Tag Archives: hollywood

How Far Can Our Imagination Go?

16 Apr

 

Years ago on The Daily Show, comedian Lewis Black offered a weak defense of using the R-word. In his tirade, Black yuk-yukked about the idea of a show starring developmentally disabled people. His joke was hilarious if you find the sheer idea of such a show hilarious.

Well, this week the German disability advocacy organization Aktion Mensch has published a video that asks, “What if disabled people got to be the stars in Hollywood movies?” As examined before on the blog, it is a genuine problem that almost no famous actors are disabled and almost no disabled actors are famous. So with that I leave you all the video above and best wishes for this holiday weekend.

 

 

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“If He Was a Wee Bit Closer, I Could Lob a Caber at Him, Ye Ken”

3 Feb

 

 

Time for another break from the tough stuff.  I want to talk about Disney.  (In earnest, mind you.  As always.)  I just saw Pixar’s Brave and no, I’m not going to write about her feminism—or the ludicrous musings about her lesbianism—or the radical imperfectness of her eyebrows.  What pleased me most about this film was its break from the Broadway tradition that has been dominating—dare I say strangling—animated cinema for decades.  Throughout my childhood, Disney and their competitors would take you around the world with Alan Menken and his endless supply of wide-mouthed Middle American show tunes as your guide.  The main characters’ accents ranged from Beverly Hills to Burbank.    

Like The Princess and the Frog, Brave has the guts to feature songs, accents, and expressions native to the story’s setting.  And it’s about time.  The Broadway model has its merits, but it can start to feel like overkill when it forbids any trace of historical or foreign flavor.  When it comes to their family films, Hollywood has traditionally handled their American audiences like cultural infants.  There conventional wisdom asserts that any voice that doesn’t immediately evoke baseball and apple pie risks obliterating our ability to empathize.  Only “artsy” films for grown-ups like Brokeback Mountain or Capote dare to let the dialect match the backdrop.  Hence our heroes Aladdin and Belle and Ariel and Simba and Esmeralda, who all sound like they went to school with the cast of Saved by the Bell.  As The New York Times observed in 1997, the closest the actors in Anastasia ever came to St. Petersburg was Pasadena.  A character speaking the Queen’s English has been permitted with some regularity, but if they’re not Julie Andrews, they’re probably the villain or the butler.         

Paradoxically, these animated family films set in far off lands usually feature one odd character who does speak with a local accent.  So is this proof we can catch words pronounced differently, or does it not matter what Token Foreigner says because his character is inconsequential?  Beauty and the Beast lets one or two sidekicks babble, “Ooo la la!” and “Sacre bleu !” but pretty much leaves the plot exposition up to everyone else.  In Aladdin, the Arabic accent belongs only to the characters with the fewest lines, such as the merchant—who sings the racist song that was later edited—and Gazeem the thief, who dies before the end of Scene One.  And by the way, I haven’t been able to find anyone in The Little Mermaid who sounds Danish, under the sea or above.

Not only does Brave inject its lines with a kick-ass charisma brought on by Scottish brogue, but most of its voice actors—with the exception of Emma Thompson and Julie Walters—are actually, truly, veritably from Scotland.  Traditionally, the Token Foreigner in a children’s film has been provided by an American actor putting on a stereotypical accent.  (Kelsey Grammer as a Russian aristocrat, Jerry Orbach as a French candlestick… )  The ability to imitate an accent is a great skill for both an actor and an interpreter, but it can easily go horribly wrong without anyone in charge of the film noticing.  The fact that Dick van Dyke got away with his impression of Cockney in Mary Poppins suggests that U.S. film critics of the time had pretty low standards.  Meryl Streep has been famously lauded for her ability to sound authentically Italian, Polish, and British, but almost none of those singing her praises are Italian, Polish, or British.  Her portrayals may very well be accurate, but ever since Mary Poppins, Americans have a bit of a reputation for being too easily fooled.  My Nordic partner always rolls his eyes and shakes his head at the Seinfeld episode that tried to pass off this accent as Finnish:

 

 

This is not to say that Americans are the only ones who can’t tell Finnish from gibberish.  I’ve met plenty of French people who think Japanese sounds like that pathetically generic “Ching-chong-chang!”  And Brits who have claimed—a little arrogantly—that the U.S. does not have as many dialects or accents as the U.K.  Ethnologue cites 176 living languages in the U.S. compared to the U.K.’s 12.  Great Britain and Northern Ireland may contain more dialects—though I would bet their dialects are fewer in number while boasting more speakers per dialect—but this begs the philosophical question of what separates a dialect from a language.  The joke among linguists goes, “A language has an army and a navy.” 

