9 Oscar-Nominated Films That Got Disease and Disability (Mostly) Right


Of the Oscar-winning actors and actresses from 1927 to 2012, 16 percent portrayed a person with a physical disability or mental illness, according to BBC News. But does a compelling performance necessarily mean the film portrayed the disease or disability realistically?

The Mighty decided to review some current and past Oscar-winning or nominated films over the last 30 years that center on disease or disability. We wanted to see what they got right (or wrong) in their representations. Take a look:

“The Theory of Everything” (2014)

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Lead Actress (Felicity Jones), Best Lead Actor (Eddie Redmayne), Best Original Score, Best Adapted Screenplay

“The Theory of Everything” is an intimate portrayal of Stephen Hawking’s life beyond his contributions to theoretical physics. The film depicts the relationship betewen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his now ex-wife, Jane (Felicity Jones), and portrays how the couple’s bond helped him face his debilitating ALS.

Redmayne spent four months studying Hawkins’ life to prepare for the role, Variety reported. He also worked with a  choreographer to more accurately mirror Hawking’s speech and movement and created a chart of how the disease advances, which he used as a guide throughout the filming process, The Daily Beast reported. His extensive training paid off: The Hollywood Times lauded Redmayne’s performance as an accurate portrayal of someone living with ALS. More important, Hawking heartily approved. “I thought Eddie Redmayne portrayed me very well,” he said, according to Yahoo. “At times, I thought it was me.”

Redmayne is an able-bodied actor playing a character with a disability, garnering some criticism.“When disabled characters are played by able-bodied actors, disabled actors are robbed of the chance to work in their field,” Scott Jordan Harris writes on Slate.com. “Imagine what it would feel like to be a woman and for the only women you saw in films to be portrayed by men.” Harris does acknowledges that the actor playing Hawking probably had to be able-bodied, though, because it focuses on Hawking’s life before and after diagnosis.

“Still Alice” (2014)

Nominations: Best Lead Actress (Julianne Moore)

Based on Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel of the same title, this drama stars Julianne Moore as Alice Howland, a college linguistics professor afflicted with younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The story is framed through Alice’s point of view, meaning viewers endure her loss of sense-of-self as the disease progresses.

Genova, a former neuroscientist, claims these types of stories are what is missing from literature on Alzheimer’s. “We have things written by the caregivers, by the doctors, by the social workers, but what about the person who actually has it?” she said, according to The Artery. To prepare for the role, Moore spoke with the head of the Alzheimer’s Association as well as several recently diagnosed women in their 40s. She also visited a long-term care center and spoke with the lead clinician at New York’s Mt. Sinai hospital. 

“Silver Linings Playbook” (2012)

Won: Best Lead Actress (Jennifer Lawrence)

Nominated: Best Picture, Best Lead Actor (Bradley Cooper), Best Supporting Actress (Jacki Weaver), Best Supporting Actor (Robert De Niro), Best Director (David O. Russell), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing

Adapted from the novel by Matthew Quick, “Silver Linings Playbook” centers on Pat (Bradley Cooper), a man with bipolar disorder who returns home to live with his parents after a months-long stay in a mental hospital. He connects with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who’s lived with mental health issues of her own following her husband’s death.

“Silver Linings Playbook” got credit for making mental illness a significant topic in a major Hollywood film but received mixed reviews when it came to how it actually portrayed the topic. In an interview with Vulture, psychiatrist Steven Schlozman argued that though the film isn’t perfect, “Silver Linings” portrays the characters’ respective symptoms, personalities and conversations accurately. When asked about a scene in which Pat and Tiffany bond over their psychiatric meds (clip below), he replied, “to me, that felt de-stigmatizing, not stigmatizing. They got the pronunciations right, they got the side effects right… And the fact that this scene could so blithely make its way into a mainstream film without a lot of explanation around it — I thought that was important.”

