This year, Andy Serkis made his directorial debut with Breathe, a biographical drama about Robin Cavendish, a British advocate for the disabled after becoming paralysed following a bout of polio in his 20s. There are a number of red flags raised about the film before you even see it — the producer is Cavendish’s son, who commissioned William Nicholson to write the script, and generally speaking, family involvement in a biopic can lead to a rose-tinted view of events — but it’s the casting of Andrew Garfield in the lead role that rings the most bells.
This is a routine we’ve seen before — talented British actor plays a real-life man who goes through the deterioration of illness to disability, played to every inspirational beat with the road firmly paved for future awards glory. Garfield is already on the promotional trail, emphasising the physical difficulties entailed in playing a man with polio, including making the explicit choice to remain immobile himself during filming. To the Daily Mail, he said, ‘I was in character most of the time and couldn’t move. I had to be bathed, have help to go to the toilet’, a story I’m sure we’ll hear more of in various awards round-tables. So far, reviews have been mixed, although Garfield’s write-ups have been uniformly strong. One review referred to his performance as ‘brave’, and immediately my blood turned to ice. That word is always a loaded one, but to use it to describe an able-bodied actor being paid to very briefly experiencing the life of a disabled person, something he could get up and walk away from once shooting wrapped, felt especially insidious. I wondered what part of the performance was ‘brave’: The choice to go ‘method’ and inconvenience crew members on-set? The short time spent experiencing part of a disabled person’s life? The possibility that he may have, even for the briefest of moments, understood that disability can happen to anyone? I’m sure we’ll hear more from Garfield on how profound the experience of making Breathe was. Perhaps he can borrow some of Eddie Redmayne’s notes.
Redmayne famously won his Oscar for playing Stephen Hawking, but he’s not an isolated case. Daniel Day-Lewis took home his first little gold man for My Left Foot with a performance discussed to this day as the pinnacle of method commitment. It took Al Pacino going blind in Scent of a Woman for him to finally snag the award, same for Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, and Tom Hanks played Forrest Gump to his second win in two years. Sean Penn’s Oscar nominated performance as a man with learning disabilities in I Am Sam felt like such a transparent awards grab that it inspired one of the more memorable jokes in Tropic Thunder. I don’t blame him for thinking it was a sure fire thing: According to a 2012 study from the BBC, a total of 16% of all winners did so playing roles of physical disability or mental illness.
These films, with their glowing reviews and sharply targeted marketing campaigns, tend to have specific preferred narratives of disability. If it’s a biopic, where the actor in question can be compared to real-life footage of the person in question so everyone can watch in awe at their mimicry, that’s ideal. The story should also be inspiring to audiences, allowing them to invest in the overcoming of hopelessness and receive a pat on the back informing them that everything will be okay in the end. Ideally, that should still centre on watching the protagonist’s body diminish in strength and control. The audience has to watch, usually in horror or pity, as the hero can no longer do the things they used to with ease, a sharp contrast from their care-free existence in the first act.
For actors hoping to stretch their skills, these jobs are veritable goldmines. They can contort their bodies, show the discomfort and pain, and still give a dramatic monologue when necessary. The Academy loves these kinds of performances because they love it when actors show their work. Seeing the process is half the battle, and the more obviously difficult the job, the more it will be rewarded. Writing about a theory put forward by disabled playwright John Belluso, Christopher Shinn paraphrased:
‘It is reassuring for the audience to see an actor like Daniel Day Lewis, after so convincingly portraying disability in My Left Foot, get up from his seat in the auditorium and walk to the stage to accept his award. There is a collective «Phew» as people see it was all an illusion. Society’s fear and loathing around disability, it seems, can be magically transcended.’
The actor goes through all the struggle, deliberately emphasizing the difficulty of choosing to emulate the disability on-set for ‘realness’, and then on Oscar night, they can happily bound onto the stage and speak for the disabled community. It’s their own triumphant narrative of having overcome a brief period of mild inconvenience. The spectacle becomes further sanitised, now with the ultimate happy ending.
According to the Ruderman Family Foundation, an advocacy group focused on increased visibility of the disabled community, 98% of disabled roles in film and TV are portrayed by non-disabled actors. Micah Fowler, the star of ABC’s Speechless, notes that this may be ‘because of misconceptions. Many people tend to generalize the functioning levels and capabilities of people with disabilities. There’s a fear of not knowing what to expect. There’s a lack of characters living with disabilities written into scripts, and therefore fewer roles to play.’ The assumption is made that the role will just be too tough or too strenuous for a disabled actor so why bother even auditioning. Sometimes they can’t even audition, not just because they’re not given a chance to do so but because they can’t get into the building due to limited wheelchair access.
Limiting nature of these assumptions cannot be overstated. We don’t see disabled characters just living their lives, it’s always framed as a tragic or inspiring narrative. They remain one of the most under-represented demographics in pop culture despite being one of the largest in America.
These movies and TV shows inadvertently project an extension of our reality — disabled people are shunned, discriminated against, abused, stripped of government care and their right to the welfare state questioned, but they’re still forced into the spotlight to be a glowing beacon of inspiration for able-bodied people who are feeling a bit down. We want the Hollywood sheen of disabled life — the early years of able-bodied so-called ‘normalcy’, the event that leads to disability, the struggle and then the triumphant overcoming of adversity, preferably scored by Hans Zimmer and with the dutiful wife on standby (said stories also tend to skew very white and very male). There’s less glamour in the reality of just getting on with life, even less so when it’s roadblocked with systemic abuse.
Visibility in pop culture is one of the greatest tools of empathy we have. It makes a tangible difference when we see our society, as inclusive and wide-reaching as it is, reflected back at us on film, TV, literature and more. It changes perspectives, subverts expectations, and forces the privileged among us to acknowledge our own biases. Even the most skilled actor playing a disabled role cannot overcome the elephant in the room, nor can those with the best intentions ignore the stereotypes it reinforces. The opportunities need to be there for disabled actors, but they also need more varied stories to tell beyond an archaic notion of their own inspiring status for the able-bodied population. That would be a much braver choice for the entertainment industry to make.