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Colin Hambrook:Editorial - disability arts online
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Disability Arts Online

Dao's FB group debate Eddie Redmayne's portrayal of Stephen Hawking in 'The Theory of Everything' / 19 January 2015

There was a lot in the media last week, centred on Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Dr Stephen Hawking in 'The Theory of Everything'. Newsnight covered it with an interview with the US disabled actor RJ Mitte - star of 'Breaking Bad'. 

Frances Ryan's critical response to news of a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination for Redmayne on the Guardian’s comment is free pages was to say: “while ‘blacking up’ is rightly now greeted with outrage, ‘cripping up’ is still greeted with awards.”  

A debate followed on Dao’s FB group. Lloyd Coleman argued that he saw that it is important for high profile roles to be given to disabled actors. He qualified the opinion saying: “Frances Ryan makes some valid points, but also makes a fundamental error in comparing the portrayal of disabled characters by non-disabled actors to the (rightly) outdated and unacceptable act of 'blacking up'. The latter is offensive because the colour of one's skin is a matter of race, which doesn't alter over the course of a life time. Men playing female roles (or vice versa) would also be considered absurd in a conventional 21st century drama."

"But 'disability' is a much more fluid area, in terms of what it means for the identity of the individual concerned. If it is unacceptable for Eddie Redmayne to play Stephen Hawking, does that mean it is always unacceptable for an able-bodied actor to play a visually impaired person for example? No, just as we would like it to be commonplace for visually impaired actors (or any other disabled actor for that matter) to play so-called 'able-bodied' characters, if they were suitable for the role. By the same principles, would we want all straight actors to only play straight parts, and all gay actors to play only homosexuals? Again, I don't think so."

"Acting is the art of portraying a character, who may well have very different attributes to you. I have seen 'The Theory of Everything', and it tells the story of Stephen Hawking's life from his student days, before the onset of motor neurone disease. So practically speaking, the film also required an actor who would be able to show this, which I think Eddie Redmayne does remarkably well.”

Bob Findlay-Williams argued in response: “Frances Ryan collapses two very important issues into one badly articulated argument. Casting actors needs to be done in relation to a given character. In terms of this film it makes perfect sense for an actor who can portray a person with and without a specific impairment, therefore, casting Redmayne makes sense. This is a different issue to the historical tendency of overlooking disabled actors in favour of non-disabled ones. It isn't about disabled or gays only playing disabled or gay parts. It is about negative attitudes which reinforce institutional discrimination and leads to the underemployment of disabled actors. 

"Of course quotas and 'politically correct' solutions aren't the answer: writing decent scripts, casting disabled actors in non-stereotyped roles would be a good starting point, but the best solution of all would be to create an inclusive society where disabled actors would be reflecting a wider reality of opportunity.”

I would follow what Findlay implies is the real problem in terms of reinforcing discrimination with what I thought was the most coherent argument in Ryan’s column. Christopher Shinn is quoted as saying: “the act of watching a disabled character being played by an actor who we know is really fit and well, allows society’s ‘fear and loathing around disability’ to be ‘magically transcended’… pop culture is more interested in disability as a metaphor than in ‘disability’ as something that happens to real people”.

I think there is a truism here. It’s the sentimentality that surrounds the depiction of disabled people; even when the depictions are not just utterly erroneous bad acting. (My no 1. hated portrayal is Russell Crowe as John Nash in 'A Beautiful Mind'). Anyone with a daily lived experience of impairment would know that 'The Theory of Everything' is a fairy tale, and that the truth of Hawking’s fight to life and to acclaim would be far more harrowing than Hollywood’s interpretation of the story. 

But, then, is that how we would want our own story to be protrayed? Whether or not it is valid to criticise in terms of identity poitics or in terms of discrimination, I don’t believe anyone can gainsay Hawking’s own validation of 'The Theory of Everything', allowing copyright to use his synthesised voice, as reported on biography.com.

Many would have watched and enjoyed the film, as an entertaining piece of escapism. Whether or not it’s ‘Art’ is a very different conversation.

