Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

Great Oscar-Nominated Films with People with Disabilities

10 films that realistically depict what life is like for the disabled.

This is not an exhaustive list, but here are ten Oscar-nominated films that dared to go against the norm and realistically portray what life is like for people facing mental or physical disabilities. 

Daniel Day-Lewis
My Left Foot - 1989

Oscar count. Won: Best actor (Daniel Day-Lewis); Best supporting actress (Brenda Fricker). Nominated for: Best picture; Best director (Jim Sheridan); Best adapted screenplay.

My Left Foot is based on the autobiography of Christy Brown, played superbly by Daniel Day-Lewis. Brown is born with severe cerebral palsy into a large, loving family in a Dublin slum. He only has control over his left foot. (Reflect on that for a bit.) Despite a difficult childhood in which he is treated by most people as lacking any intelligence, he becomes a painter, a poet, and a novelist—using only his mind and the toes of his left foot.

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What makes this movie outstanding is the character of Christy Brown himself. He isn't a pious, saintly person. He's a complicated man who's not always easy to like. He drinks too much and can be demanding and arrogant at times. But he's a fighter, a survivor, and a gifted artist. I came away from this movie speechless with wonder at this real-life human being.

Frida - 2002

Oscar count. Won: Best music, original score; Best make-up. Several other nominations, including Best actress (Salma Hayek).

"The Two Fridas" by Frida Kahlo, 1939
In this biopic, Salma Hayek plays the Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo. Kahlo has polio as a child, which permanently stunts the growth of her right leg. Then, while a young student at university, she's almost killed in a trolley accident in which her body is pierced with a steel rod and her back is broken. She is never pain-free again.

The movie is a feast for the eyes and ears with bright colors and great music. The heart of the story, though, is Kahlo, whose fiery spirit is captured fearlessly by Salma Hayek. Despite often being in a body cast and having to paint mostly from the bed, Kahlo creates an extraordinary body of art, frequently depicting on canvas her physical and mental anguish. She was a complex and remarkable woman.

Four Weddings and a Funeral - 1994

Oscar count. Nominated for: Best picture and Best screenplay

Cast of Four Weddings (David Bower in the middle)
Charles (Hugh Grant's character) falls in love with Carrie (Andie MacDowell's character), and that's all you really need to know about the plot. It's a funny and sophisticated romantic comedy, the kind that doesn't seem to be around anymore. (What has happened to the Rom Com genre?)

Charles' brother, David (David Bower), is deaf. It may be a minor part, but his deafness plays a crucial role in several scenes, and I love how Charles and David use sign language to secretly share what they really think of the people they're with—often signing what would be highly inappropriate if spoken out loud!

A Beautiful Mind - 2001

Russell Crowe
Oscar count. Won: Best picture; Best director (Ron Howard); Best supporting actress (Jennifer Connelly); Best adapted screenplay. Several other nominations, including Russell Crowe for Best actor.

A Beautiful Mind is based on the biography of Nobel Prize Winner, John Forbes Nash, Jr., who is a brilliant mathematician and a diagnosed schizophrenic. Nash has made lasting contributions in many fields, notably game theory, while at the same time struggling with paranoid delusions. Russell Crowe is outstanding in this movie. He doesn't opt for a sensationalistic portrayal of Nash. Instead, he brings out Nash's humanity. As a result, we don't recoil from his mental illness; we see Nash as a brilliant and caring human being who has a devastating disease.

Children of a Lesser God - 1986

Oscar count. Won: Best actress (Marlee Matlin). Nominated for: Best picture; Best actor (William Hurt); Best supporting actress (Piper Laurie); Best adapted screenplay.

William Hurt and Marlee Matlin
Marlee Matlin plays a former student at a school for the deaf who resists the efforts of a new teacher (William Hurt) to show her how to read lips and use her deaf voice. Matlin is excellent in this movie—at once strong-willed and vulnerable. It's one of my favorite love stories. Some have criticized the movie for this, saying it's a love story that uses deafness as a gimmick, but I didn't experience it that way. In fact, I learned a lot about deafness from watching the movie, almost as if it were a docu-drama.

Coming Home - 1978

Oscar count. Won: Best actor (John Voight); Best actress (Jane Fonda); Best screenplay. Nominated for: Best picture; Best director (Hal Ashby); Best supporting actor (Bruce Dern); Best supporting actress (Penelope Milford); Best film editing.

John Voight and Jane Fonda
John Voight plays a Vietnam vet who is paralyzed from a spinal cord injury suffered in combat. He is also suffering from (what today we would call) PTSD. He and a hospital volunteer (Jane Fonda), fall in love, even though her husband (Bruce Dern) is fighting in Vietnam.

