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Disability in film: Are attitudes changing?

Guest Guest | 10:20 UK time, Thursday, 21 February 2013

Marion Cotillard with an orca in Rust and Bone

Ahead of Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony in LA, disabled film critic Scott Jordan Harris looks back at the year's bumper crop of disability related films. In an essay originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4's arts programme, Front Row, he explores whether or not a watershed moment has been reached in cinema's approach to physical and sensory impairment.

Rust and Bone, The Sessions, Amour and Untouchable are all fine films. They are accurate and unflinching in the way they address a range of topics - most notably sex and independence - that affect disabled people in ways they do not affect the able-bodied. But I doubt these films do quite enough that we would regard them, a decade from now, as major milestones in the development of cinema's approach to disability.

It is telling that the two of these four films not based on true stories - Amour and Rust and Bone - feature characters becoming disabled. In fiction films at least, disability is often only something that suddenly afflicts an energetic able-bodied person: a soldier who loses his legs in battle, say, or - as in Rust and Bone - a trainer at a sea life centre who loses hers in a spectacular accident involving a killer whale.

It sometimes seems like filmmakers believe audiences will only be interested in the business of becoming disabled, and the short-term psychological effects thereof, when I'm certain the reverse is true. How we became disabled is often the least interesting thing about us. It is how we spend our lives afterwards that is usually most worth documenting, as evidenced by The Sessions and Untouchable. They tell the true stories of paralysed men who did extraordinary things. Or rather, who refused to be prevented from doing ordinary things.

But to me, the key characteristic of these films is that they feature disabled characters but not disabled actors. We are now amused to recollect that, in Elizabethan theatre, all the female roles were played by boys and we cringe to recall that white actors once routinely blacked up. After the true watershed for depictions of disability in film, we will, I hope, question why any disabled character is ever played by an able-bodied actor.

There are, of course, greatly acclaimed disabled actors and there have been for many years. As long ago as 1946, Harold Russell, who lost both his hands in World War II, won two Oscars for his portrayal, in The Best Years of Our Lives, of a serviceman who had suffered the same fate. And the deaf actress Marlee Matlin remains the youngest person, able-bodied or disabled, male or female, to win an Oscar for best performance in a leading role. She received the academy award in 1987 for her portrayal of Sarah Norman, in Children of a Lesser God, aged just 21.

But Russell and Matlin, and a few other notable examples, are glorious exceptions to cinema's overriding rule that disabled people exist to be imitated as a test of an able-bodied actor's range and skill but not to be recruited by casting agents.

Any film about disabled people , however, deserves applause for existing at all. I hope we soon see many more like the four I've focussed on here, because the greater number of characters with disabilities there are to play, the more chances there will be that disabled actors will get to play them.

I hope, too, that we soon see many more films that do not focus primarily on disability but in which disabled characters are simply sewn into the fabric of the story, just as we are sewn into the fabric of life.

It will only be when films featuring disabled people become so commonplace that they cease to seem like a genre of their own, that we will truly have passed a turning point in the way film chooses to show us.

• This essay was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Front Row programme, just before the Oscar nominations were announced. Click to hear the audio version, read by author Scott Jordan Harris.

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  • Comment number 1.

    It would be so great to see more people with disabilities on TV. It would be jarring to society at first, but after a while we who have disabilities could have as much chance as anyone else to be in show biz. And of course public tolerance of the "different" would increase. Currently we are only spotlighted as inspirational stories or social oddities. How refreshing to be presented as PEOPLE.

  • Comment number 2.

    I'd be interested to hear people's thoughts on Channel 4's Last Leg show. My own personal take is that it's good that it's presented as a chat/comedy show which just happens to be hosted by a disabled presenter, rather than a show specifically about disability.


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