Access Hollywood: Disability in Recent Film and Television

By Jeff Shannon

It has been 11 years since The Waterdance was released to critical acclaim and box-office obscurity. Independently produced on a tight budget, this engaging rehab-ward drama–starring Eric Stoltz, Wesley Snipes and William Forsythe as newly-injured paraplegics adjusting to life in wheelchairs–earned just under $2 million in limited release. That’s barely a blip on Hollywood’s radar, but through subsequent exposure on cable television and home video, The Waterdance emerged as the best, most authentic film to depict the emotional and physical realities of paralysis.

Have we progressed since then? Has mainstream Hollywood matured in its depictions of disability, or was The Waterdance merely a promising exception to the stereotypical rule? In surveying the evidence–focusing on the depiction of mobility impairment in mainstream film and television–it’s clear that familiar stereotypes continue to endure. It’s equally evident, however, that Hollywood’s acceptance of disability is running parallel to society in general; as the mass public grows more familiar and comfortable with disabilities of all kinds, that gradual integration is reflected in mainstream entertainment.

Surely The Waterdanceowes its realism to writer and co-director Neal Jimenez, a paraplegic who drew upon his own experiences in making the film, essentially casting Stoltz as his onscreen alter ego. In getting the details of rehab and paralysis just right, Jimenez proved an obvious point: The best way to improve Hollywood’s perception of disability is for more disabled people to break into Hollywood–a difficult task, but hardly impossible. In the meantime, nondisabled filmmakers are showing signs of increased awareness, and creaky stereotypes are giving way to gradual enlightenment.

There’s still plenty of room for improvement, but with disabled actors in regular roles on television’s Ed and CSI, among others, we’re seeing the gradual emergence of disability as incidental to a character’s role, as opposed to its primary focus. That’s a crucial distinction, because while many disabled roles are still played by nondisabled actors, as Hollywood’s awareness of disability increases, many film and TV producers are pursuing authenticity. Not only are disabled actors being sought for disabled roles, they’re also being considered for roles in which no disability is specified.

“I call it the full-inclusion generation,” says Gail Williamson, referring to younger filmmakers who’ve grown up in a more disability-conscious society. As coordinator of talent development and industry relations in the Hollywood-based Media Access Office, Williamson is the entertainment industry’s liaison for advocacy and employment of the disabled. “For [younger filmmakers], disability is no big deal, and that awareness is increasingly showing itself in student films and beyond. We’re making progress, not at the speed I’d like, but we’re inching forward.”

Examining the Evidence
That progress, however sporadic, is growing increasingly apparent. As profiled in New Mobility (May 2001), quadriplegic actor Dan Murphy has led a modest revolution of sorts, appearing in the Farrelly brothers’ comedies Kingpin, There’s Something About Mary, Shallow Hal, and Me, Myself & Irene, in roles that defy stereotype as well as showcase the Farrellys’ outrageous brand of humor. It’s not limited to Murphy, either: The Farrelly- produced comedy Say It Isn’t So (2001) features several disabled actors in roles that didn’t call for disability. Granted, this enlightenment stems from Murphy’s close friendship with the Farrellys, but their open-mindedness and unique casting decisions have been consistently–and hilariously–groundbreaking.

In the 1999 thriller The Bone Collector, Denzel Washington’s portrayal of a forensics detective-turned-quadriplegic is both problematic (like the film itself) and progressive. Like Mary McDonnell’s self-pitying paraplegic in Passion Fish (1992), he’s suicidally depressed until an outside force–in this case, the assistance of a rookie cop played by Angelina Jolie–allows him to realize his still-viable potential as a crime-scene analyst. It’s a clichéd route to recovery, but apart from the exaggerated threat of autonomic dysreflexia (depicted here as life-threatening seizures), Washington’s performance adequately reflects the reality of a newly-injured quad, and his psychological turnaround is handled with a refreshing lack of sentiment. Similarly, Jason Beghe’s portrayal of a resourceful quad lends a positive ring of truth to the underrated 1988 horror thriller Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Fear.

The casual, non-judgmental depiction of disability has grown increasingly common in roles ranging from superheroes to street punks. Patrick Stewart leads the X-Men (2000) from his futuristic wheelchair, heroically promoting the acceptance of outcasts; Ricardo Montalban pilots a helicopter wheelchair in Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams (2002); and in the super-powered thriller Unbreakable (2000), Samuel L. Jackson’s use of a wheelchair (due to osteogenesis imperfecta) is merely an extension of his intensely enigmatic character. On a more earthbound level, rapper/actor Snoop Dogg makes a memorable appearance as a paraplegic in Training Day (2001), and in the recent release Biker Boyz, a young black para is openly accepted as one of the “boyz.” Similar incidental depictions of disability can be found in Driven (Burt Reynolds as a para!), Notting Hill, Muriel’s Wedding, and the 2002 indie flick Cherish. In each case, disability is merely an accepted fact of life, liberated from the stigma of stereotype.

Which isn’t to say we’ve risen above stereotypes entirely. In 2001’s gruesome thriller Hannibal, Gary Oldman’s severely disfigured, wheelchair-using villain is the ultimate embodiment of the “tormented cripple,” bent on vengeance and hideous beyond description. He’s a one-man freak show, perpetuating a cinematic legacy–the equation of disability with evil–that stretches back to the birth of movies, reaching its peak in the elaborate monster make-ups of horror icon Lon Chaney Sr. Likewise, Kenneth Branagh is full of spiteful rage as Dr. Arliss Loveless, the evil genius who pilots a gadget-laden wheelchair in 1999’s ridiculous blockbuster Wild Wild West. And despite its thematically compelling premise, the genetics-as-destiny story of Gattaca (1997) revolves around a self-loathing para (Jude Law) who’d rather die than live in a society that denies status to those who aren’t physically and genetically flawless.