Because the film ends with Pat in love and happily off his meds, it could be interpreted as belittling mental illness and the medical system’s role in treating it. Pat repeatedly dodges taking his medication throughout the film, and viewers are intended to sympathize with his decision, implying that medication does people with mental illnesses more harm than good. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody wrote that the film “advocates a faith-based view of mental illness” and declared, “The movie will be a hit with those who think that hyperactivity is just a failure of discipline and depression is merely a bad attitude.”

“The Sessions” (2012)

Nominated: Best Supporting Actress (Helen Hunt)

“The Sessions” is based on the article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” by Mark O’Brien, a poet paralyzed from the neck down due to polio. This moving drama examines the often overlooked intersection between disability and sexuality. Forced to live in an iron lung, O’Brien (John Hawkes) has never had sex and, sensing he may be near death, hires Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate, to help him change that.

“The Sessions” was praised for countering the myth that people with disabilities are uninterested in or not capable of expressing sexuality. “In addition to the social stigmas and structural barriers directed toward disability, those with disabilities are routinely perceived as non-sexual,” Heather Laine Talley wrote on The Feminist Wire. “By contrast, Mark’s sexual desires are articulated from the outset, and Mark’s sexuality is an active force in the narrative.”

Cindy Allen, an actress with cerebral palsy, noted that despite Hawkes’ impressive performance, filmmakers could have cast an actor with a disability. “Playing a disabled role is not about getting an Oscar, it’s about dealing with a disability,” Allen told 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.”

“Ray” (2004)

Won: Best Lead Actor (Jaime Foxx)

Nominated:  Best Picture, Best Director (Taylor Hackford), Best Film Editing

This biopic follows the life and legendary career of Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx), a blind jazz musician known for achieving worldwide fame despite the adversity he faced.

Foxx received praise for his performance, particularly for representing Charles as far more than his disability. “Mr. Foxx has displayed an intriguing blend of quick-wittedness, bravado and sensitivity, and his recognition of those qualities in Ray Charles is the key to his performance,” A.O. Scott wrote in a review for The New York Times. “You get the sense that he is not just pretending to be Ray Charles, but that he understands him completely and knows how to communicate this understanding through every word and gesture, without explaining a thing.”

To make Foxx’s portrayal as realistic as possible, Taylor Hackford, the film’s director, asked him to wear prosthetic eyelids modeled after Charles’ that rendered Foxx sightless for the duration of filming days. “Imagine having your eyes glued shut for 14 hours a day,” Foxx told The New York Times. “That’s your jail sentence.”

“A Beautiful Mind” (2001)

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

Nominated: Best Lead Actor (Russell Crowe), Best Film Editing, Best Makeup, Best Original Score

“A Beautiful Mind” is based on Sylvia Nasar’s 1998 biography of the same name. The film follows John Forbes Nash, Jr. (Russell Crowe), a brilliant mathematician who lives with schizophrenia. It focuses on the harrowing delusions Nash endured and their effect on his career as he developed his mathematical theories.

The film was roundly criticized for oversimplifying mental illness and sanitizing Nash’s story, but Crowe’s portrayal of Nash, which won him a Golden Globe for best actor, has been praised for how he depicted schizophrenia symptoms. “Crowe does a brilliant job of portraying the mannerism, and some of the behaviors of a schizophrenic — the best that I have seen on screen,” Dr. Ken Davis, chairman of psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, told ABC News. “On the other hand, the notion that willpower can really overcome schizophrenia is ludicrous.”

“My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown” (1989)

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

Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director (Jim Sheridan), Best Adapted Screenplay

This drama is based on the 1954 autobiography of Christy Brown (Daniel Day-Lewis), an Irishman with cerebral palsy, born into a working class family in the 1930s. The film follows Brown, who can only control the movement in his left foot, as he struggles to find his place in the world. He eventually goes on to become a remarkable writer and painter.

