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.
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