Activist Jay Ruderman on March 3 presented an award to brothers Peter and Bobby Farrelly for their decades of championing people with disabilities, saying show business “has the power to change public perception like no other industry.”
The occasion was the sixth annual Morton E. Ruderman Award for Inclusion, presented by the Ruderman Family Foundation and held at the Waldorf Astoria in Beverly Hills.
Onstage, Jay Ruderman pointed out that U.S. unemployment is now 4%, but people with disabilities have 70% unemployment, despite being an estimated 20% of the population. The Farrelly brothers have cast people both in front of and behind the camera since their second film, the 1996 “Kingpin.”
Bobby Farrelly said, “Whatever we’ve given to the disability community, they’ve given us a lot more back.” Peter Farrelly exploded two prevalent myths: “That they will slow you down and cost you money. It’s just the opposite,” saying people with disabilities (PWD) are always the best prepared people on the set, as they brothers have used them as everything from key acting roles to production assistants.
He also praised the Ruderman Family Foundation for their global push on equal rights: “They might be the greatest organization in the world.” They never accepts donations. “They want to spread the word. That’s all they care about.”
Before the presentation, Marlee Matlin saluted the Farrellys, quoting their philosophy: “We use people with disabilities in our films to tell the truth. If you want to tell stories about the real world, and it’s not real unless you include everyone.” She also pointed out that actor Zack Gottsagen this year was the first person with a disability to present an Oscar — and the first PWD on the Oscar stage since she won in 1987 for “Children of a Lesser God.”
Other speakers included Gail Williamson, head of the diversity department at Kazarian/Measures/Ruskin & Associates talent agency. Entertainment was provided by Brian King Joseph with is electric violin. Following the presentation was a Q&A moderated by Zuri Hall.
Ruderman said there is a strong autism community, deaf community, Down syndrome community and so on, and urged them all to work together more: “They would be more powerful, the more united they are.” He added, “And they need a push from us.”
Shira Menashe Ruderman agreed that decision-makers need to give people an opportunity. She expressed cautious optimism, saying “People are less afraid to talk about it” than a few years ago.
At an earlier meeting with reporters, Ruderman reminded that 95% of PWD on television are played by able-bodied actors. Peter Farrelly predicted that this Hollywood habit will end soon, out of executive embarrassment, and he cited writer-director Jenni Gold’s use of the word “cripface” to describe the casting as a PWD version of blackface or yellowface in earlier eras’ racial castings.
The Farrellys said when directing their first movie, the 1994 comedy “Dumb and Dumber,” their primary goal was “to not get fired.” After its success, a longtime friend, Danny Murphy, pointed out that there were no characters like him (i.e., in a wheelchair) or with any other disability; the brothers vowed to use PWD in every subsequent work, which they have.
Peter cited the phrase “inspiration porn,” a feeling where people in Hollywood (or any industry) give momentary attention to disabilities so they can feel good about themselves. He urged people to not just feel self-satisfied but to take action: “Look for them! You have to bring them through the door.”
The brothers and Ruderman cited Gottsagen’s recent film “Peanut Butter Falcon” (distributed by Roadside Attractions in the U.S.) as an example of casting a PWD and surrounding him/her with marketable stars, such as Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson, as an example of making it work. And people with disabilities, if given the chance, will eventually become marketable stars themselves.
The Farrellys have written, produced and/or directed such big hits as “There’s Something About Mary,” “Stuck on You,” “Fever Pitch” and the TV series “Loudermilk.” Peter directed and was a producer on the Oscar-winning best film “Green Book.”
In the audience included Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, Larry David, Cheryl Hines, Julian Edelman, Ron Livingston, Kevin Pollak, Jamie Brewer, Mat Fraser, Shoshannah Stern and Marilee Talkington, plus family members Sharon Shapiro, Marcia Ruderman, Mariann Farrrelly and A.B. Farrelly.
Variety asked Marlee Matlin before the show if progress is indeed being made. Signing (and with her interpreter Jack Jason), she smiled “Yeeeesss,” with slow skepticism. “Overall, it’s looking more promising because we make noise. Everybody’s talking inclusion — But there is still work to do.”
(Photo, from left: moderator Zuri Hall, Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly, Shira Ruderman and Jay Ruderman)