Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Media images of disability: Reflecting negative social attitudes

Even severe arthritis couldn’t keep Lionel Barrymore from working
as a prolific actor, director, artist, and composer. Yet onscreen,
he was forced to portray the stereotypical gruff and “bitter” cripple.
(Picture in the Public Domain from Wikimedia Commons:
Lionel Barrymore in the movie “Camille,” 1936)

When “ER” debuted in 1994, I enjoyed watching the show, not every week but often. Shortly after the appearance of Dr. Kerry Weaver, I stopped watching, and I haven’t seen a single episode since. The fact that Laura Innes is not disabled was one factor in my decision. More importantly, by that time I’d begun to tire of the media image of the embittered cripple.

For decades, I’d watched disabled characters in the media who fell into one of the following extremes:

  • the angry invalid who blamed everyone, especially God, for being cursed by their condition;
  • the fighter who must overcome a disability to become “normal” again; and
  • the hero who performed amazing feats, despite severe physical limitations.

Along the way, any negative expression from a disabled character was considered a sign of bitterness. As a result, certain rules of behavior were imposed on the disabled character. Thus, most plots were about bringing the disabled character to the point of mirroring the following acceptable personality traits:

  • They must not complain about anything.
  • They must be express happiness, no matter what.
  • They must strive for a cure from their terrible condition.
  • If they cannot be cured, they are often expected to die.

These policies meant that just about every story featuring a disabled person was about their having to learn the lesson not to be bitter but to accept their lot in life with “grace.” And it took the patience of Job on the part of those able-bodied characters around them to teach them that lesson.

What I rarely saw personified in the media was a well-adjusted disabled person who took their condition in stride, did what they could to be as fit as possible, and used their abilities to be contributing and productive members of society. Another reality I rarely saw portrayed in the media was the able-bodied person who abused someone because of their disability. You’d think the world was just chock full of nothing but Florence Nightingale clones ready to sacrifice everything to come to the aid of some grumpy sick person.

And of course, there was that cardinal rule that no starring role would be filled by a performer who was actually disabled. The single exception I recall is Lionel Barrymore. In spite of spending most of the last two decades of his life in a wheelchair, he remained a prolific actor. Still, too often his characters were gruff and sour. By the end of the movie, Barrymore’s character would often learn a lesson in niceness, thanks to some infinitely patient able-bodied character.

On the other hand, Barrymore’s extracurricular activities during this time defined the ideal of a well-adjusted and active disabled citizen. As the director of the 1929 movie, “Madame X,” he developed the concept of the boom microphone, giving actors freedom to move about the set without compromising the quality of the sound of their voices. In 1944, he joined ASCAP and composed numerous musical works in the classical tradition, and he was a talented artist, despite the fact that his hands were badly deformed by severe arthritis.

So much for the stereotype of the bitter cripple in the face of what must have been an extremely painful disability. Sadly, that optimistic spirit was rarely reflected in movies featuring disabled characters.

These experiences are an important part of the reason I now avoid watching portrayals of negative or stereotypical disabled characters. I also try to avoid those stories in which able-bodied actors are cast in the roles of disabled characters, except where a performer with that type of disability couldn’t handle the full range of the role’s demands.

Despite such growing enlightenment and the activism of people like Robert David Hall, Chair of Inclusion in the Arts and Media of People with Disabilities (I AM PWD), the able-bodied star of one of the most popular TV shows today assumed a disability in order to explain his character’s bad temper. When Hugh Laurie began playing Gregory House, I read an article stating that he developed the back story of a severe leg injury in order to “explain” his character’s grumpy nature.

Even if that decision was made by someone else on the production staff, there’s no excuse for it in this day and age. Everything about the role of Gregory House is a slap in the face of disabled actors and citizens everywhere. That’s why I do not watch “House M.D.” And given what I’ve seen of trailers advertising the show, I know I’m not missing a thing.

