By Amory Orchard
As many avid television and film viewers know, awards season is upon us once again. Soon it will be virtually impossible to escape the hundreds of red carpet pictures cropping up on our social media feeds, web pages, and TV screens, as designated entertainment experts discuss red carpet fashion. Despite the fashion talk, one question is on everyone’s mind: which actors and actresses will go home with the most esteemed prizes: The Golden Globes, The Screen Actors Guild Awards—and, of course, the coveted Oscars?
For all the glitz and glamour of the season, celebrity and award show culture has rather serious implications when able-bodied actors portray characters with disabilities and other physical features that stray from the perceived norms. In fact, it has become something of a joke in the business to refer to such roles as “Oscar bait” because many of the past Best Actor Oscar winners—Daniel Day Lewis for My Left Foot and Colin Firth for The King’s Speech among them—have depicted disabled people. Some culture critics even assert that actors take on these roles because they attract awards.
“Why is this a problem?” one might ask. Is this not what actors do, stepping into a character’s shoes to shed light on their struggles? Perhaps. But we should not ignore the social implications of their performances. As disability scholar Graeme Turner claims, “There can be no question that celebrity has demonstrated its usefulness as a productive location for the analysis of cultural shifts around gender, race or nationality, for instance. It is important that such work continues” (13). Although able-bodied actors may have the best intentions when taking on such a role, there have been debates for years about the moral ambiguity that comes with able-bodied actors transforming themselves to “look the part,” rather than studios casting disabled actors. However, this blog post will discuss the role of the media attention their performances attract in keeping this a status-quo in the entertainment industry. As a result, the media reinforces the audience’s fascination with the fact that an able-bodied actor can pass as a member of a disenfranchised population. The actor’s transformation—not the story the performance is supposed to convey—becomes the public’s focus.
While campaigning for Hollywood’s top prizes, actors and actresses participate in photo shoots and interviews designed to advertise the film. What happens, however, is that these articles often discuss how an attractive actor “transformed” him or herself in order to play a disenfranchised person. Then, in the reader’s mind, the actor transforms back into their previous conventionally attractive self by the end of the article. This reduces disability to a matter of make-up—something one can take on and off. Although an audience may not realize the deeper implications, this act dismisses the experience disabled people face in their daily lives. This has been the case with several actors within the past year, including 2015 Academy Tony Award-nominated Bradley Cooper for his role as John “The Elephant Man” Merrick.
According to drama scholar Stanton B. Garner Jr.’s research on modern stage productions of The Elephant Man, audiences are captivated by the “physical process of moving in and out of character” (Garner 84). Indeed, this was shown in Bradley Cooper’s 60 Minutes interview, which appeared shortly before the production was opened to the Broadway public. The interview features footage capturing Cooper’s transformation into the disfigured Merrick before an onstage audience of medical professionals while his caregiver describes Merrick’s medical condition in dehumanizing terms. Cooper slowly begins to hunch over, his mouth stretches, and his voice changes to mimic Merrick’s. Soon after the interview aired, countless news and tabloid publications recapped the 60 Minutes interview. In each case, there is a variation on this line: “[Cooper, who], ironically, was once crowned the “Sexiest Man Alive” by People Magazine, has now been dubbed the ‘best Elephant man yet’” (Hall). Here, the public’s fascination with watching an attractive, able-bodied man transforming into a severely disabled (and dying) person has been encouraged by the media. In juxtaposing sex symbol Bradley Cooper with the character into which he transforms, the story of the production becomes less about Merrick and more about the actor who portrays him. The appearance, not the experience, becomes what counts.
Academy Award-winner Eddie Redmayne was treated similarly last year while promoting The Theory of Everything, in which he played theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. As in the coverage of Bradley Cooper’s performance, the media discourse contrasts the actor’s physical attractiveness with his character’s appearance. For instance, in Redmayne’s Vogue interview, staff writer Vicki Woods goes to great lengths in describing Redmayne’s personal appearance before talking about his “transformative role” as Stephen Hawking:
Very few men are heart-stoppingly beautiful, in the way glorious women or racehorses or specimen roses unarguably are, so meeting a bona fide male dazzler, with fan sites sprawled across the Web, is interesting. The huge buzz about his new film, The Theory of Everything, in which he plays the British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who suffers from the debilitating neurological disease ALS, is also interesting. (Woods)
Here, Woods describes Redmayne’s appearance with words such as “heart-stoppingly beautiful,” “glamorous,” and “dazzler,” before contrasting his transformation into Hawking who “suffers” from a “debilitating” disease. Woods not only accentuates the transformation, but, in so doing, denigrates Stephen Hawking’s appearance because he is not a young, muscular symbol of youth.In the end, the only mention of Hawking is a brief explanation of the overall premise. The focus is all on Redmayne.
It is true that some award-winners have been disabled themselves. For instance, both Harold Russell (who lost both his hands in World War II) and Marlee Matlin (who is deaf) won awards for the films The Best Years of Our Lives and Children of a Lesser God, respectively. However, they are two rare exceptions. As Award Show Season 2016 kicks off, countless speeches will be made by winners, often thanking the real people they portray. Redmayne himself made such a speech last year, dedicating his Oscar to those diagnosed with ALS, vowing he will act as a “custodian” of the prestigious award. However, it is imperative for average audience members watching these award shows to consider the persuasive media “buzz” that led to this actor being nominated in the first place and the way they discuss those people whose likenesses the actors are representing. After all, part of the fascination with his performance lies with us, the media consumers: the underlying fact that he can convincingly transform into someone else—but can always transform back.
Garner Jr., Stanton B. “In Search of Merrick: Kinesthetic Empathy, Able-Bodiedness, and Disability Representation.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 29.2 (2010): 81-103. Print.
Turner, Graeme. “Approaching Celebrity Studies.” Celebrity Studies 1.1 (2010): 11-20. Routlage: Taylor & Francis. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. <http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/19392390903519024>.