Some readers may object to Fonda's character being married (although just about every film I considered had one partner or the other being unfaithful at some point). Nevertheless, Coming Home is the first movie that realistically portrays a romance between a person who is able-bodied and another who suffers from a devastating disability—realistic in that it doesn't shy away from depicting both the emotional and physical challenges they face. I remember reading a comment about this film made by a man who is paraplegic. He said that it led to a whole generation of women looking at men in wheelchairs in a completely different light.

Iris - 2001

Oscar count. Won: Best supporting actor (Jim Broadbent). Nominated for: Best actress (Judi Dench); Best supporting actress (Kate Winslet).

Famed British philosopher and novelist, Iris Murdoch (Judi Dench), battles Alzheimer's disease as her husband, the literary critic John Bayley (Jim Broadbent), struggles to care for her. Kate Winslet plays the younger Murdoch and Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham to Downton Abbey fans) plays the younger Bayley.

Kate Winslett and Hugh Bonneville
This biopic is based on John Bayley's memoirs and traces his 40-year relationship with Murdoch. The film moves seamlessly between the older Murdoch, whose mind is slipping into dementia, and the younger Murdoch, who is a strong-willed and wickedly funny free spirit. The contrast between these two periods of her life is difficult to watch at times. What makes this movie outstanding is the strong acting from all four leads. Broadbent, in particular, is heartbreaking as the older Murdoch's husband, who is slowly losing his life-long partner in love and friendship. His helplessness and despair are palpable.  

Philadelphia - 1993

Oscar count. Won: Best actor (Tom Hanks); Best song ("Streets of Philadelphia"). Several other nominations.

Denzel Washington
Tom Hanks plays high-profile attorney, Andrew Beckett, who is dying from AIDS. He hires another attorney, Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), to help sue his employer for firing him. This is the first big budget movie made about AIDS. In my opinion, Denzel Washington deserved an Oscar for his performance. The most moving and powerful scenes in the movie depict his transformation from a self-interested homophobe who just hopes to get rich and famous from the case, to someone who sees Beckett as a fellow human being with the same hopes and dreams as he, Miller, has.

Rain Man - 1988 

Oscar Count. Won: Best picture; Best director (Barry Levinson); Best actor (Dustin Hoffman); Best screenplay. Several other nominations.

Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman
After his father dies, Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise), discovers that his father's $3 million fortune has been put into a trust to support an older brother he didn't know he had. The brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), has been institutionalized most of his life because of autism. Charlie finds Raymond and takes him out of the institution, hoping to get his hands on the money. As they embark on a cross-country trip back to Los Angeles, it becomes clear that Charlie sees Raymond as excess baggage. Raymond is a high-functioning autistic who has some astounding skills, but he can't relate emotionally to Charlie. But Charlie, in his own way, is just as emotionally stunted.

As the movie progresses, Charlie gradually comes to love Raymond just as he is. I feel the same way about Tom Cruise in this movie as I do about Denzel Washington in Philadelphia. To me, they are the real stars (even though their co-stars won the Oscars), because they play the characters who are transformed and, in effect, "awaken" during the course of the movie. If you've ever questioned whether Tom Cruise could give a great performance, watch this film.

Passion Fish - 1992

Oscar count. Nominated for: Best actress (Mary McDonnell); Best screenplay (John Sayles, who also directed).

Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard
Imagine being a Southern belle who goes to New York City and makes it big as a soap opera star. Then, overnight, you become a paraplegic due to an auto accident. After rehab, you have no choice but to return to your now-empty childhood home in the hot and humid Louisiana Bayou. You spend the next few months tormented by this turn your life has taken—driving away, with your boozing and bitterness, every person you hire to assist you. This is May-Alice, played by Mary McDonnell.

Then one day, Chantelle (the incomparable Alfre Woodard), applies for the post. She also needs to turn her life around, so much so, that she sticks with the job despite May-Alice's attempts to drive her away like she has the others. Although the movie features other richly-drawn characters—some comic, some sad, even potential beaus for the two women—it's about the relationship between May-Alice and Chantelle. In their roles of unequal power—that of employer and employee—they find friendship, and then redemption. It's one of my favorite movies.

© 2012 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com

Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

Using the envelope icon, you can email this piece to others. You can also subscribe to my blog (see the choices below my picture). I’m active on FacebookPinterest, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at University of California at Davis. She wrote the award-winning How to Be Sick and, recently, How to Wake Up.

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