If you have a gammy fin or a congenital neurological disorder, chances are you don’t often see yourself onscreen. Unless of course you’re a fish and you’re watching Finding Dory, released in the UK late last week. In order to celebrate two of the most prominent differently-abled characters in cinema history – young Nemo, with his withered fin, and Dory, who famously suffers short-term memory loss – we’ve compiled ten more favourite characters with their own disabilities.
Our main ground rule was that we couldn’t pick real people; that’s far too easy, playing nicely into the TV-movie-of-the-week feel that many of these inspiration porn biopics essentially amount to. We’re looking for genuine organic representation, films about fictional people wherein the writer has actually chosen to make a character differently abled. This meant that some of our favourite performances – John Hawkes in The Sessions, Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker – had to be excised. And those films are genuinely excellent, don’t get us wrong; but this wider issue of representation is one of the largest and most important out there.
The selections themselves speak to this: several of our listed characters are merely deaf, which isn’t generally considered, within the deaf community, to be a disability per se; but referring back to our representation point, how many deaf characters in cinema can you really name? How often do screenwriters – even the most interesting and out-there – actually bother to assign characters alternative traits? So too our wheelchair-bound characters. Within the world of cinema, if one is differently abled then one is essentially considered dis-abled. It could be contended, actually, that only one of the characters on this list is truly debilitated (try and guess which one!). But this is what we’ve got; about half of this list may well be (rightly) controversial. It’s slim fucking pickings, friends. And this is utterly ridiculous. Time to go out and force some change.
10. Belinda Mac Donald (Johnny Belinda, 1948)
So many films of the 1940s are almost comically misogynistic slices of problematic melodrama. But so many of those – the best ones, natch – also feature myriad pleasures and genuine artistic triumphs. Chief among these is the condescending Johnny Belinda, which manages the impressive feat of intelligently representing a sort of Beauvoirian first wave-style feminism while at the same time pandering to exactly the same know-your-limits attitude to womanhood that made Golden Age Hollywood so inherently hellish. Belinda herself (Jane Wyman) has everything befall her – congenital deaf-muteness, a rape, an unplanned pregnancy, plus more severe spoilers – but carries on regardless. That’s because nearly no one seems to notice what a high degree of intelligence she has; and with Wyman’s curious, sparky performance a Hollywood genre was practically born. To its credit, this well-acted film deftly sidesteps total laughability via a perfectly conceived third-act sequence where Belinda must protect her baby – but this is mostly interesting as an historical artifact.
9. Various characters (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975)
The social model of disability in action. Many of the key ensemble members in this asylum dramedy are actually self-incarcerated, as it turns out; alone among the “weirdos” in being forcibly locked-up is the smoking, drinking, fucking, all-American Randle P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson, in his definitive role). The single most brilliant thing about this screenplay is its refusal to deify Mac as a pure totem of anti-establishment moxie, as its original author – the somewhat psychotic, sometimes violent Ken Kesey – intended. Instead, we have a group of men with largely non-debilitating mental issues including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, anger and autism (plus selective muteness) subjected to a limbo-like state of whitewashed routine, confined within a perpetually wintry psychiatric ward – all because something, someone, made them feel they had to. They admit feeling safer. There is certainly heroism and wonder in Mac, as he strives with incredulity and passion against an insane system, but it is only through the plight of his fellow inmates that his journey gains such power. Ultimately, we have to ask, are these characters actually disabled, or do we simply assume they are?
8. John J. Macreedy (Bad Day at Black Rock, 1955)
By far Spencer Tracy’s most 100% awesome role sees him taking on the shifty inhabitants of a racist mining town, armed with – well, one arm. The other, lost in combat, dangles lamely on his left and has to be manipulated sometimes, perhaps for aesthetic purposes. Macreedy is probably far too old for this shit, but that’s the only thing stopping him on his quest to first discover the fate of, and then avenge the murder of, a man named Komoko; his arm certainly isn’t an issue. As John Sturges’ classic builds in darkness, so too does his protagonist move from the relative comfort of a cathartic bar fight to the genuine horrors of a doomed car chase. But then, Macreedy is an actual hero: a man who gets no pleasures from winning fights and using violence. He lost his arm in the war, goddammit, and this refreshingly unhypocritical film never forgets just how important that is.
7. Sarah Norman (Children of a Lesser God, 1986)
Children of a Lesser God sits in response to the usual able-saviour plotline that befalls these middlebrow disability dramas. This is largely because Sarah, as played by deaf actress Marlee Matlin, is having none of her paramour’s shenanigans. Where James (William Hurt) keeps trying to help her speak and find a place among the hearing people that make up this world, Sarah first insists that it’s not worth conforming and then, in the film’s most startling scene – an elongated two-hander between these masterful performers – accuses him, basically, of being a patronising chauvinistic idiot who’s trying to control and coddle her. Which is fair enough, and is a major fist-bump moment for a character so lovable. Sarah is sardonic, witty, and perfectly embodied by an actor whose physical presence is so pronounced and exuberant that one hardly notices the silence projected from her mouth. Of course, any discerning romance fan can guess how the film ultimately plays out – they even learn a little something along the way – but this does little to spoil the unpredictable wonder of Matlin’s performance, and the subversive power of her character.
6. Raymond Babbitt (Rain Man, 1988)
Detractors often speak of Rain Man as a classic Oscar-bait film, a condescending piece of generalised mawkishness whose greatest claim to cultural influence was the widespread misapprehension that all autistic people were genius savants. This is a failing, however, of the middlebrow audience rather than the film itself, which simply tries to focus on one particular character with a rather debilitating learning disability. Raymond Babbitt is, if nothing else, perfectly characterised by the much-imitated Dustin Hoffman, but also working in favour of this rather sentimental film is its stark realism. Wait, what? Yeah, stark realism. Raymond is a really fucking difficult person to work with, live with, be related to. And oftentimes he’s simply hilarious, in an inherently sad way. This is only absurd Hollywood drivel if you’ve never lived or worked with or taught people with severe learning disabilities. In actual fact, it’s a mad and frustrating road trip movie that just about earns its hokey themes of stuff-we-can-learn-from-each-other because of how frank the preceding work often is. Rain Man is probably the supreme example of “autism comedy”. Just think about that.
