Of course, one can quibble over the definition of the word “barrier.” Hawking has ALS, a profound disability; King George VI, played by Colin Firth in “The King’s Speech,” had a stutter. In “Shine,” David Helfgott, the pianist played by Geoffrey Rush, had an ambiguously defined mental illness — what one critic lambasted as ” ‘movie madness,’ a celluloid amalgam of schizophrenia, manic-depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and idiot savant.” And Nicolas Cage’s alcoholism in “Leaving Las Vegas” was way more debilitating than Jeff Bridges’s in “Crazy Heart.”
Moreover, it’s hard to say what percentage of main characters in film — or theater and literature, for that matter — are mentally or physically afflicted. Isn’t any nuanced lead damaged in some way? Hamlet had no diagnosis, but struggled as much as the hunchbacked Richard III.
Yet, in the past few decades, playing the sick or handicapped seems a clear path to Oscar gold. Heck, Tom Hanks — playing Andrew Beckett, the gay lawyer with AIDS in “Philadelphia,” and the mentally challenged Forrest Gump — did it twice in two years.
For some, the bevy of Academy Awards won by able actors transforming themselves to appear otherwise isn’t a cause for celebration.
“The ultimate ambition of David Oyelowo’s performance as Martin Luther King, Jr. is to express the reality of black life and black history in a way that resonates with those within the black community and educates those outside it,” Scott Jordan Harris, a disabled author, wrote in Slate. “The ultimate ambition of Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking is to contort his body convincingly enough to make other able-bodied people think ‘Wow! By the end I really believed he was a cripple!’ Our attitudes to disability should have evolved past the stage when this mimicry is considered worthy of our most famous award for acting.”
Whether a good or bad thing, here’s who won what when:
“My Left Foot”
Malady: Cerebral palsy
“The Silence of the Lambs”
“Scent of a Woman”
Malady: Non-specific learning disability
“Leaving Las Vegas”
Malady: Non-specific mental illness
“As Good as It Gets”
Malady: Obsessive-compulsive disorder
“The King’s Speech”
“Dallas Buyers Club”
“The Theory of Everything”