CP and the Movies: Image Is Everything

By David Bauer

Marcus, who has cerebral palsy, is a real jerk, and that’s good news for the rest of us with cerebral palsy.

Marcus is a character (played by nondisabled actor Leo Fitzpatrick) in the movie Storytelling. He’s a college student enrolled in a creative writing course along with his girlfriend, Vi. The movie’s opening scene shows Marcus and Vi engaged in wholesome, noisy sex.

And what does Mr. Sensitivity do immediately after orgasm, when most couples are content to lie blissfully in each other’s arms? He wants to read Vi a story he’s writing, a story Vi has already heard and isn’t interested in hearing again. Marcus, being Marcus, accuses her of no longer caring for him, and she dresses and leaves.

Despite his lack of interpersonal skills, the character of Marcus is actually a step forward in the film depiction of people with CP. He’s ambitious, aggressive, and sexually active. In other words, he’s an adult, flawed to be sure, but nevertheless a fully functioning, involved-with-life adult, which is a far cry from other portrayals of fictional movie characters with CP.

In The Score, for example, a recent film with Robert De Niro and Edward Norton, Norton plays a childlike, eager-to-please person with CP who is only too happy to have a job sweeping out a warehouse. And in The Usual Suspects, Kevin Spacey won an academy award for his portrayal of Verbal, a nonthreatening, self-effacing individual with CP whose goal in life seems to be the avoidance of doing anything that might offend someone else. Next to them, Marcus is a role model.

The ultimate insult of The Score and The Usual Suspects is that the characters of Spacey and Norton only pretend to have CP. Both characters are actually criminals, and both fake CP on the assumption that no one with CP could be smart and aggressive enough to commit a crime. And their assumption proves correct: Spacey’s character is allowed to go scot-free, and while Norton’s character is in a jam at the film’s conclusion, he nevertheless has a chance of avoiding capture.

These two stereotypical characters put me in the awkward position of insisting that people with CP can be thieves and killers just like anyone else. But isn’t that what mainstreaming is all about? If having CP guaranteed that one could steal a million dollars without getting caught, the economic difficulties many people with CP face would vanish overnight!

Not all movie portrayals of folks with CP are as objectionable as we find in The Score and The Usual Suspects. Both My Left Foot and Gaby are acclaimed films that show adults with CP who are bright, sensitive and intent on living life to its fullest. But as Martin Norden points out in The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies, these films were made by foreign rather than U.S. filmmakers. Norden contends that “cerebral palsy remains a foreign experience in several senses for American moviemakers”–and The Score and The Usual Suspects certainly support his thesis.

Why are the film images of people with CP important? Because movies feed audiences images that are absorbed and internalized almost without notice. Joseph Reed, in his book, American Scenarios: The Uses of Film Genre, notes that many people have a feel for horses that comes not from time actually spent on a ranch but from seeing them so frequently in movies. “We all lead lives that take their cue from film,” Reed notes, which explains why film characters with CP who are childlike and unconnected with the real world create considerable misunderstanding, even damage.

A friend of mine, a woman in her early 40s, once spoke by telephone to a doctor she was considering but had not yet seen. She decided to forgo her first appointment when, after she mentioned her CP, the doctor replied, “CP? Isn’t that the disease children get?”

The doctor is obviously a movie buff, which is why we need to see more of Marcus. And move on from there.

David Bauer lives in Washington, D.C., and works with Advancing Independence, Medicare and Medicaid Modernization, a group that advocates reform in Medicare/Medicaid for people with disabilities.

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