Day-Lewis, who is known for his method acting, went to admirable lengths to portray Brown as accurately as possible. He remained in character as a man with cerebral palsy throughout the duration of the production — he never left his wheelchair and had to be carried across the set and spoon-fed by the crew, The Independent reported. Additionally, he spent several months studying and getting to know people with cerebral palsy at the Sandymount school and clinic in Dublin, according to The Telegraph.

Hal Hinson summed Day-Lewis’ performance up best in his review for The Washington Post:

Daniel Day-Lewis clenches his teeth so hard and blinks so ferociously that you’d think he was trying to force steam out of his ears. With his frail body straining against itself, his neck twisted and his hands stretched out to full length, he tortures each word out of himself, as if he were ripping them out of his flesh. And we feel that in watching him we’re watching the essential struggle — not just a man fighting against his disease, but the fight to communicate that everyone wages.

“Rain Man” (1988)

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

Nominated: Best Set Decoration, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score

Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise), a young, selfish car salesman, is livid when he learns his father’s $3-million fortune has been left to Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), his older brother who has autism. To get his hands on the money, he travels to the institution where Raymond lives in Cincinnati, kidnaps him and heads back to Los Angeles to claim himself Raymond’s legal guardian.

To prepare for the role, Hoffman spent time with Kim Peek, the inspiration for Raymond’s role. Peek is known for his savant syndrome, which allows him to retain and quickly recall extraordinary amounts of knowledge. Hoffman studied a variety of types of savant syndrome and got to know people with the condition and their families to better understand their relationships. He also visited psychiatric facilities and spoke with medical professionals, The Wisconsin Medical Society Reported.

Hoffman’s performance received significant praise. In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “From the moment Raymond comes onto the screen, a slight, small buttoned-up figure, avoiding eye contact, speaking in tight little sentences that match the steps he takes, Mr. Hoffman demands that attention be paid to his intelligence, invention and research as an actor.”

“Rain Man” also got points for how it portrays autism beyond Hoffman’s character. At the end of the film, Raymond, after reconciling his differences with his brother, goes back to the institution he was living in at the beginning. This message — that Raymond’s autism doesn’t go away after significant personal growth — avoids oversimplifying the disorder by suggesting it can be cured with love and affection. “‘Rain Man’ is so fascinating because it refuses to supply… sentimental but unrealistic answers,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review. “This is not a movie like ‘Charly‘ in which there is a miracle cure.”

“Children of a Lesser God” (1986)

Won: Best Lead Actress (Marlee Matlin)

Nominated: Best Picture, Best Lead Actor (William Hurt), Best Supporting Actress (Piper Laurie), Best Adapted Screenplay

Sarah Norman (Marlee Matlin) is a deaf woman and former student working as a custodian at a school for the deaf. When a new teacher, James Leeds (William Hurt), arrives and wants to teach her to speak aloud, she resists, content to use only sign language for the rest of her life. Soon, romantic feelings form between the two. He continues to encourage her to speak phonetically, but she insists that if he loves her, he will communicate with her on her terms.

“Children of a Lesser God” is notable for hiring Marlee Matlin, a deaf actress, to portray a deaf character on camera, but her award-winning performance was attacked by critics for that same reason. In an interview with David Fabry on the blog, How’s Your Hearing, Matlin notes that many critics considered her Oscar victory to be a “pity vote” and that she was not worthy of the award because she was a deaf actor portraying a deaf character and it was not really acting at all. The negative feedback she refers to highlights some of the discrimination actors with disabilities face in the film industry.

Though the acting in the film was well received, it was criticized for employing deafness as a gimmick in an otherwise contrived love story. Roger Ebert remarked in his review of the film that love stories where one of the characters has a disability “seem to treat the handicap as sort of a bonus, conferring greater moral authenticity on the handicapped character,” calling it “a form of subtle condescension.”

*Year next to the title indicates the year the film was released, not the year of the corresponding Oscars ceremony.

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