The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. For Washington Post film critic Alan Zilberman’s review of “Breathe,” click here.
Now let’s list all of the films — awards bait or not — featuring women with visible disabilities.
OK, let’s list the films we can think of about women with ANY disability. If you came up with “Children of a Lesser God,” which got Marlee Matlin a best actress Oscar, and 1962’s “The Miracle Worker,” which paid off similarly for Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft, you got the same answers as I did. Though my brain also came up with “that one about the blind ice skater” (“Ice Castles”) and “that one with the actress from ‘Dances With Wolves’ where she’s in a wheelchair” (“Passion Fish,” which did get Mary McDonnell an Oscar nomination). Seems like not only do physically disabled female characters rarely get on the shortlist for awards, they hardly even make it onto the screen.
Now comes “Breathe,” about Robin Cavendish, a man who contracted polio in 1958. With his friends, Cavendish conceived of a wheelchair with a portable respirator, enabling him and other polio victims to leave the hospitals where they were expected to spend their lives. Andrew Garfield plays Cavendish and, while Garfield is a fine actor, he can’t shine in a movie so defined by the laziness of its genre. “Breathe” hits all of the story points you’d expect: vivacious youth, devastating illness, wish to die, decision not to die, standing up to skeptical doctors, inspirational (gag) life, triumph! We’ve all seen it before.
What we haven’t seen is an awards-bait movie — cliched or not — about a woman with a physical disability. “Breathe” and the three films at the top of this column are about real-life men, but even if studios can’t dig up similar stories about women — and it might be a bit early for a Tammy Duckworth biopic — it is actually possible for Hollywood to produce movies that are, in fact, fictional.
While men win awards for playing someone with a visible difference, women get recognized for playing the caregiver of said man. Felicity Jones got an Oscar nomination for her role in “The Theory of Everything”; Alicia Vikander took home the trophy for “The Danish Girl” (though Eddie Redmayne’s character was trans, not disabled, much of the movie followed the “disability film” rules). I won’t be surprised if Claire Foy gets award nominations for “Breathe,” especially since she has the required “breakdown in the kitchen” scene. Men in these movies are defined by their disabilities; women are defined by their relationship to their men.
In the real world, women with disabilities are often seen as wheelchair first and woman second. Movies cannot fix that, of course, but at least they could provide some sort of visibility for an underrepresented segment of society.
Do I want the same tired disability porn for women that men get? No. When it comes to men with disabilities, Hollywood has to do better. When it comes to women, it has to at least do something.