Oscar and Hollywood’s Nearly ‘Invisible’ People With Disabilities

Tim Gray

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Hollywood loves to imitate success: Superhero movies, remakes, sequels. However, it’s been almost 33 years since Marlee Matlin won her Oscar for “Children of a Lesser God.” So why haven’t studio executives demanded more actors with disabilities to play characters with disabilities?

Since 1988, one-third of Oscar’s 30 lead actor winners were portraying a character with a disability, from Dustin Hoffman (“Rain Man,” 1989) through Eddie Redmayne (2015, “The Theory of Everything”). That’s 10 in just one category. In contrast, there have been only two winning actors with disabilities — two! — in Oscar’s entire 91 years: Harold Russell (1946, “The Best Years of Our Lives”) and Matlin.

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This column was designed to put current Oscar hopefuls into historical context. But after Russell and Matlin, there are no more names to cite.

Hollywood stepped up its push for inclusion/diversity in 2015, and this year’s Oscar race includes more black and female filmmakers than ever before. However, there are very few films featuring people with disabilities (or PWD).

But a trio are worth awards consideration: Roadside Attractions’ “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” Music Box Films’ “Give Me Liberty” and Warner Bros.’ “Motherless Brooklyn.”

“Peanut Butter” was written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. It’s a comedy/road movie, starring Shia LaBeouf and Zack Gottsagen as Zak, a character with Down syndrome, like the actor himself. It has earned more than $20 million at the domestic box office, three times its production cost.

Tim Zajaros and Christopher Lemole of Armory Films produced and financed “Peanut Butter Falcon.” Lemole says simply, “People were resistant to a film starring a person with a disability. It’s a risk. We took that risk.”

They planned to enter film festivals, but programmers turned them down. Like many people dealing with PWD, they feared making a wrong move, so avoided the topic altogether. Happily, it was accepted at South by Southwest, won the Audience Award, and Roadside Attractions has been “a great partner,” the Armory duo say.

Big misconception: A person with a disability will require heavy maintenance. Zajaros says, “Zack would get tired, but he was always honest and authentic in his acting, and he got authenticity from the other actors. There were way more positives than negatives. We would do this again in a heartbeat.”

Lemole sums up, “There’s a lot of talk about inclusion. I hope this opens doors for other actors with disabilities.”

Give Me Liberty” is about a service-van driver and the people he encounters, including several PWD. The film was directed by Kirill Mikhanovsky, who wrote it with Alice Austen; the cast includes Lauren (Lolo) Spencer, who has ALS, like the character she plays. Tracy is not saintly, and her life is not centered around her wheelchair. “That was one reason I wanted to do this,” Spencer tells Variety, laughing, “I ain’t never seen nobody like me on the screen!”

Funding was available — but only if they cast an able-bodied name actor in the role. “But the director and producer were adamant about casting a young black woman who was a wheelchair user. They weren’t budging on that,” Spencer says. “Through my work, I try to show that a person with a disability is not angelic — not what we in the community call ‘inspiration porn.’ We’re just human. But in Hollywood and in society, we’re essentially invisible.”

On Dec. 3, the National Board of Review cited “Peanut Butter Falcon” and “Give Me Liberty” as two of the year’s top indie films.

In “Motherless Brooklyn,” Norton plays Lionel, who is dismissed by other characters because he has Tourette’s syndrome. But that condition ultimately helps him solve the crime. Norton is not authentic casting, but he initiated the project and stuck with it for 20 years. More importantly, he treats Lionel with intelligence, nuance and complexity.

Norton says: “The idea of a character being heroic only because he’s dealing with a disability, it’s not enough. To make a story that’s only about dealing with their condition — it doesn’t acknowledge the full human spectrum of a person.To make a story that’s only about their dealing with a disability, it takes away a deeper potential. People with disabilities onscreen are trapped in the gilded cage of nobility. They can be so much more.”