Disability and The Oscars

I’m a huge fan of movies, and I’m also hoping to help raise awareness about disabilities. I figured since the Oscars were held last Sunday, and National Cerebral Palsy Awareness Day coming up on March 25th, I would write something in between these two important days to me.

The films I’m going to mention are just ones I thought of off the top of my head, it’s not my intention to purposely leave out other films that deal with disability issues.

The first film I thought of was, The Best Years of Our Lives. It was the winner of the 1946 Best Picture Oscar.

The film also won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Harold Russell. Russell was a real-life WWII vet who had lost both hands when a defective fuse detonated an explosive he was handling while making a training video.

Russell also received an honorary award for bringing hope and courage to fellow veterans. This was done because the Academy thought his competition in the Best Supporting Actor category was too strong for him to prevail. He is the only performer in Academy history to win 2 Oscars for the same role.

In 1948, the film, Johnny Belinda was released. The film starred Jane Wyman as Belinda, a blind, deaf-mute girl who is raped by one of her family’s farm goods customers. Wyman received the Best Actress Oscar for her performance.

Next on my list is the 1962 film version of, The Miracle Worker. The true story of Helen Keller, a blind and deaf girl who had an extraordinary relationship with her teacher, Annie Sullivan. The film starred Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan and Patty Duke as Helen Keller. Both performers won Oscars for their performances.

The following year saw the release of, A Child is Waiting with Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland as the director and teacher at a mental institution who clash when the teacher (Garland) challenges the director’s methods.

In 1986, a film version of the Tony-winning play, Children of a Lesser God was released. The film starred William Hurt as a teacher at a school for the hearing impaired, and Marlee Matlin (in her film debut) as a former student at the school, now working as the school’s janitor. As the pair’s relationship evolves, he tries to get her to come out of her shell and learn to speak. She unwilling to do so, because when she tried to speak years before, she sounded awful.

The film received five Academy Award nominations and had one win for Marlee Matlin as the years Best Actress. The following year, Matlin presented the Best Actor award, and caused controversy in the deaf community by insisting on speaking the names of the nominated actors, rather than signing.

The last two films I’ll mention, deal with two real-life people who overcame the struggle of severe cerebral palsy and made their dreams a reality.

The first film, Gaby: A True Story, tells the story of Gabriela Brimmer. Brimmer’s body was completely paralyzed due to the severity of her cerebral palsy. She went on to become a college graduate, a writer and a disability rights advocate.

The film was nominated for two Golden Globe awards. Rachel Levin was nominated for Best Actress – Drama for her performance as Gaby. A few years later, Levin changed her last name to Chagall and had a recurring role on The Nanny as Fran Drescher’s friend Val.

Norma Aleandro received Best Supporting Actress nominations from the Golden Globes and the Academy for her role as Gaby’s nurse, Florencia Morales.

The last film, My Left Foot, told the story of Irish writer and artist, Christy Brown. Like Gaby Brimmer, Brown was also born with a severe case of cerebral palsy. The only part of his body that he was able to move was his left foot.

The film was nominated for five Oscars, and took home two awards. Brenda Fricker was chosen as the years Best Supporting Actress for her role as Christy’s devoted mother Bridget.

Daniel Day-Lewis received his first of three Best Actor Oscars for his amazing performance as Christy Brown.

Of the performances to have been nominated for or won an Academy Award, Harold Russell and Marlee Matlin are the only people with a disability to have accomplished this feat.


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