Disability on film is fraught with danger for filmmakers. From the portrayal of the victimized, invalided “cripple” or a romanticised and heroic cliché of triumph above adversity, both pictures painted can often be exploitative and alienating; especially to the people with disabilities whose lives filmmakers are attempting to convey, hopefully with a degree of sincerity.
However, the following films are excellent examples of films made by and for people who experience disability on an intimate and personal level. Films that convey compelling paradoxes in their characters: human frailties of anger and despair; yet empowering hope and strength.
In the grey area, great characters and stories on film exist to change attitudes, illuminate the lives of people perceived as “different” in societies the world over, and to challenge these perceptions and remind us all of the struggles and strengths that characterise the universal human condition.
10. The Sea Inside (Dir: Alejandro Amenabar, 2004)
In Alejandro Amenabar’s true story, 29 year old Spaniard Ramon Sampedro (Javier Bardem) becomes a quadriplegic, following a diving accident. Confined to a life of bed rest, his only company is music, family bedside visits, and the words he manages to scrawl on paper. Sampedro’s battle spanning nearly thirty years — to die with dignity — is the thought-provoking subject of this poignant film.
The profound effect Sampedro has on his family and the key women in his life — his lawyer, Julia (a supporter of his right to die) and local woman Rosa, who implores him to fight for life — are central to the film’s message of love and compassion. Evoking powerful dreams of hope, The Sea Inside depicts poetic scenes inside Sampedro’s imagination, which show his desire to be free; his lifeless legs transformed and his body strong and powerful, he flies through his window towards the light of the sun.
Despite Sampedro’s life-altering disability, which leads him to decide on euthanasia, the film does not portray him as a victim; nor is The Sea Inside so depressing. Bardem’s remarkable, Oscar-nominated performance is charming and charismatic. The film matter-of-factly challenges us to question the quality of our lives and gives us a window inside Sampedro’s determined and free spirit.
9. The Ringer (Dir: Barry W. Blaustein, 2005)
The adage that humour delivers a message far better than serious moralising holds true in the The Farrelly Brothers films, especially The Ringer, directed by Barry. W Blaustein and produced by The Farrelly Brothers. The Farrellys deconstruct disability in their films, with the ultimate aim to make people laugh – this taboo approach makes them the subject of strong praise and even more vehement criticism.
In a Farrelly Brothers film, regularly mocking people with disabilities paradoxically “normalises” them. Casting actual people with disabilities demonstrates the tacit acceptance of the disabled community. In many ways, the Farrellys laugh with people with disabilities; exposing ignorance and mean-spirited behaviour in the rest of the small communities in which their films are based.
Peter Farrelly’s personal attachment to disability was founded in an incident in the 80s when his best friend, Danny Murphy, became a paraplegic in a lake diving accident. Still friends with Danny to this day, Peter and his brother were determined to show disability on film in a unique, unsentimental way; neither romanticising and elevating people with disabilities to unrealistic standards of nobility, nor portraying a negative and exploitative victim mentality.
The Ringer, in which a broke, non-disabled thirty-something man fakes a mental disability to rig the Special Olympics, could have been highly offensive; casting the typically crass Johnny Knoxville in the lead should have made it so much worse.
One wouldn’t expect Knoxville – enfant terrible of TV and movies who rose to fame with the inane and dangerous antics of Jackass – to bring a welcome presence to The Ringer. His rambunctious, no-holds barred performance and the warm portrayal of people with real disabilities (some men with Down’s syndrome steal the lion’s share of laughs with the best lines) makes this an enjoyable, endearing, experience.
The film’s edgy humour strips away the barrier of preciousness, which impedes serious engagement with the lives of people with disabilities.
8. Mask (Dir: Peter Bogdanovich, 1985)
In the 1960s, Rocky Dennis (Eric Stoltz) is given no chance to live a normal life, when he’s born with calcium growths disfiguring his entire face. But his mother (Cher) is determined her son be given the same chance at happiness that most take for granted. Mask, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, presents Rocky’s true story with honesty and sensitivity, avoiding sentimental cliches.
Stoltz magnificently portrays Rocky’s intelligence and warmth, and Cher is simply dynamite; she won Best Actress at Cannes. Mask challenges us to question our prejudices. Beauty is skin deep and the film reminds us that values of gentleness, integrity and honesty are what make us all truly beautiful.
