They say, “The Lord loves an idiot,” but not nearly as much as Tinseltown. Throughout the years, the big movie machine has displayed an amazing love affair with the mentally disabled, well beyond a kindred spirit sort of thing. The connection stretches back to at least 1939 with the adaptation of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”. Inclusion was still minimal until the 1970’s and Hollywood really filled up with retards during the ’80’s and ’90’s.
Until the mid-’60’s, studios believed the public only wanted to see witty, beautiful people on the screen. Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” made that case that people only wanted to be entertained and mocked the idea that anyone would want to see the real life problems reflected in the movies. The stranglehold on content broke down during the decade of love. As America was confronted with race issues, the atrocities of war and a massive shift in culture, generally no one wanted any more damn musicals. Since the studio heads didn’t know what to do, much power shifted to directors and actors and NEVER underestimate the ego of an actor.
Actors want to prove how talented they are. The easiest way to do that would be to over-act in a role very different from their accepted personas. What kind of role might that be? One with an accent, a mental disorder, a drug or alcohol problem, a different sexual orientation, a physical deformity, or, yes, mentally challenged. Now, the challenge could be retardation, autism, or whatever. It all comes down to a big “fish out of water” story. Those actors who have been nominated for Oscar glory for playing it slow are: ^ Billy Bob Thorton – “Sling Blade” ^ Tom Hanks – “Forrest Gump” (Winner, Best Actor) ^ Dustin Hoffman – “Rain Man” (Winner, Best Actor) ^ Leonardo DiCaprio – “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” ^ Jodie Foster – “Nell” ^ Cliff Robertson – “Charly” (Winner, Best Actor) ^
Nominees who skirt the line: ^ Geoffrey Rush – “Shine” (Winner, Best Actor) ^ Brad Pitt – “Twelve Monkeys”
In addition, the following actors have taken up the challenge: ^ Mel Gibson – “Tim” ^ Keifer Sutherland – “Crazy Moon” ^ Tim Roth – “Meantime” ^ Juliette Lewis – “The Other Sister” ^ Giovanni Ribisi – “The Other Sister” ^ Pauly Shore – Everything
With the release of “The Other Sister”, we see a mainstream attempt to bring this genre beyond the “fish out of water” story into the romantic comedy. What next? Courtroom thriller? Special Ed sex comedy? Special Olympics sports movie? Buddy cop movie? There was probably a huge career awaiting that Corky kid from TV’s “Life Goes On”, at least until Adam Sandler became popular.
Posted on March 8, 1999 in Features by Ron Wells
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