You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Oscar and Hollywood’s Nearly ‘Invisible’ People With Disabilities

Hollywood loves to imitate success: Superhero movies, remakes, sequels. However, it’s been almost 33 years since Marlee Matlin won her Oscar for “Children of a Lesser God.” So why haven’t studio executives demanded more actors with disabilities to play characters with disabilities?

Since 1988, one-third of Oscar’s 30 lead actor winners were portraying a character with a disability, from Dustin Hoffman (“Rain Man,” 1989) through Eddie Redmayne (2015, “The Theory of Everything”). That’s 10 in just one category. In contrast, there have been only two winning actors with disabilities — two! — in Oscar’s entire 91 years: Harold Russell (1946, “The Best Years of Our Lives”) and Matlin.

This column was designed to put current Oscar hopefuls into historical context. But after Russell and Matlin, there are no more names to cite.

Hollywood stepped up its push for inclusion/diversity in 2015, and this year’s Oscar race includes more black and female filmmakers than ever before. However, there are very few films featuring people with disabilities (or PWD).

But a trio are worth awards consideration: Roadside Attractions’ “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” Music Box Films’ “Give Me Liberty” and Warner Bros.’ “Motherless Brooklyn.”

Popular on Variety

“Peanut Butter” was written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. It’s a comedy/road movie, starring Shia LaBeouf and Zack Gottsagen as Zak, a character with Down syndrome, like the actor himself. It has earned more than $20 million at the domestic box office, three times its production cost.

Tim Zajaros and Christopher Lemole of Armory Films produced and financed “Peanut Butter Falcon.” Lemole says simply, “People were resistant to a film starring a person with a disability. It’s a risk. We took that risk.”

They planned to enter film festivals, but programmers turned them down. Like many people dealing with PWD, they feared making a wrong move, so avoided the topic altogether. Happily, it was accepted at South by Southwest, won the Audience Award, and Roadside Attractions has been “a great partner,” the Armory duo say.

Big misconception: A person with a disability will require heavy maintenance. Zajaros says, “Zack would get tired, but he was always honest and authentic in his acting, and he got authenticity from the other actors. There were way more positives than negatives. We would do this again in a heartbeat.”

Lemole sums up, “There’s a lot of talk about inclusion. I hope this opens doors for other actors with disabilities.”

Give Me Liberty” is about a service-van driver and the people he encounters, including several PWD. The film was directed by Kirill Mikhanovsky, who wrote it with Alice Austen; the cast includes Lauren (Lolo) Spencer, who has ALS, like the character she plays. Tracy is not saintly, and her life is not centered around her wheelchair. “That was one reason I wanted to do this,” Spencer tells Variety, laughing, “I ain’t never seen nobody like me on the screen!”

Funding was available — but only if they cast an able-bodied name actor in the role. “But the director and producer were adamant about casting a young black woman who was a wheelchair user. They weren’t budging on that,” Spencer says. “Through my work, I try to show that a person with a disability is not angelic — not what we in the community call ‘inspiration porn.’ We’re just human. But in Hollywood and in society, we’re essentially invisible.”

On Dec. 3, the National Board of Review cited “Peanut Butter Falcon” and “Give Me Liberty” as two of the year’s top indie films.

In “Motherless Brooklyn,” Norton plays Lionel, who is dismissed by other characters because he has Tourette’s syndrome. But that condition ultimately helps him solve the crime. Norton is not authentic casting, but he initiated the project and stuck with it for 20 years. More importantly, he treats Lionel with intelligence, nuance and complexity.

Norton says: “The idea of a character being heroic only because he’s dealing with a disability, it’s not enough. To make a story that’s only about dealing with their condition — it doesn’t acknowledge the full human spectrum of a person.To make a story that’s only about their dealing with a disability, it takes away a deeper potential. People with disabilities onscreen are trapped in the gilded cage of nobility. They can be so much more.”

More Film

  • 2020 Oscar Presenters: Zazie Beetz, Timothée

    Timothée Chalamet, Zazie Beetz, Gal Gadot Join List of 2020 Oscar Presenters

    Show producers Lynette Howell Taylor and Stephanie Allain have announced additional presenters for the 92nd Academy Awards telecast. Zazie Beetz, Timothée Chalamet, Will Ferrell, Gal Gadot, Mindy Kaling, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Anthony Ramos, Mark Ruffalo, Kelly Marie Tran and Kristen Wiig will be presenting statuettes during the evening’s ceremony. Though none are nominated for [...]

  • Palm Springs

    'Palm Springs': Film Review

    There are far worse places to be stuck for eternity than Palm Springs. Like Punxsutawney, the town Bill Murray can’t escape in “Groundhog Day,” for example. So many copycat time-loop movies have come along in the 27 years since that each new imitator can’t help sounding like a broken record, which is what makes Max [...]

  • American cinematographer Robert Richardson (L) and

    Poland to Build $200 Million Cinema Institution in Toruń

    Poland is setting up a new national cinema institution, named the European Film Center Camerimage, to be housed in a new building in Toruń at a cost of almost $200 million, which is scheduled to be completed in 2025. The director of the new body is Kazik Suwala, former office director of the Camerimage Film [...]

  • Into the Deep Review

    'Into the Deep': Film Review

    Documentary filmmaker Emma Sullivan was already there when inventor Peter Madsen’s submarine, the UC3 Nautilus, went missing off the coast of Copenhagen in August 2017, with journalist Kim Wall on board. Sullivan had been filming Madsen, a hobbit-y egotist with electric blue eyes, for 18 months, and until that day, she believed she was making [...]

  • China leads the world in volume

    China Suspends Film Shoots Across the Country as Coronavirus Epidemic Worsens

    The largest film studio on the planet, China’s Hengdian World Studios, has announced it will shut down indefinitely, as productions in other parts of the country also announce they are closing up shop in light of the worsening coronavirus epidemic.  On Monday, the local government management committee in charge of the experimental industrial zone where [...]

  • Kobe Bryant Oscar Win Dear Basketball

    Academy Planning Kobe Bryant Tribute During Oscar Ceremonies

    The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will include a tribute to the late basketball icon Kobe Bryant during the 92nd Academy Awards ceremony on Feb. 9. “We can confirm that he will be acknowledged in the telecast,” an Academy representative told Variety. Bryant will be included in the In Memoriam montage of film [...]

  • Zola Cast at Sundance

    How Janicza Bravo and the ‘Zola’ Cast Brought the Viral Twitter Thread to Life

    Five years after A’Ziah Wells King posted the Twitter thread known as #thestory — a tale of how a trip from Detroit to Tampa, Fla., to earn money stripping quickly devolved into a wild ride, featuring a kidnapping, a shooting, sex trafficking and a suicide attempt — the real-life “Zola” is celebrating the film adaptation’s [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content