Moreover, I've recently read that the physical demands of walking with a phony limp have caused Laurie to develop serious hip problems. Hmm. Could this be some sort of "cosmic justice"? The better side of my nature hopes not, but I find it awfully difficult to feel too sorry for the man. All it would have taken to avoid that problem would have been a bit of research into the problems people with certain disabilities have walking with deformed legs, hips and backs. If he'd been smart, he'd have turned down that role.

In my next article in this series, I’ll share a slice of reality, what life is really like for some real-life disabled citizens whom I know intimately. Stay tuned.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Disabled performers fight discrimination in the entertainment industry

Children with aging diseases like progeria are often bullied because
of their distorted appearance, unlike Robin Williams’
natural-looking character in the movie “Jack”
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons, from: The Cell Nucleus and Aging: Tantalizing Clues and Hopeful Promises. Scaffidi P, Gordon L, Misteli T. PLoS Biology Vol. 3/11/2005, e395

In recent articles, I’ve listed a few examples I’ve seen that show “Disabled performers prove capable of filling various roles.” However, we must acknowledge the need for “Finding the middle ground when casting disabled characters.” But in many instances, there’s simply no excuse for not filling roles with performers whose disabilities match, or at least come close to, the challenges faced by the characters.

I’ve organized this part of the discussion in somewhat chronological order, so the list parallels my own path of enlightenment regarding the issue. That’s because, as a TV kid, I grew up watching old media stereotypes regarding disability. That’s one of the many reasons I had such a problem dealing with my own growing disability over the years. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

First, here are several disabled characters played by able-bodied actors, though the roles could easily have been filled by people with the same disabilities--in some instances, even the real people the stories were based on:

In 1979, Stockard Channing starred in “Silent Victory: The Kitty O’Neil Story,” a portrayal of the hearing-impaired stuntwoman who holds the women’s land speed record for driving a rocket-powered racing car. Then in 1982, Marc Singer played musician, composer, and actor Tom Sullivan in “If You Could See What I Hear.”

At the time, I thought it was pretty good that the stories of these people with disabilities were portrayed as the complex individuals they are. But then in 1983 I was more impressed by the fact that the producers of “Simon & Simon” cast a blind woman, Cheryl McMannis, as a blind Ph.D. in the episode, “I Heard It Was Murder.” Around that time, I read an interview in which McMannis expressed frustration with the industry because she was often bypassed for sighted actors to play blind roles.

Then in the late ‘80s two actors received praise for the skill with which they portrayed a couple with developmental disabilities, but that was before disabled activists began shining such a bright spotlight on the issue. First Larry Drake began playing Benny Stulwicz on “L.A. Law.” Later Kathleen Wilhoite joined the cast as Rosalie Hendrickson, Benny’s eventual bride. While the show did dramatize many issues faced by such a couple, it would have been far more inspiring if the actors were actually developmentally disabled.

Two award-winning movies came along in the early 1990s. Al Pacino portrayed Lt. Colonel Frank Slade in “Scent of a Woman,” and Tom Hanks played “Forrest Gump.” I tolerated one viewing of the latter, as much because of Lt. Dan Taylor, played by Gary Sinise, whose character was first able-bodied and later a double amputee. But with my growing consciousness, I found myself uncomfortable with the stereotypical roles of the developmentally disabled but heroic Gump and the embittered blind retiree in “Scent.”

Another performance that received positive reviews at the time was that of Robin Williams in the movie “Jack.” When he played Jack Charles Powell, a character who was supposed to be 10 years old but had the body of a 40-year-old man, Williams made to attempt to change his normal appearance to portray the distortions and deformities that are the hallmark of early aging diseases.

It occurred to me that Williams’s performance is actually a disservice to the children who experience so much bullying because of their unusual appearance. In fact, if Williams had such a strong urge to play a childlike character, he would have been more honest if he’d played a role similar to that of Adam Sandler’s “Billy Madison.”

