Editor’s note: In this article’s body and headline, we have chosen to use both the terms “disabled people” and “people with disabilities” as a reference for people who are living with a disability. We understand that there is no universal concensus on identity-first or people-first language, and have chosen to use both as a representation of the diversity of opinions within the community.
In the criminally underrated series “Extras,” Kate Winslet—playing herself—dropped this pearl of wisdom:
Sunday night, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences proved Winslet right when it awarded the Best Actor and Best Actress Oscars to Eddie Redmayne and Julianne Moore, respectively. Redmayne played world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking in the biopic “The Theory of Everything,” and Moore portrayed a woman battling early onset Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice.” Both actors used their acceptance speeches as an opportunity to raise awareness about the diseases their characters face.
Redmayne: “This belongs to all of those people around the world battling ALS.”
Moore: “I’m thrilled, actually, that we were able to hopefully shine a light on Alzheimer’s disease. So many people with this disease feel isolated and marginalized, and one of the wonderful things about movies is it makes us feel seen and not alone. And people with Alzheimer’s deserve to be seen so we can find a cure.”
To be clear, ALS and Alzheimer’s are diseases, not disabilities. But their effects on the body and brain create physical and intellectual disabilities that are recognized under US federal law.
At this point, jokes about actors playing a person with a disability to get an Oscar nod are more than just “inside baseball” Hollywood humor. They’re funny because they’re true. Since 1989, 14 of the 27 Best Actor winners have played a character with a disability. And since the very first Academy Awards in 1927, 16 percent of the Best Actor and Best Actress winners have won by portraying a person with a disability.
Moore’s right: Movies are a great (albeit historically imperfect) way to validate the existence and experiences of people with disabilities. But there’s a big difference between able-bodied actors playing a part and people with disabilities being truly visible in Hollywood.
Marlee Matlin is the only woman with a disability who has won the Academy’s highest acting honor; she won Best Actress for the role of Sarah Norman in “Children of a Lesser God” in 1986. On the men’s side, Oscar-winning actors Lionel Barrymore and Robert Donat had severe arthritis and asthma, respectively. While most people don’t immediately associate arthritis and chronic asthma with disability—people with these conditions don’t always “look the part” (pun intended)—they impacted how these actors were able to live and work: Donat’s asthma limited the number of roles he could take, and Barrymore’s reported complications from arthritis led him to play the role of Gramps in the 1939 film “On Borrowed Time” in a wheelchair.
The Oscar for Best Actor and Best Actress has been awarded 176 times, and it has only been given to a person with a disability three times.
Much has been made this awards season about how old, white and male Academy members are; but it’s harder to get a clear picture of how many Academy members have disabilities because people would have to willingly disclose that information. What we do know is the predominantly old, white and male Academy members have very strict rules for joining their club.
According to the Academy’s website, “a candidate for membership must be sponsored by two members of the branch for which the individual qualifies,” and existing members can only sponsor one candidate per year. History and demographics show that Academy members are more likely to welcome newcomers who look like them; since the current crop of more than 7,000 members is fairly monolithic, it’s hard to imagine people with disabilities having a place in that group any time soon.
This year, the films nominated for Academy Awards made more than $3 billion at the box office. Between the critical acclaim and the sheer mass of cash, there’s obviously a demand from consumers for dynamic, interesting characters with disabilities. Shouldn’t that then translate to a consumer demand for dynamic, interesting actors with disabilities playing such characters?
The television industry has done a better job of addressing this demand. Shows like “Breaking Bad,” “Switched at Birth” and “Glee” have all prominently featured actors and actresses with disabilities, and they’ve all had successful runs.
The issue of visibility for people with disabilities doesn’t require consumer activism as much as it does a corporate reality check. Obviously, moviegoers can and should still use the power of their purse to support diverse, compelling roles for all actors and actresses. But $3 billion is as strong of a show of support as I can imagine. The ball is now in Hollywood’s court to respond by including more actors and actresses with disabilities in film.
On the superficial level, it could help everyone’s bottom line—and that’s a big deal for Hollywood film crews.
But to a person with a disability finally seeing himself or herself represented on the silver screen in a true light, the impact could be nothing short of magical—and isn’t that what the movies are all about anyway?
Stephanie Levy is a writer, editor, and web producer living in the D.C. area. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, she has covered everything from education policy to dumpster-diving for beer (seriously).