The Sessions, Untouchable, Rust and Bone - it's great they're tackling disability, but where are the disabled actors?

Hollywood and European cinema is breaking taboos about disabled people. Pity they forgot to hire disabled actors to play the leads.

Share
Related Topics

 

Recently there’s been the French films Untouchable, about the relationship between a quadriplegic and his carer, and Rust and Bone in which Marion Cotillard plays a double amputee. Now there’s the American film The Sessions, which opened on Friday, about the real-life story of poet Mark O'Brien, a polio survivor played by John Hawkes, who uses an iron lung and seeks the help of a sex surrogate. All three films have been critically acclaimed for busting taboos about disability and for their sensitive portrayals of the disabled protagonist.

But there’s one thing we should keep in mind about these films: the lead characters are not played by disabled actors.

Now, I’m well aware that finding an actor who comes with his own iron lung might be a tad tricky. To be fair to The Sessions, its director, also a survivor of polio, did audition disabled actors before settling on Hawkes and the film does have disabled actress Jennifer Kumiyama in a supporting role, so credit where it’s due. But as a disabled actress myself (I’ve been, ahem, ‘resting’ since 2009), I can’t help feeling frustrated when films starring non-disabled actors are universally praised for busting taboos about disabled people. Which taboo exactly? The taboo that you can make a successful film about disabled people so long as the actors are non-disabled and look palatable? That taboo was busted when Mary Pickford played a blind girl in A Good Little Devil in 1914.

But it’s Daniel Day-Lewis I blame, for it was surely he that showed Hollywood you could make a hit film about disability so long as the actor cripping up has cheekbones you could chop a butternut squash with. (He’s now moved on to bearding up as Abe Lincoln with the voice of an American William Hague.)

It used to be that disabled actors could at least get work as an Ewok or a Dwarf in a fantasy film. Or at least you could if you were Warwick Davis. But due to the increasing use of Computer Generated Imagery to create Computer Generated Impairments, Hollywood is shrinking non-disabled actors to play Hobbits and shrinking our career opportunities.

It’s a shame because the fact is disabled actors could save Hollywood studios millions of dollars because they wouldn’t need to CGI us. For we have been CGI’d by GOD! And there would be no need for non-disabled actors to say ‘As research, I spent three inspiring months visiting homes for the disabled, learning their special ways like how they eat and stuff!’ For we already have such insider knowledge.

I’ve heard the argument that audiences just don’t want to see disabled actors on screen because we’re not ‘escapist’ enough. I understand this, I really do. I know, deep down, I never could have played a prostitute as charmingly as Julia Roberts did in Pretty Woman. Richard Gere would have paid me for sex and then chucked me out in the street. No red dress and trip to the opera for me!

But in terms of busting disability taboos in the cinema such as ‘disabled people are interesting’, ‘disabled people do interesting things’ and ‘disabled people do it’, a film where Hugh Jackman has a passionate affair with a woman played by a disabled actress might be genuinely more taboo busting than Marion Cotillard getting her legs removed by Photoshop’s eraser tool.

I’ve also heard the argument that disabled actors aren’t really acting but playing versions of themselves. But in those rare films where disabled actors have played the leads, like Deaf actress Marlee Matlin, so good in Children of a Lesser God in 1986, or Peter Dinklage, who has dwarfism and played the lead in The Station Agent in 2003, no one could deny they are acting a role. Their real life disabilities, far from a detraction, give their performances an edge that no CGI could replicate.

So while I think it’s absolutely fine to shower praise on films that tell the stories of disabled people and tell them well, let’s hold back some of that praise for those films that actually have the guts to hire disabled actors.  Because that’s when the real disability taboos get busted.

...............

Back to Peter Dinklage, arguably the most successful disabled actor in history, and who is frankly 4ft 5 inches of PHWOAR. I noticed sometime ago that every time Dinklage appears in the TV series Game of Thrones on Sky Atlantic, Twitter explodes with people tweeting how much they fancy him. Yet every time Brad Pitt appears in those cheesy Chanel No 5 adverts, my timeline is full of women complaining that he needs a shave and they can’t understand what he’s waffling on about.

Brad Pitt looks so bewildered in those adverts that the phrase ‘You’re no Brad Pitt’ should now be taken as a compliment.

Pitt was paid millions of dollars for that 30 second advert. Chanel should have hired Peter Dinklage instead. He would have been hotter, flogged more perfume and had the manners to take his hands out of his pockets.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
George Osborne likes to think of himself as the greatest political mind of his generation  

Budget 2015: It takes a lot of hard work to be as lucky as George Osborne

John Rentoul
George Osborne will deliver his emergency Budget on July 8th  

Budget 2015: We gave the Tories a mandate, now we will see what we voted for

Hamish McRae
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test