On the other hand, this is my chance to hand out another gold star to our favorite forensic drama. In the “Bones” episode, “Stargazer in a Puddle,” the victim was a young woman with one of the aging diseases Williams claimed to have dramatized in “Jack.” True to their practice of showing the harsh realities of death and life, the “Bones” producers used the photo of a young woman whose body and face resemble that of a very old woman, just like that of the child with Progeria, shown above.

You might understand from my first article in the series, “Time to end ‘blackface’ practices toward disabled actors and characters,” I have nothing positive to say about a black actor like Alex Desert playing the blind concession stand operator, Jake Malinak, in “Becker.” It’s bad enough for an able-bodied white actor to take the role of a disabled person. Given the history of discrimination in the media against people of color, I’d hope for more understanding from an African-American actor.

In my next article, I’ll discuss why stereotypical disabled characters provide a false picture of what life is like for people with all manner of disabilities.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Finding the middle ground when casting disabled characters

After discussing several successful disabled performers in my previous article, “Disabled performers prove capable of filling various roles,” the time has come to reveal some of the people whom I’ve seen in roles as disabled characters even though they have very little idea what it’s like to actually be disabled. But first, we must consider the fact that there is one qualifying factor in this discussion:

While many people agree there’s a moral necessity for producers in the entertainment industry to cast more disabled actors in the roles of characters with similar disabilities, it’s also true that people with certain disabilities might not be able to fulfill all the requirements of a particular role. That doesn’t mean they can’t manage other roles. People must consider the full range of an individual role before deciding whether it can be managed by a performer with the type of disability being portrayed.

That’s why I grant wide leeway to Tony Shalhoub, who did such a brilliant job as the obsessive-compulsive detective, Adrian Monk. Many of the situations Monk fell into would no doubt be far too frightening, even for many normal people, much less someone with such an extreme level of phobias as that portrayed in the series.

What’s more, during the course of the series, there was at least one other instance in which a person with a disability was played by an actor who didn’t have that disability, but there was a reason for that too. (I won’t give any hints here, because that would be a real spoiler for anyone who hasn’t seen the episode.)

On the other hand, the producers did cast one significant person who actually has a condition that’s not too removed from that of his character. Though he’s known as a brilliant actor and author, John Turturro, who played Adrian’s agoraphobic older brother, Ambrose, actually has Asperger’s Disorder. Turturro’s extensive body of work is testimony to the fact that with proper support, people with all manner of disabilities can achieve great things.

As for the TV series, both Monk brothers were portrayed as extremely intelligent in their areas of expertise, in spite of their psychological quirks. And the often light-hearted approach to the presentation added another element to the process of breaking down barriers in many people’s minds.

Perhaps one day that combination of facts and levity might help some viewers overcome their bias toward people they didn’t accept before they saw the show. So, where it counted, “Monk” producers came through for people with various types of poorly understood disabilities.

There were a couple of other cases in which I’ve seen able-bodied actors play people with disabilities, but certain factors required them to perform beyond those disabilities. LeVar Burton played the blind Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” But a futuristic electronic visor gave him enough sense of sight that it would have been impossible for an unsighted person to play every aspect of that role.

Happily, a similar visor is now a reality, at least in experimental form, as well as an artificial electronic eye. Perhaps one day people with many types of visual impairments might be able to minimize their disabilities because of the vision of Gene Roddenberry and other people connected with the “Star Trek” franchise.

I admit I wasn’t so thrilled when I heard that the very able-bodied Jason Ritter (son of John, grandson of Tex) was cast as the wheelchair-bound former football player Kevin Girardi on “Joan of Arcadia.” Though I didn’t watch much of the show, I did read that there was at least one episode in which the actor had to perform in his pre-accident persona, which a paraplegic could not have done.

These are just a handful of the jobs that were filled by people who couldn’t personally fathom all aspects of the conditions they were portraying. But I have to admit that in certain instances, many factors make this type of casting the most reasonable course of action, and those I’ve witnessed in such cases were presented in very professional manner. Meanwhile, if these shows helped to educate some viewers on the realities of disability, then they’ve done a public service after all.

