Hollywood: Dim Lights on Cripface
By Kathi Wolfe
Quantum theory and black holes arent
remotely on my radar screen. Yet, like everyone who doesnt live in a
cave, Ive heard about Stephen Hawking, the renowned British theoretical
physicist. It seems like Ive seen him everywhere -- maybe more than I see
my closest friends and relatives.
Ive watched video of Hawking, 72,
who has motor neuron disease, giving lectures from his wheelchair, and
Ive smiled when Ive heard his iconic, American-accented
voice on the The Simpsons. Hawkings so embedded
in our pop culture DNA that its not surprising that hes appeared on
beloved TV shows from Star Trek to The Big Bang Theory.
Hawkings scientific brilliance and pop cult celebrity have made him,
perhaps, the most famous person with a disability in our time.
Last fall, Hollywood played off his fame.
In November 2014, The Theory of Everything, the Hawking biopic, was
released. Most able-bodied people whom I talked with looked forward to seeing
the movie, while many in the disability community gritted their teeth. We know
all too well how much Tinsel Town loves inspirational stories about
overcoming disability. With exceedingly rare exceptions, films of
these narratives dont feature actors with disabilities as background
extras or in supporting roles (such as the lead actors best buddy)
let alone in leading roles.
From The Miracle Worker to
Forrest Gump, such films have won Academy Awards. In January,
The Theory of Everything was rewarded with big-time Oscar love. The
film received Oscar nominations for best picture, actor in a leading role
(Eddie Redmayne as Hawking), actress in a leading role (Felicity Jones as
Hawkings first wife, Jane), original score (by Johann Johannsson) and
adapted screenplay. And on Feb. 22, Redmayne was awarded the best actor Oscar
for his role in the film.
The Theory of Everything,
though not a documentary, is based on a memoir titled Traveling to
Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Hawkings ex-wife Jane Hawking.
The film tells the story of how Hawking was told that hed have only two
years to live when he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease in his mid-20s.
It depicts how he and Jane (a graduate student in European literature) fell in
love, married and had three children.
In the movie, Hawking emerges as an
internationally renowned scientist and celeb wheelchair-user and gradually
accepts his need for help with the intimate tasks of daily living (eating,
dressing, etc.). Jane takes on the role of caregiver. Without giving too much
away, its safe to reveal that the couples marital conflicts unfold
in the movie. Though they remained friendly for the sake of their children, as
the marriage unravels, Jane becomes close with Jonathan, a music teacher and
choir director, and Stephen takes up with his nurse.
Critically, the film has been generally
well-received. Most reviewers drank the inspirational Kool-Aid, and
few, if any, questioned why Redmayne, a highly talented but non-disabled actor,
was cast as Hawking. Variety said of the film, The intricate workings of
a rare and wonderful mind are rendered in simple, accessible terms in The
Theory of Everything, a sensitively directed inspirational
Here is an unexpectedly charming,
moving and powerfully acted film... The Guardian said of The Theory
of Everything. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten and director James
Marsh have swerved a lot, if not quite all, of the clichés. They have
created a startlingly grown-up portrait of a difficult, troubled
The movie, is poignant and honest in
showing how Jane and Stephens marriage leaves both of them exhausted and
unfulfilled, The New York Times said.
Munching my popcorn, watching The
Theory of Everything, I couldnt help but be drawn in. The pace of
the movie is engaging, and it was fun to watch Stephen and Jane meet and fall
in love. I know the films account of their meeting isnt completely
accurate, but I enjoyed the May ball scene, with Stephen as a gangly, awkward
grad student dancing and dishing with Jane about the stars (in the sky).
Im a physics dummy, and those who know say the science in the movie
isnt accurate (what a surprise!). Yet, it was fun to watch Hawking form,
discuss and debate his scientific theories.
Hawking, by all reports, is pleased with
the movie and by Redmaynes portrayal of him. Seeing the film has
given me the opportunity to reflect on my life... Hawking wrote on
...I thought Eddie Redmayne
portrayed me very well in The Theory of Everything. He spent time
with ALS sufferers so he could be accurate. At times, I thought he was me...I
think Eddies commitment will have a big emotional impact, Hawking
said in a video.
According to press reports, Hawking cried
during the world premiere of the film and permitted audio from his speech
synthesizer to be used in the movie. It was the last thing we did on the
film, creatively...so that felt like an endorsement in the form of a
gift, Marsh told The Frame.
Redmayne prepped for months before he
portrayed Hawking. Hawking even gave him tips on how he (and his disability)
should be portrayed, according to Yahoo Movies and other media outlets.
Stephen asked me if I was playing
him before the voice machine, and when I said yes, he said, My voice was
very slurred, Redmayne told Yahoo Movies. When Stephen said
that, it reinvigorated me to go back and say, Look, we have to be true to
what this disease is.
This having been said, I still
couldnt help but wonder: Why was an able-bodied actor chosen to play the
most celebrated person in a wheelchair on the planet? If, a biopic were to be
made about President Barack Obama, would a white actor, no matter how talented,
be cast in the role? Im far from alone here. Many filmmakers,
opinion-makers and actors in the disability community find The Theory of
Everything to be problematic. Despite Redmaynes considerable
talent, couldnt his performance (an able-bodied actor playing a disabled
character) be viewed as yet another example of cripface?
Why are able-bodied actors so often cast
as characters with disabilities? Because sometimes having a star such as Daniel
Day-Lewis (in My Left Foot) or Tom Hanks (in Forrest
Gump) sells movies. Having a nondisabled performer play a disabled person
can enable cultural fear and loathing around disability to be
magically transcended, playwright Christopher Shinn, who had a
below-the-knee amputation, told The Independent.
Filmmaker Dominick Evans, who leads the
weekly Twitter discussion #FilmDis, raises concerns felt by many of us in the
disability community about The Theory of Everything.
Some people say that an able-bodied actor
had to play Hawking because there were scenes of him walking and standing in
the movie, Evans, who uses a wheelchair, wrote in an email to
Independence Today. I respond with, Disability is more than just
the lack of physical movement, at least in the case of those of us with
physical disabilities. There is an entire culture that many of us are
part of that often goes ignored in media portrayals of disability.
How can [actors] authentically
portray disability without experiencing this, the oppression, and the culture
of disability? How can they do it if they have to change the entire way they
look and perceive life and living?
Filmmaker Dominick Evans
Evans said he wonders how you explain to
an actor who sees their normal as being able-bodied what its
like to have your normal be something different. How can they
authentically portray disability without experiencing this, the oppression, and
the culture of disability? How can they do it if they have to change the entire
way they look and perceive life and living?
Some argue that Hawkings disability
is too severe for a disabled actor to play him. Evans, who has a B.F.A. from
Wright State University and is working on a documentary about disability,
disagrees. Someone with a mild disability could play those moments and
still understand what it is like to be a part of the disability
community, he said. It could have made the career for an actor with
Ill continue to be a movie
aficionado, and I wish Eddie Redmayne well. Yet, Ill continue to hope
that one day cripface will be historical relic.
Kathi Wolfe writes frequently about disability and the
arts. Her poetry collection is forthcoming from BrickHouse Books.