Sunday, January 30, 2005

For Disabled, It's Hooray for Hollywood - By Clyde Haberman
New York Times Friday, January 28, 2005

[Note: This is a typical story of Hollywood's coverage of disability issues. Articles of this sort seem to appear every Oscar season, when we find films with disability themes nominated for major awards. The reporter did not interview any Disability Studies scholars who write on these topics, such as Paul Longmore or Martin Norden, and again adopts language for people with disabilities that many activists would find objectionable. MD]

To no one's surprise, Jamie Foxx received a best-actor Oscar nomination this week for his mesmerizing portrayal of the blind Ray Charles in "Ray." To the surprise of some, perhaps, this was good news for New Yorkers with disabilities and for the people who help them.
When Hollywood turns its klieg lights on an illness, a disorder, a dysfunction, a handicap - the acceptable word is up to you - the public has a way of paying attention. On good days, that makes life easier for those who treat theproblem. On really good days, it can pry money loose from donors.
"It's clear to me that people refer to movies all the time," said Dr. Harold Koplewicz, director of the New York University Child Study Center, which deals with psychiatric illnesses in children.
At Lighthouse International, which helps blind and visually impaired people, officials are not counting on the Foxx nomination to bring in cash. But there are other possible rewards, said Barbara Silverstone, the president and chief executive. "Disabilities are being treated in films with much more accuracy, and not just blindness," she said. "A lot can be done to help the cause, so to speak, of raising public awareness."
By now, awareness may have been raised high enough to reach the rafters.
Hollywood has long cast a teary eye on diseases and disorders. "We're still reaping the benefits of 'The Miracle Worker,' " said Matt Campo, director ofdevelopment at the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults in Sands Point, on Long Island. That film, about the young Helen Keller's struggles, came out in 1962.
But over the last 15 years or so, disabilities have come to be cherished. For awhile, from the late 1980's on, it was all but impossible to win a best-actorOscar without playing a severely troubled character.
There was the autistic Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man," the cerebral-palsied Daniel Day-Lewis in "My Left Foot," the criminally insane Anthony Hopkinsin "The Silence of the Lambs," the blind Al Pacino in "Scent of a Woman," the AIDS-afflicted Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia," the retarded Tom Hanks in "Forrest Gump," the alcoholic Nicolas Cage in "Leaving Las Vegas," the mentally shattered Geoffrey Rush in "Shine" and the obsessive-compulsive Jack Nicholsonin "As Good as It Gets."
Now we have the cinematically blind Mr. Foxx. For good measure, his competition includes Leonardo DiCaprio, who played the disturbed Howard Hughes in "The Aviator."
It's almost enough to make you wonder if it is wise to go to the movies without a medical dictionary. But for those who work with disorders, the benefits from these films and Oscars are unmistakable.
With "Philadelphia," Mr. Hanks made AIDS sufferers more acceptable to people unfamiliar with the disease, said Ana Oliveira, the executive director of Gay Men's Health Crisis. "They could not only see what AIDS looked like," shesaid, "they could see what that life looked like."
Mr. Hanks then took on AIDS as a cause, said Robert Hagerty, who is in charge of H.I.V. research at the New York University Center for AIDS Research. "If nothing else," he said, "it makes the actor personally identify, and then usehis clout to go raise money."
For Dr. Koplewicz, "As Good as It Gets" was a breakthrough. "Jack Nicholson gave O.C.D. a face," he said, referring to obsessive-compulsive disorder. "That translates into two things: destigmatizing it, and eventually permitting peopleto give money for it."
THE usefulness of films in shaking the money tree is questioned by John Frank, director of development at the Association for the Advancement of Blind and Retarded, in College Point, Queens. Still, "the movies get an intellectual discussion going," Mr. Frank said. "It peels back one of the layers of the onion."
Realism helps. Ms. Silverstone liked "Scent of a Woman." Lighthouse International had trained Mr. Pacino for his role. "Why shouldn't a blind person be able to tango?" she said. Indeed.
At one point, though, the Pacino character zooms along New York streets behind the wheel of a Ferrari. "We cringed a little at that," Ms. Silverstone said. The concern was that some people would take that scene literally and say, "Lookat the crazy things blind people do."
There is no such problem with "Ray." A blind man at a piano? Big deal. Besides, a little perspective can't hurt. "The reason Ray Charles was so great was not because he was blind," Ms. Silverstone said, "it was because he was talented."

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