Every culture tends toward simplistic views of other cultures.  When you begin to type “Brave Pixar” into Google, you get the apparently popular question, “Brave Pixar Irish or Scottish?”  Anyone outside of the Celtic-speaking regions could be asking this question.               

I’m sure Brave is still rife with Scottish stereotypes that are more craved by Hollywood than are authentic.  And the ancient clans of the Highlands most likely sounded nothing like Billy Connolly or Craig Ferguson.  But it is nice to see the filmmakers trust us enough to handle protagonists who do not speak exactly like the average American moviegoer.  After all, what is the point to hearing stories from far off lands if it’s not to hear things we may not have heard before?  And the more we are exposed to different authentic accents, the more likely we are to realize that every one of us has one.  And that somewhere, someone is smiling at the way we talk.

 

 

 

Dragging Entertainment Into the 21st Century

21 Oct

(Via)

 

This week, humor site Cracked.com features a great article by J.F. Sargent titled “6 Insane Stereotypes That Movies Can’t Seem to Get Over.”  Alongside the insidious ways in which racism, sexism, homophobia still manage to persevere in mainstream entertainment, Number Two on the list is “Anything (Even Death) Is Better Than Being Disabled”:

In movie universes, there’s two ways to get disabled: Either you get a sweet superpower out of it, like Daredevil, or it makes you absolutely miserable for the rest of your life. One of the most infamous examples is Million Dollar Baby, which ends with (spoilers) the protagonist becoming a quadriplegic and Clint Eastwood euthanizing her because, you know, what’s the point of living like that? Never mind the fact that millions of people do just that every day…

Showing someone using sheer willpower to overcome something is a great character arc, and Hollywood applies that to everything, from learning kung fu despite being an overweight panda to “beating” a real-world disability. The problem is, this arc has some tragic implications for the real-world people who come out with the message that they are “too weak” to overcome their disabilities.

The result is that moviegoers think that disabilities are way worse than they actually are, and filmmakers have to cater to that: For example, while filming an episode of Dollhouse where Eliza Dushku was blind, the producers brought in an actual blind woman to show the actress how to move and get around, but the result was that “she didn’t look blind,” and they had to make her act clumsier so the audience would buy it.

Even in Avatar, real paraplegics thought that Sam Worthington’s character was making way too much effort transferring from his chair, but that’s the way we’re used to seeing it in movies. It’s a vicious cycle, and it isn’t going to stop until either Hollywood wises up or people with disabilities stop living happy, fulfilling lives.

I’ve examined Hollywood’s ableist problems several times before and there are still plenty to dedicate an entire blog to.  But, like The Daily Show or The Onion, Cracked has a long history of excellent social critique embedded amongst the fart jokes and it’s awesome.  Especially when considering that not only mainstream but alternative entertainment all too often can’t seem to let go of the tired stereotypes.  That Cracked is a site not officially dedicated to politics or social activism suggests that the comics writing for it believe calling out the industry for its embarrassing ineptitude is just common sense.

 

 

   

Playing Disabled

30 Sep

Miracle Worker

(Image by cchauvet used under CC license via)

 

Snow White and the Huntsman is out on DVD in Europe tomorrow. Unlike in most other Snow White films, the seven dwarfs are portrayed by average-sized actors, their bodies altered by digital manipulation. No one in the dwarf community is pleased about this.  Little People of America issued a statement criticizing the filmmakers’ failure to give priority to performers with dwarfism, while Warwick Davis argued, “It is not acceptable to ‘black up’ as a white actor, so why should it be acceptable to ‘shrink’ an actor to play a dwarf?” 