Finally, my next article will discuss those people I’ve relegated to my personal “hall of shame”: those actors who took on roles that could--and no doubt should--have been portrayed by disabled actors who would have been much better equipped to identify with both the physical boundaries and the psychological depths of the characters in those stories.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Disabled performers prove capable of filling various roles

Oscar-winning 1946 film "The Best Years of Our Lives" dramatized
the reality of soldiers returning from World War II.
(Movie Release Poster, Wikimedia Commons)

In my last article, “Time to end ‘blackface’ practices toward disabled actors and characters,“ I introduced the fact that many producers don’t like to cast disabled actors, even when they would be playing disabled characters. That’s why a great many disabled characters are played by able-bodied actors. The official excuses generally involve money, and time, of course, which is the same as money in any business.

There are exceptions, of course. From the beginning of the series in 2000, Robert David Hall has played Dr. Al Robbins in “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” (AKA “CSI: Las Vegas”). For a decade, Hall has been a stalwart member of a company of able-bodied actors, in spite of the fact that he walks on two prosthetic legs with the aid of a crutch.

In that time, Hall’s disability hasn’t prevented him from appearing as a guest on other shows and doing voiceover work as well. And he also serves as Chair of the Performers with Disabilities Committee. The group’s official name is Inclusion in the Arts & Media of People with Disabilities (I AM PWD), an activist organization within the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).

The goal of I AM PWD is to promote employment of disabled people in all sectors of the arts and the media. In my limited experience, I’ve seen that there are some “good guys” in the industry willing to hire disabled performers. As a disabled person myself, I’ve taken particular note of movies and TV series that consistently include people with disabilities, whether the parts call for the characters to be disabled or the characters could be otherwise healthy but the actor happens to be disabled.

I was still pretty young when I saw William Wyler’s 1946 film, “The Best Years of Our Lives.” Harold Russell lost both hands in a TNT accident while training paratroopers at Camp McKall, NC. Wyler saw Russell in an army training film and hired him to play double amputee Homer Parrish in his landmark film. Russell won two Oscars for the role, the only actor ever to do so. One was for Best Supporting Actor, and the other va- for being an inspiration to all returning veterans.

Russell continued to act occasionally over the years, but his primary focus was the veterans support group he founded, AMVETS. In addition, the annual award presented by the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities is called the Harold Russell Medal.

In the late 1980s, two different TV series featured regular characters who happened to be disabled. For three years, undercover cop Vinnie Terranova depended on the wheelchair-bound communications engineer Daniel Benjamin “Lifeguard” Burroughs, played by real-life double amputee Jim Byrnes, in the crime drama “Wiseguy.” And Chris Burke’s Down syndrome was a vital part of the ongoing plot involving his character, Charles “Corky” Thacher, in the family drama “Life Goes On.”

Lifeguard’s disability was secondary to the character’s role, but the role of Corky helped educate viewers about the fact that people with certain disabilities are capable of many more activities than most people realize. The same was generally true of Geri Jewell’s recurring character of Geri Tyler, cousin of wealthy boarding house resident, Blair Warner, in “The Facts of Life.” Geri’s cerebral palsy was an occasional point of interest in the plots of the 12 episodes in which she appeared.

Finally, I was happy to note that when one of our favorite series, “Bones,” featured a character in a wheelchair, the actor is indeed a paraplegic. The chair’s presence was almost incidental to the plot, acting as a kind of shorthand to explain the shared history in the Kosovo conflict of Judge Hank Lutrell, played by Mitch Longley, who’s disabled in real life, and the main character of FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth.

Incidentally, Longley is another disabled person whose experience prompted him to become an activist. He combined his disability with his Native American background to found SOWOHO, Spirit of the Wounded Horse, Inc., an organization which helps underprivileged Native Americans with physical disabilities.