5. Forrest Gump and Lt. Dan (Forrest Gump, 1994)
This is a film many cineastes remain on the fence about – but if there’s one major redeeming quality, a single great element Robert Zemeckis’ dramedy epic contributed to the world, it’s the relationship between
George and Lennie Lt. Dan and Forrest Gump. Between the characters and across their scenes, the balance of humour and frustration, silliness and outright anguish, is genuinely potent. Even when it gestures wildly towards inspiration porn – every other scene, really, of the entire film – and Dan starts ascending toward his “redemption” in a manner too hacked-together for real spiritual nourishment, the fact of these two living out their “Midnight Cowboy” year in a codependent relationship does a great deal to strengthen both. For one long, near-glorious segment of the film, we veer away from an archetypal disabled-carer relationship and into a bizarre but utterly natural alliance between a smart man with no legs and a walking man with, er, <points at head>. It is exactly this quasi-subversive sweetness that makes Forrest Gump so enduring.
4. Homer Parrish (The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946)
One of the early disability flicks – predating Johnny Belinda, even – that treats its subject with genuine compassion and sympathy, rather than disingenuous lionising. This is because William Wyler’s film sprang straight from the aftermath of World War Two, drenched in the very recent and very real losses of so many things: limbs, lives and loves being chief among the film’s themes. It was the first release to really deal with PTSD and its debilitating grip, and it also notably featured a handless, be-hooked performer, war vet Harold Russell, as one of the three central men. The melodrama and much of the acting style (particularly the legendary Fredric March) are certainly of their time (in a not-so-good way), but the down-the-line, no-nonsense treatment of its topical themes would arguably have less potency if not for the timing – and were it not for Russell’s deeply-felt performance as a man who, along with so many of his generation, has to tentatively readjust to a world technically the same, but very much uncertain.
3. H.W. Plainview (There Will Be Blood, 2007)
For most of There Will Be Blood, Daniel Plainview’s son-of-convenience H.W. is played by the young Dillon Freasier, in a surprisingly effective performance combining cold, cowed steel and childish adulation for his oil-man father. This is of course until an epic explosion gives H.W. severe hearing loss and his father methodically ships him away (there’s that social model again), a disabled son no longer useful for the family business. When deaf actor Russell Harvard turns up as adult H.W., for a single scene near the end, the prodigal son has become pretty much the winner of the film. He has the careful manner of any other businessman, and calmly tries to persuade Daniel – via an interpreter – if he could buy back his share of the business. When Daniel, by now gripped by an insane paranoia, refuses and reveals that H.W. was in fact a “bastard from a basket,” does H.W. care? Hell naw. He delivers the mother of all put-downs and calmly walks out, wearing a mix of emotions – less concerned, though, with where next for him and his old man and more striding towards a future all his own. In contrast to the next (and final) scene, where Daniel gets rid of another son-figure in a very different way, H.W. is walking out as There Will Be Blood‘s single most successful and likable character, his condition a blessing – liberating him from the petty world of shouting men.
2. David (Live Flesh, 1997)
Paralysed from the waist down during a call, heroic cop David (Javier Bardem) becomes a famous wheelchair-basketball player. Pedro Almodóvar – adapting from a Ruth Rendell novel – almost completely glosses over this though, instead weaving his own typical tapestry of melodramatic plot beats as David, his wife, his former police partner and his wife encounter the man who (apparently) fired the initial shot. It is probable, in fact, that the only real disability on show is the partner’s alcoholism, a trait that has more ramifications for the plot and characters than the gun and wheelchair combined. Almodóvar feeds us, in slivers, typical film-disability tropes – but things like David being bathed, using a stairlift, laboriously entering his car, are merely there to sell a hugely engaging pop-art-thriller about revenge, passion and genre. It is one of very, very few movies where all involved understand, and brilliantly sell, the simple nuance of the phrase “differently” abled.
1. Cast of The Tribe, 2014
Everything about this film and its remarkable performances undercuts everything we thought we knew about film form (but you knew that, it was sold on its clever lack of dialogue) and also, amazingly, disability on film. There is sex and murder, all as explicit as your average von Trier, and there is robbery and assault, and threats and coercion. All of it is silent but for the clapping of hands, the shuffle of clothing, the slap of lips and, occasionally, the magnified thwack of a violent act. And is it subtitled? Is it heck. The tables have instead been turned. We, the hearing audience, must contend with suddenly not hearing anything that can point us toward meaning – even the bravura sex scenes, having had the not-always-realistic vocalisation of a normal movie removed, enter an unfamiliar realm. It is not that this film is impossible to follow, because the actors are of course communicating; rather, we have had our default sense taken away and are consequently slowed down. These characters, with their insane criminal schemes at their school for the deaf, have literally as much agency as any hearing, able-bodied characters in any other film. And you don’t even notice how radically-conceived that aspect of it is until after the madness ends, and you’re allowed to breathe again.
OK, before you start: we missed The Intouchables deliberately, partly because we already had a wonderful long piece on it and partly because it’s the supreme example of the kind of inspiration porn we’ve been trying to question with this piece. That said – what other examples have we missed of wonderful, genuinely interesting characters with disabilities? Sam Worthington in Avatar and the Grandpa in Spy Kids 3D? Sean Penn in I Am Sam? Like we said, slim pickings…