Scene4 Magazine: Kathi Wolfe - Life Among The Heffalumps

October 2012

From 'The Unknown' to 'The Miracle Worker' to 'Gaby: A True Story' Turner Classic Movies Highlights the History of Disability in Film

One of my most vivid childhood memories was when the Academy Award winning movie "The Miracle Worker" came to our small town movie theater.  The grown-ups rushed to see it, our babysitters knew about it and our teachers stopped talking about the Revolutionary War to tell us the "inspiring" story of how Anne Sullivan taught the deaf-blind wild child Helen Keller about language.

Everyone, it seemed, loved this picture, except me, a visually impaired nine-year old.  Why wasn't I enthralled by this Oscar winning film?  Because its black and white cinematography, Anne's dark glasses and Helen's tantrums scared me.  I was no goody-two-shoes, but I wasn't unruly like Helen was before she knew the meaning of language.  Nor, I knew even then, would I be "heroic" or "inspirational" as Helen was perceived to be after the "miracle."  In the aftermath of the film's premiere, I didn't enjoy having the other kids ask me "to bite me like Helen bites Annie" or having my fourth-grade teacher say to me, "If you were like Helen Keller, you'd not only do your homework, you'd get a gold star in arithmetic!"

Years later, I've come to appreciate the acting and the story of "The Miracle Worker."  In the late 1990's, I met William Gibson, the writer of the "The Miracle Worker."  I asked Gibson if Helen Keller ever got bored. "Yes!" he said, "an assistant would spell into her hand what others were saying.  If she got bored, she'd just smile and take her hand away.  No one would be the wiser."

As an adult, I've seen "An Affair to Remember" many times.  I love the style and elegance of Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. In my fantasy life, I'm on a cruise with them where we drink champagne, eat caviar, declare our undying love for one another and vow to spend the rest of eternity on the observation deck of the Empire State Building.  Yet as someone with a disability who knows lots of wheelchair users, I can't help but think: Isn't it a shame that Kerr's character feels that she has to hide her paralysis from Grant's character?  And, I have to remind myself that in 1957 when the movie was released, the concept of "handicapped accessibility" wasn't on the radar.  There were virtually no curb cuts or wheelchair ramps.  Then, no one would have thought: how will Kerr's character get around?  

(Sadly, four years after The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, the character who's paralyzed in the 1994 remake of the movie "Love Affair" still hides her disability.)

I'm far from alone in my reaction to many films where characters with disabilities often are portrayed as being victims, "inspirational," heroic or villains and usually played by actors who don't have disabilities.  For years, people with and without disabilities have written academic papers, books, and commentaries; blogged; and held film festivals to highlight depictions of disability in movies.  We're film afficionados; we love movies like "An Affair to Remember" or "The Best Years of Our Lives."  Yet, we long for the history of disability in film to be told from a (modern) disability culture perspective.

At last, our wish has come true!  This month Turner Classic Movies is examining Hollywood's depiction of people with disabilities in "The Projected Image: A History of Disability in Film."  The month-long exploration will air every Tuesday evening (beginning) at 8 pm.  On behalf of Inclusion in the Arts, Lawrence Carter-Long will join TCM host Robert Osborne to curate the series.  "The Projected Image" features more than 20 films from the 1920s to the 1980s ranging from the well-known "One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest" to the lost classic "The Sign of the Ram."  Each night's collection will explore different types of disability (from blindness to deafness to intellectual disabilities) and themes (from love to disabled war veterans).

Annually since 2006, TCM has dedicated one month toward examining how different cultural and ethnic groups have been portrayed in the movies.  In previous years, Turner Classic Movies has explored how people of color and LGBT people have been depicted in films.  "The Projected Image" has won kudos from myself and many who care about disability, media and culture.  With TCM's 86 million viewers, the series brings people with disabilities as a cultural group (an identity group) and the history of disability in film (for the first time) on to the cultural radar screen.

"'The Project Image' marks a pivotal moment in disability images - film representations are going mainstream so all Americans with cable can revel in some of the classic images of disability," wrote Beth A. Haller, author of "Representing Disability in an Ableist World: Essays on Mass Media, " in an e-mail.

"I am most excited by some of the films that few people have ever heard of like 1948's 'The Sign of the Ram' that features a performance by actress Susan Peters, who was an actual wheelchair user," continued Haller, who teaches mass communication at Towson University, "...with film expert Lawrence Carter-Long turning a critical eye on the films, viewers will learn to think about film representations of disability in a whole new way."

