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Mar./Apr.
1999

Movies

Rear View Window


Review by Cass Irvin

Cass Irvin, former publisher of The Disability Rag, now directs Access to the Arts, Inc. Her book focusing on FDR is being published by Temple University Press.

When I saw the original Rear Window, I was terrified. In the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock thriller, a photographer (played by Jimmy Stewart) in a wheelchair with a broken leg who believes he's witnessed a murder is stalked in his own building by the murderer. I must have seen it at Warm Springs because I didn't get out much when I was home.

The theater in Roosevelt Hall was beautifully accessible--but it wasn't integrated. People in wheelchairs or on stretchers used the first three rows in the theater; if your family came to visit, they sat in the back six rows--the "regular" seats.

The theater was racially segregated, too. Once the lights went down, you could hear people walking into the theater from the far side. Sometimes, once your eyes were adjusted to the dark, you could see the orderlies, maids, food cart boys, cooks moving in the dark to their seats on the far side of the theater. But that's another story.

I must have been about twelve. I was terrified for Jimmy Stewart. To most of us real disabled people, Stewart's cast should have seemed a minor disability--he was not helpless so much as awkward, and with a little ingenuity should have been able to overcome his adversary.

But maybe because I was a child, I saw a helplessness in his condition beyond what was there. Or maybe because it was a Hitchcock movie and Hitchcock wanted us to be scared. Nondisabled people were scared, too. Still, I think I felt something beyond the Hitchcock terror--one of those things that, being a child, you don't have words for.

Now we have Christopher Reeve's Rear Window.

I didn't want to watch it. I'm ambivalent about Reeve as a disability hero. He's a "nondisabled disabled person." Many of us fear he will set the disability rights movement tumbling backwards. His post-disability achievements are generally of the "in spite of" variety that many of us abhor because of their shallowness.

But I knew I had to watch it. This wasn't yet another Barbara Walters interview; this was no exposť on a fallen hero. This was Reeve at his job. And on this level I was rooting for his success.

Of course he knew viewers would be watching to see if he could pull it off. Critics would be anticipating a flat performance--though People magazine had recognized the fact that Reeve really was disabled gave it "more gut-level tension than the original."

I'd loved the disabled characters Ironsidesand Longstreet. They weren't accurate depictions of life with a disability--but they were informative for their time. I was sure that kids stopped staring at me so much after watching Ironsides; I told myself he helped viewers become familiar with wheelchairs.

If you discount the fact that the first third of the movie is a shill for cure, Reeve's Rear Window storyline isn't bad. The young architect Jason Kemp, paralyzed by an catastrophic accident, works his way back to his career and, along the way, witnesses what he thinks is a murder. With the help of his personal assistant and his architectural assistant (and future love interest?), he tries to prove the murder took place and discover who did it.

Seasoned gimps will say Jason Kemp's quick acceptance of his disability is unrealistic. The resumption of career comes too easily, too--although we see him with all the at-home resources to be successful: His architectural business occupies one floor of his building; another floor houses his gym (we get to watch him exercise to keep his muscles ready for the cure); there's a kind of nurses' station area (no comment!) and personal quarters. Money's no problem for Reeve's Kemp. His building is state-of-the-art access: voice-activated, remote-controlled lights, computer, stereo, TV, thermostat, elevator, doors, locks. The access is too good to believe--but no harder to believe than Detective Ironsides going undercover in his wheelchair to pose as a drunk (I'd strain my eyes looking for curb ramps--and feel little smug to see him tumble off the curb).

The scene where Reeve calls and wakes his personal assistant to help him in the early hours of the morning is pretty much a fantasy too. I don't know anyone who could wake their attendant and with no complaints persuade them to leave their home, come to their place and get them dressed and up in their wheelchair at 3 o'clock in the morning for a little spying on the neighbor.

Can anyone explain to me this compulsion to show disabled people getting bathed? Ed Roberts took a bath on 60 Minutes years ago; here's Reeve doing it in Rear Window. Isn't bathing a little intimate for TV? There's none of that John Wayne getting his back scrubbed by the saloon girl quality to any of this. So what's the point? Is it to make us more familiar, more human? Is it to show we're not embarrassed about our bodies? Is it to show we're not embarrassed about our dependence? Do we have to become exhibitionists to prove that?

Why bath scenes? A shaving scene would do it far better. Being shaved is a sign of class, wealth, power. That would suit Jason Kemp.

But I think I like Reeve's Jason Kemp. People magazine said Reeve's ending--his young blonde assistant climbs into bed with him--"teases and confuses." To me it screams "sequel!" Reeve's antagonist gets out of jail, a body is found . . . Or a series: Reeve hires a part-time PCA whose abusive boyfriend dies mysteriously; Reeve has to prove she's innocent. . . . An unscrupulous architect who fudges and builds ramps steeper than code, just to save money, dies when he gets caught in a concrete mixer . . .

It's been a long time since Longstreet. Maybe it's time for another TV disability hero.

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