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Oscar’s Final Frontier: Movies Featuring Disabilities

This year's race includes a handful of films on the topic; it's not enough but there is progress

Vanessa Burghardt Cha Cha Real Smooth
Apple TV+

The best picture Oscar for “CODA” was historic for many reasons — including the fact that it honored a film with authentic casting of Deaf people, after the disabled have been historically ignored or misrepresented in Hollywood.

So can we expect a flood of movies about the disabled? Maybe. The 2022 Oscar contenders show that so far it’s a trickle, not a flood. “Causeway,” “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” all feature authentic casting, with disabled characters played by disabled actors. (What a concept!)

Peter Farrelly, director and co-writer of “Beer Run,” and his brother Bobby have always cast disabled actors.

“Twenty percent of the world is disabled,” he tells Variety. “In making movies or TV shows, it’s not the real world if you don’t have people with disabilities in it.” 

“Cha Cha” writer-director-star Cooper Raiff says it never occurred to him to audition non-autistic actors for the central role of Lola, who is on the autism spectrum, as is the actress who plays her, Vanessa Burghardt. 

Raiff tells Variety, “In a movie, I’m always trying to make a scene more real and authentic. And the first step is to cast someone who will play the role best. So to cast a neurotypical actor would be a waste of time. They would do research but wouldn’t have the heart.”

“Lady Chatterley’s Lover” marks the second feature film for director Laure de Clermont-Tonnere. Her 2013 short, “Atlantic Avenue,” featured Leopoldine Huyghues-Despointes, an actress in a wheelchair. So when it came to the role of wheelchair-user Lord Clifford Chatterley, “We obviously wanted to open the casting to people with disabilities,” she says. “This is important, to be authentic and also to give a chance” to disabled actors. 

The role is played by Matthew Duckett, a stage actor with cerebral palsy who’s making his feature-film debut. 

Deaf actor Russell Harvard has one scene in “Causeway,” as Jennifer Lawrence’s brother, and it’s memorable.

Four award-contending films with disabled characters is not enough to accurately represent the world, but it’s a quantum leap from most Oscar years. These movies help end the question whether disabled actors can successfully work in Hollywood: They already are.

After the #OscarsSoWhite movement in 2015, decision-makers have worked to make the industry, including the Academy Awards, more inclusive. 

This year’s contenders show the growth in racial/ethnic and gender diversity since 2015, including “Bardo,” “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” “Emancipation,” “The Inspection,” “Till,” “The Woman King” and “Women Talking.” But so far, the disabled are not always part of the inclusion movement.

Burghardt says before “Cha Cha,” her agents usually didn’t reveal her autism: “There is a bias and I wouldn’t have gotten those auditions in the first place.”

Farrelly points out that for years, a script would need to specify that a character was not Caucasian for employers to consider this. “People have finally opened their minds and now racial diversity doesn’t have to be stated. This is what I hope happens for people with disabilities; give them an audition and you may be shocked how many good actors are out there who are not getting a chance.”

Farrelly’s fact-based “Beer Run” centers on Chickie (Zac Efron) and his friends, including Brandon (MacGregor Arney), whose cerebral palsy and crutch are never commented on; they’re just part of everyday life.

Jenni Gold directed the documentary “CinemAbility: The Art of Inclusion,” which centers on this topic.

She tells Variety, “It’s important that employers understand that people with disabilities are fully capable of doing their jobs.” 

She is part of a group working to form a committee at the Directors Guild about disability hiring.

“There are so many programs dealing with diversity, but they rarely mention disability. Now things are opening up, even in corporate America, and that’s a great thing.” 

There is a perception that hiring a disabled person will increase complications and budget for a project.

Farrelly exclaims, “That is a myth! I hear that all the time. I’ve worked with literally hundreds of disabled actors, and they have never held us up. They are the most prepared actors I’ve ever worked with. This is 2022. We can make it work.”

As for behind-the-camera jobs, some individuals are currently working there, but keeping their disability a secret. Director Gold knows that some entry-level jobs are difficult for the disabled. Farrelly advises that there is “so much opportunity” for disabled artists in post-production.

French-born director de Clermont-Tonnere seems genuinely surprised at the notion that a disabled worker — behind or in front of the camera — might make production more difficult.

“I never heard that. That doesn’t make any sense. Why? It should never be an issue.”

Burghardt sums up with a sigh: “Every conversation I have is about my condition. Having a disability shouldn’t be such a big deal.”