Guillermo del Toro’s latest release, The Shape of Water, has received a plethora of praise, with Sally Hawkins’ performance being branded her best yet. Through taking on the role of mute cleaner Elisa, Hawkins’ has followed in the footsteps of A-List actors such as Eddie Redmayne and Daniel Day Lewis, who have also depicted disabled characters on screen. Redmayne’s role as Stephen Hawking in the Theory of Everything (2014) and Lewis’ performance as Chrusty Brown in My Left Foot (1989), both landed the actors with Oscars.
Redmayne and Lewis are not the only ones that have been bestowed with awards due to their success in these roles. Research shows that 59 non-disabled actors gave been nominated for Oscars for playing the parts of disabled characters, and these actors have around a 50 per cent chance of taking home an award.
This has sparked a debate; Why aren’t disabled actors taking on the roles of disabled characters?
Justin Edgar, who owns 104 Films, a company which focuses on disability in the cinema, has set about answering this question. The company is currently set on releasing a documentary called ‘the 14 per cent’, to raise awareness of the unfairness of the film industry. 14% of people in employment aged 16-64 seeing themselves as disabled. Yet, only 0.3 per cent of people in the film industry are disabled.
Edgar also points out that it would be much more practical for filmmakers to employ actors that are deaf, rather than have actors learn sign language, specifically for the film that they are starring in.
The notion that a film has to feature an A-list star to be successful, is why able-bodied actors play these roles. This is where David Proud, writer of The Art of Disability brings out the ‘rule of three’. He proposes that if an A-list able-bodied actor is used for the success of the film then three smaller roles should be allocated to disabled actors.
Proud also indicates why many films about disability are unsuccessful. Between 1927 and 2012, 16% of actors and actresses that won an Oscar played a character that had a physical disability or mental illness. Whilst there’s no denying that top actors and actresses should be good at what they do, can they really represent the stories of disabled individuals, if they haven’t lived their lives?
Actors, such as Redmayne and Lewis, put in an incredible amount of effort to pay justice to those that they were playing. In preparation for his role in My Left Foot, Lewis remained in character, even when he wasn’t filming, staying in his wheelchair, being spoon-fed whilst on set. He also researched Cerebral Palsy and spent time with people who have the condition.
Eddie Redmayne, to play the role of Stephen Hawking, spent months preparing, including working with a choreographer to perfect Hawking’s movements. Redmayne was so convincing that Hawking actually believed he was watching himself saying ‘At times I thought it was me.’
Despite this, it isn’t the same as disabled actors taking on the role. The general consensus is that this needs to change.
Cindy Hawkins, an actress with Cerebral Palsy, commented that although John Hawks put on an incredible performance as a paralysed man in the film, The Sessions, it would be much more authentic if a disabled actor played the part.
She said, to Entertainment Weekly, “I’m not taking anything away from his [Hawkes’] acting ability, but there are thousands of equally qualified disabled actors out there who can bring more authenticity to the role.”
Although Hawking himself approved of Redmayne’s performance in the theory of everything, the actor still faced criticism, with Scott Jordo Harris saying; “When disabled characters are played by able-bodied actors, disabled actors are robbed of the chance to work in their field.”
What do you think? Is it enough for able-bodied actors to research the disabilities they are taking on in their roles? Or wouldn’t it be more authentic, easier and most importantly, fairer, for disabled actors to take on the roles they deserve?
Text: Chaz Pond
Images: Fox Searchlight, Universal, Kevin Winter/ Getty Images, JOHN BARR/LIAISON/ GETT, 104 films, ITV/ Rex Features. Jason Bye/ PBS