12.7% of Americans were living with a disability. It is unknown publicly how many Oscar voters are living with a disability, how many industry workers are impaired by say cerebral palsy, autism, dementia, blindness or a speech impediment. Do you think it’s at least twelve percent?

Wait, you could say. There are a lot of films featuring stories about disability. Yes, and many of them win awards. Rain Man. Scent of a Woman. The Theory of Everything. Still Alice. Don’t be fooled. As public affairs specialist Lawrence Carter-Long for the National Council on Disability said on the February episode of BBC’s Ouch! Disability Talk Show,

“These films aren’t really made with disabled audiences in mind. They’re made for non-disabled audiences in mind.They’re not written by disabled people. They’re not directed by disabled people. They’re not produced by disabled people. Very rarely do they have disabled people in them.”

The hype and fanfare overshadow this. The prized trophies matter. Regarding the quest for statuettes, the BBC explains a proven way to a Best Actor/Actress victory: cast a non-disabled actor to play a disabled character, 16% of the winners have done this.

This year, the frontrunner for Best Actress, Julianne Moore, portrayed a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Switching across the aisle, all of the Best Actor nominees portrayed actual or implied mental illness or physical disability. All. Of. Them.

LA, we have a problem.

The lack of disabled actors on screen troubles me within the framework of diversity. I want to see more disabled actors working. Yet the mere instance of “abled acting disabled” doesn’t offend me. Why do I feel like that, especially as a woman with a visual impairment? It falls under the job description umbrella of “acting.”

The problem I have with ableds acting disabled is the merited notoriety for the mere act of doing so, especially when there’s a conspicuous lack of validation of those roles from the community of the portrayed disability. For example, none of the visually impaired people I encounter rave about Al Pacino as the Best Actor winner for Scent of a Woman. The president of the NFB, Dr. Marc Mauer, said in 2011,

“When it comes to blindness, the filmmakers express their version of reality without comprehending what blindness is. Blind people are often complex, interesting, subtle, romantic, fascinating, or boring, but the filmmakers do not show this. Much of the time the depiction concentrates on one factor, blindness. If the principal character in the movie is blind, virtually anything else that the filmmaker wants to throw into the mix is regarded as believable. The filmmakers are using their image of blindness rather than blindness as we know it. They wish to have the advantages of the disability without having to suffer the indignity or disfigurement that they perceive as part of it.”

Granted some industry praise may be acknowledgment of preparation before a role, Dustin Hoffman for Rain Man, Daniel Day Lewis’s notorious method acting. But why bother casting a non-disabled actor who must vigorously prepare to fake a disability when there are actors available immediately who live and go about daily life with the concerned disability? The celebrity brings in the cash I suppose.

Oh wait. I’m forgetting the sticky notion that many ableds don’t like to be reminded of impairment, nonetheless permanent disability. They–along with myself before I gained my low vision, I admit–prefer the dream sequences of non-impaired life, whether as flashbacks or fantasy snippets in the story or in reality as the actor faking the disability during production is now strutting the red carpet with ease and clarity. The Oscar winning movie featuring a disability narrative includes the element of actors portraying the “feel sorry for yourself then overcome the wretched disability” arc complemented by a wink to the audience as a reminder that this disability is temporary.

Are there prestigious films which portray disability within the context of that disability’s community, as a culture rather than a physical prop, a performative way to symbolize struggle? I haven’t seen any. As Frances Ryan of The Guardian says, “Perhaps it is time to think before we next applaud “cripping up”. Disabled people’s lives are more than something for non-disabled actors to play at.” When I looked for more viewpoints on this idea, I found Ms Ryan is not alone. Slate’s Scott Jordan Harris in his piece on The Theory of Everything says, “[The] movie exists for two purposes: to make able-bodied people feel good about themselves and to win Oscars.” Harsh.

The numbers don’t lie. Non-disabled actors casted as characters with disabilities can and do win accolades for their portrayals. Audiences want this. Well, at least that’s what Hollywood believes the viewing audience wants. Is that what you want? How do you feel about films with disability narratives? When is it acceptable for non-disabled actors to play characters with disabilities?

As winners approach the Dolby Theatre stage at this year’s ceremony, they will climb stairs amid stares, the center of attention, a moment of glory. But I never see a ramp. Does one exist on the side? I can’t tell from photos. The people using wheelchairs are always presenters and appear on stage from behind a curtain rather than within the audience, eliminating the central “going up” act emblematic of accomplishment. Let’s get a ramp, center stage.

In the future, let’s witness more film industry participants with disabilities not just present, but accept awards. Let’s see white canes and guide dogs and wheelchairs and whatever. Even better if the assistive devices contrast with the fancy clothing. They’ll  blend in with the audience because the future audience, like the Academy voters, will be diverse. Show me the orientation and mobility, baby.

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. Casee says:

    Hollywood has the reputation of being in the forefront of change but I find that they lag behind the country in many areas. I am not a big movie goer but I often play “casting director” in my head when watching the occasional film or television. I see a character and think ‘He would have been so much more interesting as a low vision detective’ or ‘Why couldn’t that women cashier not have been in a wheelchair?’ The more disabled people are seen onscreen doing everyday mundane things and some extraordinary things the more we will be considered for employment and as potential romantic partners. More importantly we will be considered part of the human race and not to be feared or looked upon with pity or just ignored completely.

    1. Well said Casee. I like the “casting director” idea, I have done that a few times myself…make the “extraordinary” ordinary.

  2. herheadache says:

    These things take time, but I am running low on patience.

  3. There is no excuse for this. Now that schools from early stage on are committed to inclusivity in the UK I wonder why none of the children with disabilities go on to become actor when they move on. We have a few actors with disabilities in some of the soaps and there is the wonderful Warwick Davis but it would be interesting to see statistics for entries into drama schools. I haven’t seen a blind or VI actor since Esmond Knight in the 1950s. And while I’m on my high horse why didn’t David Oleyowo win an Oscar for his portrayal of Martin Luther King? Thank you Susan, inspiring post.

    1. Bridget, it’s so shameful, David Oleyowo wasn’t even one of the nominees. And remember Al Pacino’s Best Actor win? He “bested” Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm X. That’s something to chew on.

  4. Afterthought…why don’t you send a version of this blog to the film editor at the Guardian newspaper? Worth a try.

    1. Tempted, but I think Frances Ryan’s piece from January covered it well. Her article along with the BBC’s Ouch! Disability Talk Show episode compelled me to gather my thoughts.

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