This is the story of a feature length film called CinemAbility, arguably the most comprehensive, up-to-date documentary account of the portrayal of people with disabilities in the history of American film and television. It covers the canvas, from the earliest days of cinema when Frankenstein was invited in for a friendly chat by a stereotypically saintly blind man to last year’s award-winning depiction of Mark O’Brien, a man in an iron lung who wanted to have sex — The Sessions. The film is peppered with commentary and insight by some of the biggest guns in Hollywood: Ben Affleck, Jamie Foxx, Geena Davis, William H. Macy, Gary Sinise, and A-list directors like Taylor Hackford (Ray) and Richard Donner (Superman). It is a broadly entertaining look at some of the best of the best — and worst of the worst — of Hollywood’s treatment of people with disabilities. You could teach a college course around this movie.
This is also the story of the woman who directed, co-wrote, co-produced and co-edited the film, Jenni Gold. Her reason for making it is simple: “It’s a film that had to be made.” It took her nine years to make it, amidst all the delays and setbacks that accompany the making of any large film, and it still has yet to land a film distribution or network television deal. To push a movie about such a niche topic — at least in the minds of film buyers — into the mainstream is still one more battle Gold and company must fight, and there is no guarantee that they will win. Hollywood is a crapshoot. CinemAbility is a crapshoot squared.
“Directing was natural for me, because in life, I’ve had to direct people to do what I wanted them to do.” — Jenni Gold
Jenni Gold was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy in her infancy and now spends a great deal of her life in a power chair that tops out at 12 mph. She is quick to pooh-pooh all of the struggles and heartaches of growing up with a disability. Other kids didn’t taunt her, she says. They took turns pushing her around the school yard. No one in her immediate surroundings in Miami, she claims, ever looked down on her, except when she wanted to do something they didn’t think prudent. At 16, they told her she couldn’t possibly drive. Then she saw Joni Eareckson Tada — a well-known evangelical Christian author, speaker, quadriplegic and founder of the nonprofit Joni and Friends — on a TV news story, driving. “If she can do it, I can do it,” teenager Gold announced, and she did. As a woman who has dedicated much of her professional life to authentic images of people with disabilities, she knows first-hand how such images can affect young people in chairs. Back in her youth, she was also a big fan of the horror-fest Friday the 13th, where a guy in a wheelchair gets slaughtered like everyone else — the ultimate in inclusion.
Gold got smitten by the lure of movies and television through regular appearances as “the mascot for fire fighters” on the annual Miami segment of the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon. At age 9, she made her first little movie about those fire fighters, plus she hung around the live broadcast and picked up tips about media persuasion. Not surprisingly, she has a much different take on Lewis than many in the MD community. She can see how others think that Lewis has demeaned and devalued them over the years, but he has been nothing but supportive of Gold’s bid to break through as a film director. If you want to become a member of the Directors Guild of America, the gold standard for professional directors, you need to be sponsored by three existing members. One of Gold’s sponsors was Jerry Lewis.
“I would say, many of the directors I have worked with were disabled … they didn’t know it, but I thought they had some serious problems they had to deal with.” — Actor William H. Macy
After graduating summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida’s School of Communications with a double major in film and television, Gold came to Hollywood and hit a brick wall, the same brick wall virtually every bright-eyed neophyte hits, only a couple of feet taller. The entry-level route for aspiring writers and directors these days is to work for free as an intern or land a job as a lowly production assistant. In either case, it’s a physically demanding job — sweeping floors, picking up the producer’s cleaning, delivering scripts — not a pathway for Gold or many other people with mobility-impairing disabilities (and those who are deaf and blind, as well). Gold didn’t have a lot of choices. So she chose the most difficult path of all, disabled or not: write a script that you can control, produce a movie from that script that you can control, then hire yourself to direct it.
Taking the Hard Road
Being hired as a director on someone else’s film or episodic TV show, especially if you are in a chair — no, especially if you are a woman in a chair — is largely a pipe dream. How hard is it? There are exactly two people with disabilities in the DGA: Ben Lewin, the man who wrote and directed The Sessions, and Jenni Gold.
If you are looking for a villain in this story, a malevolent force trying to ruin or defeat everything you want at every turn, that’s it — reality, the status quo.
Working alongside her husband and producing partner, Jeff Maynard, Gold took the hard road and scraped together the money to write and direct her own independent feature, Ready, Willing and Able, featuring a female CIA agent with a disability. She purposely picked a genre lorded over by men — the action film — “to show that she could blow stuff up just like the big boys.” She had an office on the Universal lot, so she asked the head of post-production there for a little sound mixing help. His reply: “Do you really think anyone’s going to care about a character in a wheelchair?” Gold’s jaw dropped. “Just kidding!” he quickly said. “We did Ironside!”
After Ready, Willing and Able, Gold spent years in what is known in Hollywood as “development hell.” Writing, developing, and pitching feature projects, then watching them lay moribund on the shelf is tough to take, so Gold decided to do something she had never done — make a documentary. CinemAbility was both fresh territory as a film subject and a wise career move. It’s another way of showing Hollywood that you have the chops, not to mention another way to make connections. Also, unlike narrative features, you can shoot a doc with a small, run-and-gun video crew, and you can develop other projects as you wait for Jamie Foxx’s schedule to clear.
