Oscar Winners About the Physically and Mentally Disabled

Twelve Oscar-winning films that realistically depict people with disabilities

Posted Feb 21, 2016

This is not an exhaustive list. (I haven’t seen every Oscar-winning film!) That said, here are descriptions of twelve films that moved me deeply, from newest to oldest.

The Theory of Everything — 2014

Won: Best Actor (Eddie Redmayne)

The Theory of Everything is based on the memoir of Stephen Hawking’s ex-wife, Jane (played by Felicity Jones, who was nominated for Best Actress).

While a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, Hawking (played by Eddie Redmayne) is diagnosed with ALS and told he has two years to live. The movie doesn’t focus on Stephen Hawking’s scientific achievements. It tells the personal story of a challenging marriage, one in which the husband suffers from a degenerative illness and becomes increasingly irritable, difficult to live with, and occasionally cruel to his spouse. The filmmakers don’t shy away from depicting the troubles they face as a couple, and that’s what elevates this movie above a “feel good” biopic. In addition, Eddie Redmayne is remarkable as Hawking.

Still Alice — 2014

Won: Best Actress (Julianne Moore)

Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a professor of linguistics at Columbia University who learns that she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. As the film progresses, Alice transforms from an intelligent, independent, and competent adult into a woman who is increasingly confused and scared. This takes place in the presence of her equally confused and scared husband and three children who are trying hard to adjust to the changes in her. As in Blue Jasmine (see below), Alec Baldwin plays the husband. Unlike in Blue Jasmine, however, here he plays against “type.” He is Alice’s soft-spoken, devoted, but ultimately weak, husband. I thought he gave an excellent performance.

Julianne Moore convincingly conveys both Alice’s determination and her panic as she tries to hold onto the life she knows and loves, but is helpless to maintain in the face of her cognitive decline. Such is her superb acting, that you can see Moore’s face become more expressionless and vacant-looking as the movie progresses.

And sometimes she becomes childlike. It is in one of those childlike moments with her daughter that we see that she is indeed “still Alice” because she is still capable of love.

Blue Jasmine — 2013

Won: Best Actress (Cate Blanchette)

Flickr photo sharing
Source: Flickr photo sharing

Cate Blanchette plays Jasmine, who is suffering from mental illness and, in almost every scene, appears to be on the verge of a complete mental breakdown. Jasmine had been a wealthy Manhattan socialite but is forced to move into her sister’s working class apartment in San Francisco when her (Jasmine’s) husband loses everything due to a combination of his philandering and his fraudulent money schemes. (Her husband is played by Alec Baldwin—this time in his familiar role of scoundrel.)

Cate Blanchette is riveting in every scene, veering back and forth between overblown hopes and dreams (which we know will never work out) and terrifying despair. It’s to Blanchette’s credit that she makes this spoiled and grating character into a sympathetic one. In my view, it was an acting tour-de-force. In fact, I’ve watched the movie three times just to marvel at her performance.

The King’s Speech — 2010

Won: Best Picture; Best Director (Tom Hopper); Best Actor (Colin Firth); Best Original Screenplay

Wikimedia Commons
Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter 
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Bertie (Colin Firth) unexpectedly becomes the King of England when his older brother, Edward VIII, abdicates shortly after ascending the throne. As George VI, Bertie faces two serious problems: his country is on the brink of World War II, and he is barely able to speak in public due to a debilitating speech impediment.

His wife (Helena Bonham Carter, nominated for Best Supporting Actress)—later known as the Queen Mum—arranges for him to see a speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush, nominated for Best Supporting Actor). Logue’s techniques are so unorthodox that, at first, the King balks at working with him.

Eventually, they form a professional and personal bond that lasts a lifetime. At the film’s end, with Logue silently coaching him, the King delivers a crucial radio address that rallies the nation to the task at hand: defeating the Nazis. (Some historians have disputed the historical accuracy of the sympathetic portrayal of the King, but others have defended it.)

I’ve watched this movie more than once and find it thoroughly absorbing for several reasons: it’s a period piece, filmed with careful attention to detail; it has more than one interesting storyline (including that of the failed actor, Logue); it even has its share of humor (Helena Bonham Carter is very funny as she behaves like a proper and stuffy royal, while simultaneously trying to connect with “ordinary” people, such as Logue’s wife.)

At its heart, though, the movie is about a person finding his voice, literally and metaphorically. In this sense, it doesn’t matter what his station in life is.

Frida — 2002

Won: Best Music, Original Score; Best Make-up

Wikimedia Commons
"The Two Fridas" by Frida Kahlo (1939)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In this biopic, Salma Hayek (nominated for Best Actress) 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, filmed 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.

A Beautiful Mind — 2001

Won: Best Picture; Best Director (Ron Howard); Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Connelly); Best Adapted Screenplay

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 (nominated for Best Actor) 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. (Note: as with The King’s Speech, some people have disputed the historical accuracy of parts of the film.)

Iris — 2001

Won: Best Supporting Actor (Jim Broadbent)

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

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 will touch your heart.

Philadelphia — 1993

Won: Best Actor (Tom Hanks); Best Song (“Streets of Philadelphia”)

Tom Hanks plays high-profile attorney, Andrew Beckett, who is dying of 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 powerful and moving scenes in the movie show his transformation from a self-interested homophobic 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 that he, Miller, has.

My Left Foot — 1989

Won: Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis); Best Supporting Actress (Brenda Fricker)

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.

What makes this movie great 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.

Rain Man — 1988

Won: Best Picture; Best Director (Barry Levinson); Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman); Best Original Screenplay

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. As a result of his autism, Raymond has some astounding skills, but he can’t relate emotionally to Charlie. Yet 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 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 can give a great performance, watch this film.

Children of a Lesser God — 1986

Won: Best Actress (Marlee Matlin)

Marlee Matlin plays a former student at a school for the deaf who resists the efforts of a new teacher (William Hurt, nominated for Best Actor) 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 see it that way at all. In fact, I learned a lot about deafness from watching the movie, almost as if it were a docu-drama.

Coming Home — 1978

Won: Best Actor (John Voight); Best Actress (Jane Fonda); Best Original Screenplay

Jane Fonda and John Voight
Source: listal.com

John Voight plays a Vietnam veteran 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 Coming Home made by man a who is paraplegic. He said that the film led to a whole generation of women looking at men in wheelchairs in a completely different light. That’s quite an accomplishment in filmmaking.

© 2016 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. I’m the author of three books:

How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide (2015)

How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow (2013)

How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers (2010) 

All of my books are available in audio format from Amazon, audible.com, and iTunes.

Visit www.tonibernhard.com for more information.

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