Carter-Long, who will curate the films in "The Projected Image,"  is an Lawrence_Carter_Long-crexpert in the arts, access and media.  He is best known as the founder and curator of the disTHIS! Film series, presented in partnership with New York University's Center for the Study of Disability from 2006 to 2010.  The series showcased edgy, provocative and unconventional portrayals of disability with the promise of "No handkerchief necessary: no heroism required." Carter-Long currently is a public affairs specialist for the Washington, D.C. based National Council on Disability.

"I've been a cinema fan and film buff my entire life," Carter-Long, 45, told me in a recent telephone conversation, "people assume that in a film disability will be a horrible fate that will have to be overcome.  That to be disabled you have to be heroic."

"Being heroic is exhausting," joked Carter-Long, who has cerebral palsy.

Because of these assumptions – gleamed from many Hollywood films where (from the silents onward) – disabled people have been depicted as "heroic," tragic or isolated outsiders – Carter-Long said, many moviegoers didn't even want to see "Murderball," – the hard-hitting, decidedly non "inspirational" documentary about disabled rugby players.  "They said, 'we don't want to see disability,'" he said, "but then we'd show them the trailor for the film {'Murderball'}, and they'd get really pumped! They'd never seen anything like that before!  They'd tell their friends."

How films depict disability influences how the culture perceives people with disabilities and cultural attitudes and policies impact how movies portray characters with disabilities, Carter-Long said.  "You see major trends in society reflected in films," he said.

As an example, Carter-Long cites "The Best Years of Our Lives" – the 1946 film about returning World War II veterans.  One of the vets (played by Harold Russell-who won an Oscar for his performance) has lost his hands in the War.  "William Wyler {the film's director} discovered Russell in a rehab film –that showed disabled vets learning how to work again," Carter-Long said, "Yet, ironically, though we see Russell doing things like eating and dressing himself with his prosthetic hands – no where in 'The Best Years of Our Lives' do we see Russell's character working."

Why isn't Russell's character shown at work?  Because "at that time, society didn't think that disabled people could work," Carter-Long said.

Russell's co-star in the movie, the Oscar-winning Fredric March, was less than thrilled by Russell's competency with his prosthetic hands.  "He thought that the prostheses were scene-stealers," Carter-Long said.

Societal attitudes toward disabled people also influenced the 1972 movie "Butterflies are Free," Carter-Long said.  The movie, about a blind man, his girlfriend and his over-bearing mother, is set in San Francisco.  "It was made around the same time as the independent living movement was emerging in the Berkeley-San Francisco area," he said.

Through this movement, often for the first time, disabled people (from blind people to wheelchair users) began to live by themselves and to make decisions about their lives.  They began to go to school, find jobs, demand "handicapped accessibility," have romantic and sexual relationships (in their own homes and in public).  "'Butterflies are Free' picked up on this," Carter-Long said, "it's not really about the man's blindness – it's about his over-protective mother."

Susan Peters was an up and coming non-disabled actress who was shot.  It was almost unheard of then "but Peters was so talented, that the studio had her work even though she used a wheelchair," Carter-Long said.

She's no "inspirational" saint in "The Sign of the Ram," Carter-Long said, "She's Joan Crawford.  She's hell on wheels."

Hollywood is still chock full of "inspirational," heroic, isolated and victimized disabled characters and many actors with disabilities still have difficulty finding work, Carter-Long said.  But, "things are changing," he added, "for example, 'The Sessions,' a film dramatizing the life of {writer} Mark O'Brien will be released.  It was a winner at Sundance.

"O'Brien had polio and was in an iron lung.  The movie shows him in the context of his community – it shows him getting the support and services that he needed.  The fact that the film's director had polio probably helped the movie."

"The Projected Image" will be an opportunity for 86 million people to "deconstruct" disability as subject matter {of film}, Carter-Long said.  "For the first time, many of these films will be audio-described and open-captioned," he added, "so that people with all kinds of disabilities will be able to enjoy them."

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©2012 Kathi Wolfe
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine - Kathi Wolfe |
Kathi Wolfe is a writer, poet and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Her reviews and commentary have also appeared in an array of publications.

For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


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October 2012

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