Awards season is upon us once again and as has appropriately been the case for the past few years, it will be dominated by talk of diversity. We have made great strides in this arena, and yet I feel one group seems to have been conspicuously left behind — the disability community. Although 20% of our population identifies as disabled, with over a billion dollars in spending power, we are noticeably under-represented on screen. Perhaps this invisibility is why a film like “My Dinner With Hervé” has resonated so deeply within my community.
Since the film’s release, as president of Little People of America, the largest support organization for people with dwarfism in the world, I have been overwhelmed by the positive reactions to the film. It has been satisfying to hear from so many that one of our stories is finally being told with a real voice.
Believe me, as a community, little people were acutely aware of who Hervé Villechaize was back in the 70’s and 80’s. As a child with dwarfism, it was nearly impossible to grow up in that Fantasy Island era and not be catcalled on the street with, “Da Plane, Da Plane” every time I left the house. I realized young that we, like many marginalized groups, are often seen as being all the same.
Hervé was adored so long as he played the role of the clown. And growing up, the only examples in television or film that I saw of people who looked like me, were of clowns and court jesters. LPs were sight gags, punch lines, catch phrases, fantasy creatures or one dimensional foils to be pitied or scared of. Hervé’s public persona represented every myth our organization tried to dispel but by the time he reached mass Dunkin’ Donuts fame, he too had long since been reduced to that same punch line, that same clichéd stereotype.
But, as a person growing up with dwarfism, I intuitively understood Hervé and his choices, and without ever having met him or having set foot in Hollywood, understood his pain too.
“My Dinner with Hervé” is not an easy film to watch because Hervé is not exactly someone you would wish to emulate. You love him at times and hate him at others and his inner conflicts and flaws are laid out unvarnished, bare and unresolved for all to see. The film doesn’t portray him as a hero. And that’s why it works. My community doesn’t need heroes. We need truth and authenticity.
Countless talented actors have portrayed people with dwarfism (Jose Ferrer, John Leguizamo, Gary Oldman, Ian McShane, etc…) with CGI magic or by (absurdly) acting on their knees. None of them can hold a candle to what Peter Dinklage does in “My Dinner With Hervé.” Besides being one of the great actors of his generation, he absorbs the struggle of this character with a depth of truth that can only come from someone who lives with this condition every day. This is one of our own telling his story as well as Hervé’s.
People with dwarfism spend much of their lives trying to prove that in spite of their stature, they belong in society. The scars from this daily and often relentless battle manifest in all kinds of ways and the film also speaks to something we don’t often discuss that needs to be brought out of the shadows – the fact that depression and suicide have borne a disproportionately significant weight upon this community. The preponderance of premature death due to the coping mechanisms of alcohol and drugs among us is heartbreaking. A film that shines a light on this, that addresses it for the first time, is rare and meaningful.
In such an increasingly harsh and divisive world, where we are all actively encouraged to see the differences, I believe it’s more important than ever to set aside our judgements and try and have a real conversation about why those differences scare us.
It seems preposterous to me to have to write this but: little people are just like everyone else. We have the same hopes and dreams, flaws and attributes, charms and repulsions that anyone else does. The fact that this film is the only one to ever have addressed that, is in itself preposterous.
I want to take this opportunity to thank Peter Dinklage for his brave performance as well as Sacha Gervasi and the entire film making team for not just changing Herve’s legacy from a silly catchphrase to something more complex, honest and human but for also allowing a mass audience an authentic glimpse, even if for only for a couple of hours, of what it might be like to live life from an entirely different point of view.
Thank you for listening.
Mark Povinelli is an actor, activist and President of the Little People of America.