THE FIRST TIME I saw the 1946 film, "The Best Years of Ou Lives," I thought that Harold Russell was one hell of an actor. I kept saying to myself, "Wow! This guy plays a double-arm amputee like the real McCoy. I wonder how long it took him to learn how to use those hooks?"
Well, it wasn't long before I found out that it took Harold Russell about as long as it takes any ex-GI who lost both arms in World War II to get used to his prostheses because he was the real McCoy. Director William Wyler hired Russell for the part of a disabled veteran, hooks and all.
Many years later, when I saw Daniel Day-Lewis portray the late Irish writer Christy Brown in "My Left Foot," I said to myself, "Wow! They hired an actor who really has cerebral palsy." Then I discovered the truth: Day-Lewis is just one hell of an actor. So, what's going on out there in Movieland? Why have I been the victim of this cinematic sleight of hand to the point I can't even be sure who is disabled and who's not? Perhaps to answer the question we should find out why films about disabled people win awards but rarely employ actors with disabilities. The trend started early.
Harold Russell won an Academy Award for his performance in "The Best Years of Our Lives." But no sooner had the applause died when Marlon Brando was cast as a paraplegic war veteran in the 1950s film "The Men." After Brando showed them how to do it, a whole gang of actors who were not disabled won critical acclaim for portraying people who were.
Child actress Patty Duke became Academy Award winner Patty Duke by doing Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker." Jon Voight and Tom Cruise captured big box office success for their roles as disabled Vietnam veterans in "Coming Home," 1978, and "Born on the Fourth of July," 1989. Robert DeNiro was nominated for and Dustin Hoffman won an Oscar for portraying people with neurological impairments in "Awakenings" and "Rain Man." Only the deaf community got lucky when Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, was cast in "Children of a Lesser God." Matlin won Best Actress.
If it's possible to find a talented actress who is deaf, why is the big screen devoid of disabled actors who use wheelchairs to portray characters who use wheelchairs? If Helen Keller worked miracles in her lifetime, are we to assume that she was the last blind person to do so? Was there no blind actress in the house?
The simple truth is that I know at least 100 guys with disabilities who could have done the Ron Kovic part in "Born on the Fourth of July," including, perhaps, Kovic himself. Common sense tells me there would be difficulty in casting autistics to play autistics, and the same goes for those with profound mental retardation. But Christopher Burke, who has Down's syndrome, does very well on the ABC series "Life Goes On," and so does "Wiseguy's" Jim Byrnes. Byrnes lost both legs after an accident in 1972. Like Harold Russell before him, Byrnes is a good actor who just happens to be missing a few body parts.
It's apparent that when it comes to casting actors with disabilities to portray characters with disabilities, film producers are also missing a few parts. A collective bargaining agreement worked out between the Screen Actors Guild and the various producers protects the actor with a disability from discrimination. SAG requires that producers audition performers with disabilities a role calls for a disability. However, SAG cannot prevent able-bodied actors from trying out for the same part, and the final casting decision remains with the producer. SAG also cannot prevent a producer from holding auditions in a place that's not wheelchair-accessible.
Actor Dave Hall, who lost both legs in a car accident, has a XTC co-starring role in the film "Class Action." He portrays, of course, an accident victim. He believes the whole issue comes down to getting a project on film and making money. "The way the business is," he said, "is that things have to get made. Sometimes it's a star vehicle that gets things made. We don't have a lot of actors with disabilities who are major stars. The only way that's going to happen is if we get some visibility and major opportunities to do this."
Has anyone seen "Catch-22"?
Edward John Hudak is a writer who is physically disabled.