November 28, 2005

The Best Disability Films - A Very Short List

By Susan M. LoTempio

I'm all for "Murderball" - not the game but the movie. It's gritty, it's fast and it's a fascinating look at the quad jock lifestyle. Now that the documentary is out on DVD, hopefully a lot more people will see it. (Even though it got a lot of buzz when it was released in July, its box office was disappointing.)

Watching Mark Zupan and his teammates was a hoot. Seeing them interviewed on TV and in magazine spreads was another hoot. Those guys were enjoying - perhaps even creating - a crip cult status never seen before - even if it lasted about 15 minutes. Perhaps they'll get a few more minutes of fame with the release of the DVD.

Murderball (2005)
Directors: Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro
List Price: $29.99 Price: $20.99

Read our review

I gave "Murderball" four stars when I reviewed it for my newspaper because it's that good. Still, I'm disappointed that this film, which gave disability issues so much focus, was solely about the jock world. Hollywood sure does love a crip jock story, just as much as it loves a teary-eyed crip inspiration story, and that old chestnut, the crip pity story. But how many of us can relate to the jock lifestyle? (I admit to dabbling in wheelchair racing in college, though the real motivation was not scoring medals but scoring with the guys.)

So I set out to find a movie that spoke to me as a woman with a disability - one that didn't concentrate on wheelchairs crashing into each other, locker room blather and overdoses of testosterone.

During the search, I discovered, a British website that lists 2,500 feature films using disability as a major or minor theme. On this fascinating site, you'll bump into titles like "Frida,' (polio) "Hillary and Jackie" (multiple sclerosis) "The Other Sister" (mental disability) and "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" (polio, scoliosis, deafness) - a pretty eclectic list of films, which have all been Hollywoodized.

Not particularly relevant to me, but huge hits cited on the site, were "Coming Home," "My Left Foot" and "Born on the Fourth of July" (if you can stomach Tom Cruise in that role, which I can't). Somewhere in my research I found references to the use of disability as a "prop" in films such as "Bubble Boy" and "Steel Magnolias." In "Edward Scissorhands" and "Elephant Man," disability is used for the "freak factor." Pretty disgusting labels if you ask me.

Still, there are some good films. I loved Dame Judi Dench's portrayal of author Iris Murdoch in "Iris," but slipping into Alzheimer's isn't a huge motivator at this stage in my life. I rented "Passion Fish," which starred Mary McDonnell as a newly spinal-cord injured actress who is mad as hell about her disability; Alfre Woodard plays her caretaker. While this 1992 film depicts well McDonnell's gradual acceptance of her new life as a wheeler, it gets pretty sappy when the writers start throwing in Woodard's addiction issues.

So, after researching, renting films and combing the offerings on Netflix, I returned to an old favorite as the movie I can most identify with: "Notting Hill."

I can hear the collective groaning, but hear me out. First off, because disability is a minor theme in this 1999 Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant film, its treatment is neither inspirational nor pitying (and certainly not jock-driven).

The character in the wheelchair, played by non-disabled actress Gina McKee, is just one member of a strong ensemble. In the role of one of Grant's close friends, we see her in scenes eating with the group, drinking with them, getting sloshed, and fawning over Roberts' celebrity character. She's mainstreamed into the story, and while the other characters reference her disability, they don't do it in a big way. In other words, she's a fully drawn human being, not the crip stereotype we usually get in movies.

Which is why, I guess, I can forgive the unfortunate fact that an actress with a disability wasn't cast in this role. Truthfully, McKee and her wheelchair are so in sync with each other, I thought she was disabled. Months later, when I saw her in another movie playing a "standing" role, I was crushed.

Should we be outraged she got the role rather than a wheeler? Of course. Should we be surprised? Of course not.

The Screen Actors Guild recent study on disabled performers in the entertainment industry found that not only do they lack the chance to play "non-traditional roles" (such as a mother or father), they also aren't give the chance to play roles written for characters with disabilities, which is outrageous.

Still, Gina McKee clearly has respect for her character named Bella. She plays her with a dignity and quiet strength I found moving and which reminded me of many disabled women I have known over the years.

Lucky for her, she also got to hang around with Hugh Grant, a guy as high on my personal hottie list as those jocks.  

Susan LoTempio is an assistant managing editor at The Buffalo News, Buffalo, NY. She writes about disability and participates in seminars around the country on how media cover disability issues.

Posted on November 28, 2005