Oscar: Physically or Mentally Ill–Part 1

In 1969, upon watching British actor John Mills as the mute village idiot in David Lean’s “Ryan’s Daughter,” the critic Pauline Kael alerted her New Yorker readers, and derided the Academy voters, when she wrote: “This is the kind of thing that gets people Academy Awards, because the acting is so conspicuous.” Kael was right: Mills, a distinguished actor who had never been nominated before, won the Supporting Actor.

Two decades later, Kael dismissed Penny Marshall’s “Awakenings,” the screen adaptation of Oliver Sack’s tragicomic best-seller about brain sickness, which inexplicably garnered Best Picture and Actor nomination for Robert De Niro. Kael held that the De Niro patient didn’t exist except as fodder for pathos, and the whole movie epitomized a “forced banalization” of the viewers’ emotions into “showbiz shtick.” For her, Awakenings represented “a do-gooding synthesis” of three Best Picture winners: Charly, One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest, and Rain Man, It was hard not to notice that all three leading men in these pictures have won the Actor Oscar: Cliff Richardson, Jack Nicholson, and Dustin Hoffman, respectively.

The history of the Academy Awards is a veritable dictionary of diseases, both physical and mental. And this year is no different, with the frontrunners for Oscars in all four acting categories suffering from a wide range of afflictions, illnesses, and disabilities.
Here is a sample of popular diseases among Oscar voters (listed alphabetically):


Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet are just the latest performers to appear in a film, the serio comedy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, whose major plot twist is amnesia, or loss of memory.

If nominated, Carrey and Winslet will join the honorable company of Ronald Colman, who earned an Actor nomination in 1942 for Random Harvest, as an amnesiac who becomes enchanted with his own wife (the stately Greer Garson). Ingrid Bergman received her second Best Actress for playing an amnesiac in Anastasia, as a woman who may or may not be pretending to be the youngest daughter of czar Nicholas II, rumored to have escaped the Bolshevik Revolution.


In “Ray,” Jamie Foxx gives an incandescent performance as the legendary musician Ray Charles, who became blind as a young boy and fought drug-addiction as an adult.

If nominated, Foxx will be in the company of Al Pacino, who was awarded the Best Actor at his eighth nomination for Scent of a Woman, in which he played a brash and acerbic lieutenant colonel, who’s blind, saved from suicide by a young protege.

Patty Duke’s received the 1962 Supporting Oscar as the blind-and-deaf Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. The graceful Audrey Hepburn received her fifth Actress nomination for playing a victim in the stage-based thriller, Wait Until Dark, as a blind woman who, unbeknownst to her, owns a doll filled with drugs.

Other thespians nominated for playing blind persons include: Claude Rains as Bette Davis’s blind husband in Mr. Skeffington; Arthur Kennedy as a blinded soldier in Bright Light; Elizabeth Hartman in Patch of Blue; John Malkovich, as a blind man residing in Sally Field’s Texas farm, in Places in the Heart.


Winning the Best Actress Oscar for “Johnny Belinda,” elevated the stature of Jane Wyman in the industry, leading to three other nominations. Wyman played a quintessential Oscar role: a deaf-mute girl named Belinda McDonald, who lives with her father and aunt on a remote Canadian island. The villagers think Belinda is retarded, but a visiting doctor helps her learn sign language. Raped by the local bully, Belinda bears a child, but, because she is unable to communicate, the village suspects that the doctor is the father of her child.

Receiving accolades in Sweet and Lowdown, British Samantha Morton, nominated for playing Sean Penn’s mute laundress-girlfriend. In The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Oscar-nominated Alan Arkin played a deaf-mute who changes the lives of the residents of a small southern town, including that of a sensitive adolescent girl, played by Oscar-nominated Sondra Locke in her very first screen role.

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.