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Hollywood: Dim Lights on ‘Cripface’

By Kathi Wolfe

Quantum theory and black holes aren’t remotely on my radar screen. Yet, like everyone who doesn’t live in a cave, I’ve heard about Stephen Hawking, the renowned British theoretical physicist. It seems like I’ve seen him everywhere -- maybe more than I see my closest friends and relatives.

I’ve watched video of Hawking, 72, who has motor neuron disease, giving lectures from his wheelchair, and I’ve smiled when I’ve heard his iconic, American-accented “voice” on the “The Simpsons.” Hawking’s so embedded in our pop culture DNA that it’s not surprising that he’s appeared on beloved TV shows from “Star Trek” to “The Big Bang Theory.” Hawking’s 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 don’t feature actors with disabilities as background extras or in supporting roles (such as the lead actor’s 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 Hawking’s 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 Hawking’s ex-wife Jane Hawking. The film tells the story of how Hawking was told that he’d 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.

Stephen and his former wife Jane at the premiere of 'The Theory of Everything'/Google Images

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, it’s safe to reveal that the couple’s 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 biopic...”

“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 relationship.”

The movie, “is poignant and honest in showing how Jane and Stephen’s marriage leaves both of them exhausted and unfulfilled,” The New York Times said.

Munching my popcorn, watching “The Theory of Everything,” I couldn’t 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 film’s account of their meeting isn’t 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). I’m a physics dummy, and those who know say the science in the movie isn’t 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 Redmayne’s portrayal of him. “Seeing the film has given me the opportunity to reflect on my life...” Hawking wrote on Facebook.

“...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 Eddie’s 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, 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.’”

Redmayne as Stephen Hawking/Google Image

This having been said, I still couldn’t 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? I’m far from alone here. Many filmmakers, opinion-makers and actors in the disability community find “The Theory of Everything” to be problematic. Despite Redmayne’s considerable talent, couldn’t 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 it’s 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 Hawking’s 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 a disability.”

I’ll continue to be a movie aficionado, and I wish Eddie Redmayne well. Yet, I’ll 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.

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