Besides the roles I’ve listed, all these actors have performed in both long-term and guest roles in many other productions. Jewell is also a standup comedian, as are several other people with CP, Hall is a musician and singer, Byrnes is a blues guitarist, and Longley is an accomplished singer. And though he’s primarily a musician, singer, and songwriter, Tom Sullivan has appeared in guest roles on many TV shows since the mid-‘70s.

And there’s one more spectacular example in John Hockenberry. The award-winning journalist has not only worked on several TV news and magazine programs over the years, he’s proved that even a newsman with a wheelchair can go get the stories in far-flung corners of the world.

These people with various types of disabilities are but a few of many examples that prove disabled people are capable of fulfilling the tasks of acting, playing music, singing, making people laugh, often about their own physical disabilities, and informing the public about world events.

On the other hand, there are too many examples of those who’ve portrayed people with various disabilities, in spite of the fact that they have no idea what it’s like to live with a disability. In my next article, I’ll expose some of these poseurs.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Time to end “blackface” practices toward disabled actors and characters

Shawn and Marlon Wayans defy tradition as a couple of "White Chicks"
(Movie Release Poster, Wikimedia Commons)

"Blackface" is an old term, but one that many African-Americans still recognize, especially those active in civil rights. It comes from the minstrel shows of the 19th and early 20th centuries in which white musicians smeared their faces with black makeup, most commonly a substance made from burnt cork, to portray black characters.

This was just one way in which black people were demeaned in early theater and cinema. Another common practice was called "stepinfetchit." Black characters were portrayed as lower class: servants, blue-collar workers, or often people who were unemployed. Their actions were usually ridiculous, something considered at the time meant to be comical. In retrospect, these caricatures actually were demeaning and sad.

On the other hand, perhaps the most famous and common role in which white actors went blackface was when they portrayed Othello in the Shakespearean play of the same name. Only in the middle of the 20th century, when such gifted actors as James Earl Jones proved African-Americans are capable of learning the lines and playing the complex character of the Moor, did producers begin to depend on a pool of brilliant black actors for that and other classic roles of darker-skinned characters.

Now, in the 21st century, black characters run the gamut from street people to wealthy power brokers. And there's never a question that the actors playing those characters will themselves be black. No one would dare cast a white person in a role that required them to pile on dark makeup, unless it was part of a complicated storyline. For example, in the 1976 movie "Silver Streak," Gene Wilder did a successful comedy turn in blackface as he and Richard Pryor ran from the law on their way to saving "fair lady" Jill Clayburgh from "bad guy" Patrick McGoohan.

In fact, if turnabout is fair play, there have been several instances in which black actors have hidden behind white makeup. My first notice of Greg Morris' talented son, Phil, came when he played a cop who went undercover in whiteface on the daytime drama "The Young and the Restless." And Shawn and Marlon Wayans even portrayed a couple of black FBI agents who don white face paint to play a couple of "White Chicks." Why not?

Why not, indeed. Why, then, do entertainment companies not have the same respect for disabled actors? There are a few instances in which producers cast actors who actually have the disability that the character is supposed to have. But far more often, they recruit perfectly able-bodied people to portray characters with disabilities. Most of the time, they don't even bother interviewing actors who have those disabilities before they fill the roles with those able bodies.

The reasons they cite are many, but two prevail:

  • They claim insurance costs for people with disabilities are too high, and they have to cut corners where they can.
  • They claim disabled actors wouldn't be up to the task and would slow down production.

If that were so, then what do they have to say about those disabled actors who successfully fill the roles they have been given? Not only has their presence not raised costs, but they've generally received great reviews, not because of their disabilities but because of their professional contributions.

That's why one successful disabled actor has been fighting to improve the situation for other disabled actors. In my next entry, I'll discuss the reason Robert David Hall has dedicated his life to ending discrimination against disabled actors and other entertainment professionals.