I don’t believe digitally generated dwarfism is on par with blackface and all that evokes, but it’s not too far off because there is a long tradition in cinema and theater of socially privileged actors portraying socially marginalized characters. And never the other way around. Blackface is a particularly hideous blemish on the history of entertainment because it was almost always used for mockery. Yellowface has a similarly horrid history: Until 1948, anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S. banned actors of different ethnicities from kissing onscreen, so whenever a white actor portrayed an Asian leading man, Anna May Wong knew the role of the heroine was off limits to her, despite her being the most successful Chinese-American actress of the era. Meanwhile, as noted before, the circus freak show tradition that caricatures people with disabilities is still going strong today. 

To be fair, Snow White and the Huntsman does not create the illusion of dwarfism in order to mock it. This is why, to me, the blackface comparison seems overblown.  (A more apt analogy to blackface would be an actor inhaling helium to play a dwarf, as David Hyde Pierce did for laughs on an episode of Frasier years ago.) When a character matter-of-factly has a disability and the performer simulates their body type with artifice, is this not comparable to any sort of makeup or costumes? Danny Woodburn (whom you might know from Seinfeld) discussed it in an excellent interview on The Patt Morrison Show in June:

Directors, producers have every right to cast who they want to cast.  I just think this is something that merits discussion when the disability community—not just the little people community but the disability community—is so underrepresented in the film and television industry…

Others without disability portraying people with disability.  When producers, directors don’t actively seek performers with disability—[and they’d have to] because a lot of those performers don’t have equal access to casting, don’t have equal access to representation—when they don’t actively seek out those performers, then there’s a real slight against our society, I believe…

This is about making a stand so that there’s at least some due diligence… When you have a community of disabled that is about twenty percent of the population and less than one percent of disabled actors appear on TV. And some of the disabled characters, many of them are not portrayed by disabled actors.

Woodburn and Little People of America raised this issue ten years ago when Peter Jackson announced that he would cast only average-sized actors in The Lord of the Rings. As noted before, part of me was glad to see those magical creatures distanced from real-life people with skeletal dysplasias, but if Jackson had chosen to use dwarf performers to portray the Hobbits or the Dwarves, might someone like Woodburn be as famous as Elijah Wood is today? It’s hard to say. Famous actors create box office draw. Almost no famous actors are disabled and almost no disabled actors are famous. And that’s the problem.

If digital manipulation and theater makeup are someday used to expand roles to minority performers, allowing actors of any body type or ability to play the Huntsman or Prince Charming, it will then lose its exclusionary feel. I adored Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs growing up and, even though I was the only kid with dwarfism, I always portrayed the princess in the living room productions put on for my parents and their friends. But cinema has almost never swung that way. There is no history of ethnic minorities portraying famous white characters or disabled performers portraying physiotypical heroes and heroines. Plenty of ambulatory men have sat in wheelchairs to portray FDR, but no disabled man has been cast as JFK. And that stings a bit.

And what stings even more is the way in which privileged actors so often earn automatic praise for portraying minority characters in epic films, as if all minorities are opaque, mystical people only geniuses could begin to understand. John Malkovich as a mentally disabled man in Of Men and Men, Colin Firth as stammering King George VI, and Patty Duke, Melissa Gilbert and more recently Abigail Breslin as Helen Keller have all been lauded for their performances. They are all fine actors who have proven a wide range of talent, and the stories they tell are truly moving. But the public’s nearly kneejerk assumption that a minority role is a feat of greatness for a privileged actor can feel very condescending. 

In the very bizarre, direct-to-DVD film Tiptoes, Gary Oldman was digitally manipulated to take the role of the leading man with dwarfism. Peter Dinklage, who played the comedic supporting role (and, in my opinion, the only good moments in the film), said: “There was some flak. ‘Why would you put Gary Oldman on his knees? That’s almost like blackface.’ And I have my own opinions about political correctness, but I was just like, ‘It’s Gary Oldman. He can do whatever he wants.’ ” 

Fair enough, but when he was sappily introduced in the trailer as playing “the role of a lifetime,” I almost lost my lunch.