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Welcome, Eddie Redmayne: Since ‘Rain Man,’ majority of Best Actor Oscar winners played sick or disabled

Some Best Actor Oscar winners, from top left: Dustin Hoffman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hanks, Nicholas Cage, Geoffrey Rush, Jamie Foxx, Jeff Bridges, Matthew McConaughey and Eddie Redmayne. (Photos by AP & Reuters)
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Ryan Gosling: If you really are contemplating playing Oscar Pistorius in a film about the double-amputee Olympian and convicted killer, you might want to take that role.

Why? Since Dustin Hoffman won a Best Actor Oscar playing “Rain Man,” a majority of Best Actor Oscars were taken home by men playing the sick or handicapped. Eddie Redmayne’s win on Sunday for playing Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” made it official: 14 of 27 Best Actors tackled characters facing significant mental or physical barriers to what many consider normal life.

[Related: For some, Sean Penn’s ‘green card’ moment served as confirmation of #OscarsSoWhite]

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.

Stephen Hawking died on March 14 at the age of 76. Here's a look at how his life was depicted in the 2014 movie "The Theory of Everything." (Video: Nicki DeMarco, Michael O'Sullivan/The Washington Post)

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.”

From Patricia Arquette's booming speech to an emotional performance of "Glory" from the film "Selma," here are the highlights from this year's Oscars. (Video: Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

Whether a good or bad thing, here’s who won what when:


Dustin Hoffman

“Rain Man”

Malady: Autism


Daniel Day-Lewis

“My Left Foot”

Malady: Cerebral palsy


Anthony Hopkins

“The Silence of the Lambs”

Malady: Psychosis


Al Pacino

“Scent of a Woman”

Malady: Blindness


Tom Hanks


Malady: AIDS


Tom Hanks

“Forrest Gump”

Malady: Non-specific learning disability


Nicolas Cage

“Leaving Las Vegas”

Malady: Alcoholism


Geoffrey Rush


Malady: Non-specific mental illness


Jack Nicholson

“As Good as It Gets”

Malady: Obsessive-compulsive disorder


Jamie Foxx


Malady: Blindness


Jeff Bridges

“Crazy Heart”

Malady: Alcoholism


Colin Firth

“The King’s Speech”

Malady: Stutter


Matthew McConaughey

“Dallas Buyers Club”

Malady: AIDS


Eddie Redmayne

“The Theory of Everything”

Malady: ALS

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