Keywords: access to work,stephen hawking

Comments

Kristina Veasey

/
26 January 2015

Don't know if you heard this too? bbcworldservice debate now on iPlayer http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02gmpbjgo to 34:50 in to the show. Not the most coherent of debates but I think Dan Edge makes a good point: that unless casting/film briefs specifically mention a role involves disability, disabled people aren't even considered for casting in those roles. So, when a role that does involve disability comes up it makes these debates more loaded.

Lloyd Coleman

/
26 January 2015

In answer to your question Ron, I imagine some people would say non-Scots CAN play Scots, but only because that group is already well-represented on the screen and stage. Fair enough, and disabled actors DO face discrimination and are often overlooked. But this doesn't excuse the non sequitur one has to make to get to the position where we ban non-disabled actors from playing disabled roles. Can we also acknowledge that significant advances have been made recently, particularly in mainstream television? I can think of two actors, Lisa Hammond and Cherylee Houston, who currently play multi-faceted, three dimensional disabled characters with big storylines in two of our biggest soaps, Eastenders and Coronation Street. Such characters would not have existed in these programmes even a decade ago methinks...

Ron

/
26 January 2015

There's also the question.of realism - what can a different.performance add to our understanding.of a.character. There have been countless portrayals of Elizabeth 1st and each one (Dench, Blanchett, Robson) shows us something.of.the writer's understanding, the director's view, the actor's interpretation. Certain characteristics tend (to be seen) as more.fixed e.g. gender and 'race', whereas others such as sexuality and disability less so, but in the workday of performance these sociological points matter less as constraints - indeed it Is precisely in the work of art to shed light upon these constraints. Would advocates of 'realism' say that only Scots actors can play Scots roles?

Lloyd Coleman

/
26 January 2015

Couldn't agree more Ron! There are lots of comments I would make in response to the above, but I will try and keep this short and say that the discussion we have had has been in largely negative terms i.e. not once have I heard anybody say which (disabled?) actor SHOULD play the role of Hawking (or other disabled characters). If "only crips" are eligible to play Hawking, and there is no one suitable to play him, then should the film just not be made at all? Why should people miss out on the extraordinary story of this man, who I personally think transcends his disability? Are we denying that his story IS in fact extraordinary, given 2-3 years to live, and living 50-odd more? Becoming one of the most influential and popular scientific thinkers of our time?

Ron

/
26 January 2015

Either you accept that actors can ACT ie interpret and perform stories (not merely impersonate or mimic) and thus potentially do so for ANY character, or you don't. Trying to police the arts by dictating that gender, race, disability or sexuality are FIXED immutable and impervious to other representations, and that artists should stIck to their 'own' area is dangerous to the development and.livelihoods of writers and performers.

Colin Hambrook

/
26 January 2015

Frances Ryan makes the point that it is much more palatable for a non-disabled audience to see the heroes transformed into 'beautiful' people

Ron

/
26 January 2015

One relevant point: these aren't documentaries.

Colin Hambrook

/
26 January 2015

Hollywood loves the weepies! And The Theory of Everything was specifically written as a weepie. When has Hollywood ever made a film that doesn't have sentimental undertones. Theory was in no way a serious portrayal of Hawking's life. I admit that Eddie Redmayne did a passable job this time. He spent a lot of time with Hawking to perfect the mannerisms etc. But look at the context: the endless oscars given for blatantly offensive portrayals. Russell Crowe as John Nash in A Beautiful Mind was the most sickening pile of trash. I couldn't refrain from shouting in the cinema I was so deeply offended by the crass sentimentality of it all. Schizophrenia! My left foot!


Ron

/
26 January 2015

Colin Hambrook makes a point but draws the opposite conclusions. Awards were given not because the movies were weepies but becuase the performances were finely wrought and measured: precisely the.opposite of sentimental. They were not given because the actors mimicked disability. Of course disabled actors (and importantly writers directors and other crew) need to be supported and nurtured, but that doesn't diminish the skills of others.

Ron

/
24 January 2015

Frances Ryan makes a completely erroneous comparison between 'race' and.disability in the Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jan/13/eddie-redmayne-golden-globe-stephen-hawking-disabled-actors-characters It makes the assumption that impairment is the only aspect of the character that is being portrayed and that a "non-disabled" actor is equivalent to "blacking up". On the specifics of the Hawking character, his impairment was degenerative so 'acting" ability is a crucial issue. Presumably they auditioned (any info?). Where 'race' or impairment is part of the plot, the important thing is how to convey it, not who. Furthermore, can disabled actors only play 'disabled' characters with disabled plotlines?