The film explores the relationship between mother and son. Rocky and his biker mother, Florence “Rusty” Dennis aren’t rich. Having a son with a disability places increased financial strain on the single mother. Resilient and strong, Rusty fights to maintain her son’s dignity in his Californian town; refusing to be emotionally defeated, as people underestimate her son’s abilities.
Mask’s greatest strength is portraying the uncertainty and flaws of a mother trying her best to give her son a happy life, for as long as it lasts. Rusty is a drug user; she drinks and rides with a motorcycle gang; she mouths off at anyone who would bring her son down. She is real and human and would do anything, including change her wild ways, to protect her son. Occasionally Rusty oversteps the boundaries of their relationship, causing conflict in spite her of good intentions; any parent can relate.
Rocky faces greater challenges than most. Although, the film shows it isn’t Rocky’s facial disfigurement that disables him, but disabling attitudes. Unshakable support and love give Rocky strength to be true to himself and find happiness.
7. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (Dir: Lasse Hallstrom, 1993)
Seen from Gilbert’s (Johnny Depp) perspective, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is about the responsibility of a brother and son towards his family. Gilbert is the eldest child of three, and has a morbidly obese mother (Darlene Cates) and a brother, Arnie(Leonardo Di Caprio, in a brilliant Oscar-nominated performance), who has a severe intellectual disability.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape shows sibling resentment, as Gilbert tries to form a tentative romance with Becky (Juliette Lewis) and also support his disabled brother. Still, despite his sullen facade, Gilbert is profoundly committed, and demonstrates compassion and love.
DiCaprio, who had not yet become a recognisable, A-list star, was so convincing that audiences often mistook him for a person with an actual intellectual disability, not an actor. DiCaprio spent time with people with intellectual disabilities, and immersed himself in capturing authentic behaviours, and expressing the feelings and thoughts that reflect the way they see their world. Arnie’s influence in Gilbert’s life is interesting.
Gilbert is consumed by his anxieties; by the pressures he feels to maintain his family and protect his brother. He is not a happy man, burying his feelings and sabotaging his growth in life; to experience love with Becky and move forward. Ironically, Arnie’s intuitive behaviour – his curiosity, which Gilbert wants to suppress – and his lack of inhibition in communicating his emotions are a gift to Gilbert. Because of Arnie, Gilbert slowly learns how to express himself and let go.
6. The Best Years of Our Lives (Dir: William Wyler, 1946)
This American classic, released a year after WWII, is iconic especially for featuring a real ex-serviceman with a disability in a significant role. Harold Russell plays Homer Parrish who, at the beginning of the film, is on a plane home with fellow servicemen, Al (Fredrick March, Best Actor Oscar winner) and Fred (Dana Andrews).
Underneath their jovial conversation, there’s tension. We notice that Homer has a hook replacing his hand. But, as Homer explains, the service trained him extensively in how to adapt to his new limb. As if to prove his ability, Howard lights a cigarette for his friends and, claiming superstition though really trying to show that he is capable, Homer strikes a fresh match to light his own cigarette. Despite his apparent ease, Homer is coming home to his fiancée, and is terrified about her reaction to his disability.
The Best Years of Our Lives deals with the reactions of people in Middle America in the 1940s; a time and society unaccustomed to seeing people with disabilities. The portrayal is empowering and shows that people with disabilities can achieve everyday things, and importantly also maintain their sense of identity. This is something that Homer struggles with at first.
Much of how he sees himself is wrapped up in his anxiety over other people’s reactions; especially how his fiancée sees him as a man and future husband. Homer withdraws from his family and fiancée, who try to help and show their love. “They keep staring at these hooks, or else they keep staring away from them.
Why don’t they understand that all I want is to be treated like everybody else?” Homer is challenged emotionally to grow and stay strong through the difficult period, while friends and family learn exactly what his disability means. Coming to terms with his disability — having the grace to accept love and support — enables Homer to become a more complete man; for himself and especially his fiancée.
The Best Years Of Our Lives swept the 1946 Academy Awards, taking out seven statuettes including Best Picture. Harold Russell won two Academy Awards – for Best Supporting Actor and one for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.