It took nine long years to bring it in because it takes that long to compile all of the elements in a film like this. With no big backer, you finance it piecemeal — when you have some funds, you shoot or pay for archive material. When you don’t, you don’t. Most documentaries are a bunch of filmic pieces that come to life in the editing room. That’s where the final story is told. So what was the biggest obstacle? “Tackling such a huge and in-depth, yet overlooked topic,” says Maynard. “The scope of the project was huge. It was incredibly difficult to decide how to tell the story and what to cut out. Jenni did an amazing job.”
CinemAbility begins by chronicling the horrors of the early Hollywood view of disabilities. For instance, the blind girl in the silent film who is a sweet innocent to the world until she is miraculously cured of her blindness and suddenly becomes a sexual being. There’s also the stereotype of the “obsessive avenger,” as Martin Norden, author of Cinema of Isolation, puts it — a character with a disability, usually an embittered male, who seeks to get back at the world for his misfortune. Think of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick or Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life.
Then the tone of the film shifts to the noted disability-centric film triumphs. Deftly sidestepping their gatekeepers, Gold got direct access to film and TV luminaries who have created these films. The interviewees are all film watchers as well as film makers, and just like you and me, what they see and remember colors their work. Little person/actor Danny Woodburn, for instance, never thought of the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz as little people, but strongly identified with the mad scientist/villain/dwarf Dr. Miguelito Quixote Loveless in the ’60s TV series, Wild, Wild West. Others, like Jamie Foxx in Ray or Gary Sinise, the double amputee “Lt. Dan” in Forrest Gump, were transformed by taking on the often high-wire roles of characters with disabilities.
And then there is the occasional blowback. Marlee Matlin, the deaf actress, won the Academy Award for her role in Children of a Lesser God, but a lot of Hollywood tongue waggers dismissed it as “a pity vote.” But they didn’t say it was a pity vote when nondisabled actor Daniel Day Lewis won the Oscar for My Left Foot. The film also chronicles those big-screen features that many in the disability community thought were both wrong-headed and cruel. Think of the “mercy killing” of the Hilary Swank character in Million Dollar Baby or the endlessly unfunny “retard” joke in Tropical Thunder.
“We love the film but it just doesn’t fit here.” — Unnamed Film Festival buyer
Promotion, Promotion, Promotion
They say that you can die of encouragement in Hollywood — people will tell you you’re the next star but won’t lift a finger to help. In trying to get wide distribution for their movie, Gold and company have faced this firsthand. Though the film has only been shown in selective screenings around the country, the reviews have all been, well, encouraging. The Los Angeles Times, in an early rave, compared it to the groundbreaking documentary on gays in the media, The Celluloid Closet, calling it “arresting” and “eye-opening.” Other, less-visible online movie sites called it “a great film” and “an inspiring body of work” and “one of the most important documentaries everyone should see!”
The name of the game is getting showings: You don’t get many reviews, good or bad, until your movie is in theaters or on TV, and you don’t get that exposure unless someone writes a big check. So far that hasn’t happened with CinemAbility. Some film distributors have loved it, only to retreat to the old showbiz cop-out that documentaries don’t make money on screen or in DVD sales. Others have smiled and passed, mumbling something about it’s “not a good fit” for us. The roll-out on the film has been slow and measured … until the right festival and/or the right buyer comes along. This could happen tomorrow or this could never happen. Crapshoot squared.
But one thing Gold and Maynard do know is that the film will gain little traction without the maniacal support of the national disability community. As Gold points out, when a LGBT-themed movie is made, that community “goes nuts to support and promote it.” It’s hard to mount a collective effort between the many fiefdoms of disability, but it is critical to the success of movies like this. Here’s one practical way to help: go to the CinemAbility website and become a part of their Campaign for Inclusion. That means: liking CinemAbility on Facebook, following it on Twitter and telling your friends to do the same. Streaming video and/or DVD copies will become available down the line. Be on the lookout for that announcement.
CinemAbility is the story of the encounter of cinema and disability past. Will this filmic calling card put Gold in the director’s chair on House of Cards or Game of Thrones? Will it open the door to another self-written, self-produced indie feature like Ready, Willing, and Able or The Sessions? Or will the people on the other side of the table flinch at handing a big project over to someone in a wheelchair? Unfortunately, there is no way of telling how these behind-closed-doors decisions are made. In the high-risk/high-reward game of Hollywood, no explanations are required or given.
If you stop and look at what Gold is striving for, it’s not a lot different than what millions of people with disabilities strive for in their own work and life — to be given a fair shot. If Gold is exceptional, it’s because she has chosen one of the most capricious and unforgiving professions in the world to take that shot. She clearly has both the talent and the perseverance to succeed big in the film business. Hopefully, she’ll also have the luck.
“Nobody in my life that I have met is more powerful than Ray Charles. It’s pretty daunting. When you meet someone who is disabled and they are superior to you — it makes you think in a different way.” — Taylor Hackford, director, Ray.