I recently read an extremely thought provoking piece on The Guardian, comparing Eddie Redmayne’s Golden Globe winning performance as Stephen Hawking to ‘blacking up’. Coining the phrase ‘cripping up’, it suggests the unacceptability of ANYONE ‘blacking up’ should be extended to ANYONE acting crippled in films. Examples such as Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, and Daniel Radcliffe’s The Cripple of Inishmaan – both wildly applauded – are supposedly little to celebrate, and should instead be shunned.
This is where I, a disabled media student (and self-described critic) weighs in.
The process of portraying an established figure, one that is not merely a work of fiction, means the actor must look the part. Convincingly so. So much so we forget we are watching someone pretend to be said person. In the case of ‘The Theory of Everything’ the actor needs to play both Stephen pre-ALS and post-ALS. If we were to use a disabled actor, he would be unable to play the Stephen, pre-ALS. If we were purely to use a disabled actor for the post-ALS and an ‘abled’ actor for the pre-ALS stephen, the continuity would not work, and it would make the film less believable. Luckily, there are far more actors without ALS than there are actors with ALS, so the likelihood of finding an actor with such a disease, as well as looking convincingly like Hawking is an exercise in futility.
The same can be said for a white actor portraying a black person. There is no way in hell that a blacked up actor would ever look or act CLOSE to Mandela… Disability is a different matter to race that can change over the course of the story. If the character is disabled throughout the course of the film then a disabled actor is much more realistic and a much better option. If the characters ability changes then it would be much more difficult to cast a disabled character. Patrick Stewart’s portrayal of Professor X is never questioned for being ‘inappropriate’ because there are flashbacks to him being able to walk that wouldn’t be feasible otherwise. Also, being an extremely accomplished actor in his field (particularly sci-fi/fantasy films and TV shows), it makes more sense for him to be cast (money, money, money) as he will, at the end of the day, bring in more money for the film. It’s an entirely circumstantial point of view, and we can see that it’s mainly based on monetary reasons. Someone like Patrick Stewart will create more hype for a sci-fi/comic book film because we KNOW his name. To cast a character in a wheelchair, purely to be safe from ‘Un-PC connotations’ would seem silly. Maybe it’s not just sex that sells in Hollywood – it’s ability too.
Saying all this though, I would love to see more disabled actors in both roles that required it – and didn’t! Walter Jr in Breaking Bad is played by a REAL teenager with REAL Cerebral Palsy (albeit the extent is exaggerated in BB). This is a refreshing take on a character who didn’t even NEED to be disabled, and when he did, the creators cast a teenager who knew the struggle, and could safely play his part. (With skill might I add!) Maybe we should look upon that as an example of where to draw the line on ‘is it acceptable to cast an able-bodied actor in this role?’.
Okay decided. From now on, that will be the line of measurement on whether Cripping Up is okay. After all, It’s Ability, not Disability that matters…