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makes a fundamental error in comparing the portrayal of disabled characters by non-disabled actors to the (rightly) outdated and unacceptable act of 'blacking up'.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.