Other stereotypes are, admittedly, a partial reflection of truth. Assistive technologies play an important role in the lives of many disabled people, so it’s understandable that movies and television often match disabled characters with high-tech equipment. Like the gimmicky 1994 TV series M.A.N.T.I.S. in which a black paraplegic fights crime by wearing a fully functional high-tech exoskeleton, the recent, short-lived series Dark Angel and Birds of Prey featured disabled heroes who fight crime from their wheelchairs, surrounded by banks of computers that lend them a kind of vicarious, omniscient power. In both cases, their disabilities were tolerated but not accepted; eventually, each character rose from their chairs with the help of cutting-edge technology. This also occurs in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), in which a young boy’s coma-withered legs are assisted by futuristic leg braces–one of many plausible developments in that visionary film.

Then there’s that time-honored mainstay of countless TV movies, the inspirational gimp. Symptomatic of society’s lingering condescension toward the disabled, these patronizing, well-intentioned movies pop up regularly on cable-TV, typically involving a disabled character’s proverbial triumph over adversity. The little-seen Good Luck (1997) is a particularly wretched example, in which a paraplegic (Gregory Hines) and a blind man (Vincent D’Onofrio) team up for a white-water rafting race. In the typically-titled Disney TV movie Miracle in Lane 2 (2002), “Malcolm in the Middle” star Frankie Muniz plays real-life soap-box derby champion Justin Yoder, whose spina bifida won’t stop him from victory on race day. His vision of heaven includes angels in wheelchairs, but only gullible and ignorant viewers will reach for their Kleenex. Anna’s Dreams (2002) is another, slightly better example–a PAX-TV movie about an18-year-old para adjusting to her recent spinal cord injury. Like most movies of its kind, it glosses over the daily details of paralysis, presenting a palatable, non-threatening view of disability at the expense of genuine understanding.

Thankfully, there are exceptions to this familiar kind of mainstream condescension. One recent example is the acclaimed fact-based TNT telefilm Door to Door, in which William H. Macy gives an award-winning performance as Bill Porter, a struggling door-to-door salesman who doesn’t let cerebral palsy stop him from becoming the top salesman in his region. While avoiding sentiment and focusing on Bill’s inherent charm and old-fashioned salesmanship, this well-written film presents Bill’s disability as an important aspect of his identity, not something to be pitied, feared or rejected.

Baby Steps
For better and worse, this partial survey represents the current state of affairs. Progressive depictions of disability in film and television are steadily increasing, largely due to industry watchdogs like the Media Access Office and the ongoing efforts of disabled performers who refuse to be compartmentalized or marginalized. Studios and filmmakers have proven encouragingly receptive as disability culture continues to shape and refine its identity, but the onus is on us, not them, in assuring that this progress continues. Even as certain disability stereotypes seem troublesomely durable, they’re being subverted and altered into a fuller, more realistic reflection of society’s gradual acceptance. It’s a promising trend that feeds itself: Awareness breeds comfort, comfort breeds acceptance, and acceptance manifests itself in important films like The Waterdance, in which disability isn’t bad or good–it’s just life.

Still, the battle continues, and victory can seem pretty elusive for those in the trenches. “I’ve given up trying to get an agent,” says actor and writer Jim Troesh, a C4-5 quad who enjoyed a semi-regular role in the ’80s TV series Highway to Heaven. “I never get sent out for work anyway, so the only way it’s going to work for me is if I’m seen somewhere and someone wants to employ me. So that’s what I’m doing … putting myself out there and letting them come to me. It’s on our shoulders to get out there and be as visible as we can be.”

Williamson points out a still-pervasive Catch-22: As a minority, the disabled are not united by ethnicity or class distinction. As a result, disability is frequently excluded from discussions on industry diversity–a fact that the Media Access Office is continuing to address. “Getting people in the disabled community to rally together with a singular focus,” says Williamson, “is like walking into the cantina scene in Star Wars and saying, ‘Let’s all work together!’ It’s not as easy as you’d think.”

The ultimate solution–growing numbers of disabled people writing, directing, and acting in films and television–is both elusive and inevitable. Lacking any cohesive force as a civil rights entity (“Why don’t we march on Washington? Because it’s a bitch to get there!”), the disabled are empowered by the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, by increasing awareness among the nondisabled, and by their own individual initiative. In other words, if a paraplegic like Neal Jimenez can make a good movie about disability, with marquee names in his cast, why can’t you?

For Jimenez, it’s business as usual. If you’re wondering why he hasn’t directed another film since The Waterdance, it’s not for lack of opportunity. It’s exhausting to make a film, and Jimenez is picking his battles carefully. In his experience, Hollywood is not to blame. “Being in a wheelchair makes you really focus on work that’s worth doing, because it takes so much energy,” says Jimenez. “But my being in a wheelchair was a non-issue to Hollywood. After The Waterdance I was offered a lot of [physically daunting] projects that, quite frankly, were not realistic for me to do. Hollywood did not discriminate against me at all–in fact, they went out of their way to accommodate me.”

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