Lloyd Coleman

/
24 January 2015

Hmmm, this is such an interesting topic. Frances Ryan makes some valid points, but also makes a fundamental error in comparing the portrayal of disabled characters by non-disabled actors to the (rightly) outdated and unacceptable act of 'blacking up'. The latter is offensive because the colour of one's skin is a matter of race - which doesn't alter over the course of a lifetime. Men playing female roles (or vice versa) would also be considered absurd in a conventional 21st century drama. But disability is a much more fluid area I think, in terms of what it means for the identity of the individual concerned. If it is unacceptable for Eddie Redmayne to play Stephen Hawking, does that mean it is always unacceptable for an able-bodied actor to play a visually impaired person? No, just as we would like it to be commonplace for visually impaired actors (or any other disabled actor for that matter) to play so-called 'able-bodied' characters, if they were suitable for the role. By the same principles, would we want all straight actors to only play straight parts, and all gay actors to play only homosexuals? Again, I don't think so. Acting is the art of portraying a character, who may well have very different attributes to you. I have seen The Theory of Everything, and it tells the story of Stephen Hawking's life from his student days, before the onset of motor neurone disease. So practically speaking, the film also required an actor who would be able to show this, which I think Eddie Redmayne does remarkably well. Sorry to have written such a long comment - what do others think about it? Have I missed something important?

Ron

/
24 January 2015

No, Lloyd. you've missed nothing except.perhaps the sanctimony of the "quota" mentality.

Bob Williams-Findlay

/
24 January 2015

Lloyd, I too believe Ryan's argument is flawed. However your argument misses the point. Ryan collapses two very important issues into one badly articulated argument. Casting actors needs to be done in relation to a given character. In terms of this film it makes perfect sense for an actor who can portray a person with and without a specific impairment, therefore, casting Redmayne makes sense.

This is a different issue to the historical tendency of overlooking disabled actors in favour of non-disabled ones. It isn't about disabled or gays only playing disabled or gay parts, it is about negative attitudes which reinforce institutional discrimination and leads to the underemployment of disabled actors. Of course quotas and 'politically correct' solutions aren't the answer - writing decent scripts, casting disabled actors in non stereotyped roles would be a good starting point, but the best solution of all would be to create an inclusive society where disabled actors would be reflecting a wider reality of opportunity..

Colin Hambrook

/
24 January 2015

One the one hand it's a travesty that disabled actors are not getting opportunities to create careers. RJ Mitte made one important point on Newsnight [http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b04yfz4m/newsnight-13012015] about how are disabled actors to develop confidence when there is so much discrimination!

Colin Hambrook

/
24 January 2015

Why is it that we have these endless Oscars given out to actors for mimicking impairment in 'weepies'? Frances Ryan mentions Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. She has one interesting point to make quoting Christopher Shinn: “pop culture is more interested in disability as a metaphor than in disability as something that happens to real people”. There is something verging on the sentimental in Redmayne's portrayal. The film presents Hawking in a typically tragic but brave manner. It's the lack of authenticity more than anything that makes it a bad film, I think.

Victoria Wright

/
24 January 2015

Even The Station Agent with the brilliant Peter Dinklage has sentimental undertones. I think this clip from Tropic Thunder is the first and only time Hollywood has acknowledged that cripping up gets you an Oscar - as long as you 'don't go full retard'. In other words, actors can play disabled - but don't be 'too' authentic or you won't get that shiny award!

Victoria Wright

/
24 January 2015

Here's a question, slightly off topic. If Tyrion Lannister in the book 'Game of Thrones' had not been clearly written as a 'dwarf/imp/halfman' (terms I think are used in the book) but had just been written as an ugly/deformed man, would Peter Dinklage still have been given the role? Or would they have just automatically cast a strapping 6ft handsome non-disabled actor and uglified him with makeup and CGI for the role? (the latter, me thinks).

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