Oscar: Mentally and Physically Ill–Part Two

Part Two:

Physical Deformity and Disability

If Javier Bardem gets a nod from the Academy for The Sea Inside, in which he embodying the physically immobile Spaniard poet, he will join the company of Supporting winner Harold Russell, a real-life hero who played himself in The Best Years of Our Lives, and Best Actor winner Jon Voight, as a sensitive Vietnam vet on a wheelchair in Coming Home.

Jose Ferrer and Gerard Depardieu were cursed with a big nose and blessed with a poetic soul in Cyrano de Bergerac. Ferrer won the 1950 Best Actor for the American version, whereas Depardieu was nominated for the 1990 French film, directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau. Jose Ferrer’s second Actor nomination was for playing the French dwarf painter Toulouse-Lautrec in John Huston’s version of Moulin Rouge. Michael Dunn, a dwarf, was probably the best thing in Ship of Fools, serving as the story’s moral conscience and most normal character.

Sheer Madness and Mentally Challenged Roles

The following Oscar winners and nominees have played characters descending into madness, for one reason or another: Emil Jannings, The Last Command; Vivien Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire; Bette Davis, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane

Then there’s the questionable and inexplicable supporting nomination of Brad Pitt for Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, in which he played a rebel son escaping from an asylum. No doubt, Pitt, a hot box-office star, was also rewarded by the Academy for taking a risky role, though his interpretation was stereotypical and full of cliches the public associates with movieish madmen.

Mental Breakdown

Was Howard Hughes, the subject of Scorsese’s Aviator, a mental case, a billionaire-entrepreneur who loved glamour and women, but ended up living a reclusive, demented life. Cast as Hughes, Leonardo DiCaprio is considered a frontrunner in this year’s Oscar derby, and, for those who care to remember, DiCaprio’s first got the Academy’s attention as Johnny Depp’s mentally retarded younger brother in What’s Eating Gilbert Grapes

If DiCaprio receives a nod, his name will be added to an honorable roster that includes: Gregory Peck, Twelve O’Clock High; James Stewart, Harvey; Humphrey Bogart, The Caine Mutiny; Bette Davis, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane Carrie Snodgress, Diary of a Mad Housewife; Gena Rowlands, A Woman Under the Influence, and French star Isabelle Adjani, receiving not one but two nominations for playing mentally disturbed women, in The Story of Adele H. and Camille Claudel. Other mental cases include: Jack Nicholson and Brad Dourif in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Ronee Blakley in Nashville; Peter Finch in Network; and Peter Firth in Equus.

Mental Retardation

An otherwise mediocre actor, Cliff Robertson received the Best Actor at his first (and only) nomination, for Charly (1968), about a mentally retarded adult who undergoes brain surgery and blossoms into a genius only to learn that he is doomed to regress to his initial moronic state. Adapted by Stirling Silliphant from the novel, Flowers for Algernon, that had been dramatized on TV with Robertson in 1961, Charly was a sentimental, outdated problem drama. Robertson fell in love with the role, bought the movie rights, and after years of trying to set the film at various studios, persuaded Selmur Productions to make it.

Other actors recognized by the Academy for playing mentally retarded roles include Peter Sellers in Being There, and Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump. In 2001, Sean Penn received a lead nomination in I Am Sam, in which he played a mentally retarded father (with an I.Q. of a seven-year-old) who fights the courts over custody of his smarter daughter. Inevitable comparisons were made between Penn’s role and those played by Hanks in Forrest Gump (I.Q. of 75) and Dustin Hoffman’s in Rain Man, in which he played an autistic idiot savant.

Multiple Personalities and Schizophrenia

At least three performers won the lead Oscar for playing schizophrenics: Frederic March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve; and Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind.

Disclosed and Undisclosed Fatal Illnesses

Daniel Day-Lewis, afflicted with Cerebral Palsy in My Left Foot; Dustin Hoffman, dying in Jon Voight’s arms, at the end of Midnight Cowboy; Diane Keaton, suffering valiantly and losing her hair in Marvin’s Room; Jessica Lange, going through painful and damaging lobotomy, in Francis.

Last but not least, the Academy has shown respect for characters suffering from what could be described as Posttraumatic Stress, which seems to be totally in the male domain, with soldiers like Bruce Dern, nominated for Coming Home, and Christopher Walken, winning for another Vietnam war drama, The Deer Hunter. Joining their ranks was one of the youngest winners ever, Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People, blamed by his mother (Mary Tyler Moore) for causing the death of her favorite son in a boat accident.

Though different in quality, intensity, and range, these performances represent Hollywood’s idea of what prestigious and meaty roles are, particularly when contained in noble, uplifting social-problem pictures with inspirational messages. They also demonstrate how crucial are the thematic elements of screen roles, in this case illnesses and disabilities, to being nominated and wining the Oscar.