Disability is defined as “lack of adequate power, strength, or physical or mental ability; incapacity” so I feel I’m on fairly safe ground with the following:
In 1946 director William Wyler made The Best Years of our Lives, a story of three US servicemen returning from World War II.
In 1997, when Wyler was asked to contribute the 10 Greatest Films of all Time to the original Book of Lists, he put his own film tenth. His top 10:
1. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI
2. THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN
3. ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT
4. SEVERAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN FILMS
5. THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI
6. MARCEL PAGNOL’S FANNY (NOT THE MUSICAL)
7. LA DOLCE VITA
8. THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE
9. DR. STRANGELOVE
10. AND (WITH APOLOGIES) THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES
Robert Liwanag, writing in The Reader’s Digest, rated it No. 11 of the first 91 films to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.* The film stands tall in the pantheon of USA cinema.
It also carries a strange statistic in that it is only one of two films for which a person with a disability won an Academy Award and only one of two films in which a non-professional actor or actress won an Academy Award.**
Harold Russell was both. His hands were blown off in a wartime training accident and he was given two hooks to replace them.
He appeared in an army documentary, Diary of a Sergeant, showing his rehabilitation and getting used to his new “hands”. Wyler cast him after seeing it.
For Best Actor Oscar honours, professional actors without disabilities playing characters with disabilities has been a successful career move.
In the past 50 years, we’ve had Cliff Robertson Charly (1969), Jon Voight Coming Home (1979), Dustin Hoffman Rain Man (1989), Daniel Day Lewis My Left Foot (1990), Al Pacino Scent of a Woman (1993), Jamie Foxx Ray (2003) and Eddie Redmayne The Theory of Everything (2015).
Zak (Gottsagen) is 22. He lives in a nursing home, shares a room with ageing and kindly Carl (Bruce Dern) and is cared for by Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a well-meaning university graduate.
The incongruence of Zak’s living arrangement has him desperate to get out and follow his dream to become a professional wrestler.
When he escapes, there are concerns because of his condition and that he has no family to run to. Eleanor is sent to find him.
On the run, Zak trails a troubled fisher, Tyler (Shia LaBoeuf) and the two walk and travel by river through North Carolina, heading to the wrestling camp of Zak’s hero, Salt Water Redneck.
The tale has scents of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. It’s a buddy/road movie, a tried and true but well-worn genre in American film.
When Eleanor rather improbably finds them, she is forced to join the journey because Zak throws her bus keys into the water way that he and Tyler are traversing.
It’s all pretty cute and some gentle messages are delivered about the accepted treatment of people with disabilities versus letting that person experience life and take risks. Tyler has his own demons (a back story is subtly delivered of his beloved older brother dying in a car crash with Tyler at the wheel) and time with Zak begins his redemption.
Tyler and Eleanor fall in love; Zak gets to meet Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) and wrestle a professional; one of the three is badly injured; and they drive to Florida a la Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy (1969).
Eleanor has been won over as to what’s best for Zak.
A family, a word often used in the movie, is born.
Because of Zak’s escape and her reporting him as a flight risk, bureaucracy has deemed that his next home be with “drug addicts and prostitutes”, underlining the fate of people with disabilities and nowhere for the State – and this seems a universal problem – to house them safely and with dignity.
Gottsagen is very good playing himself, which is not a criticism because Jack Nicholson has made a successful career doing mostly the same thing. However, for a critic to laud his performance because he has Down syndrome goes against the grain of the film’s message.
Zak isn’t to be regarded as having a disability but to live productively in the greater world.
*Liwanag’s Top 10 Best Picture winners:
1. THE GODFATHER
3. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
4. THE GODFATHER II
5. ANNIE HALL
6. THE APARTMENT
7. GONE WITH THE WIND
8. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
9. ON THE WATERFRONT
10. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST
ARGO ranked 91.
**Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, won Best Actress for Children of a Lesser God (1965) and Haing S. Ngor had never acted before winning Best Supporting Actor for The Killing Fields (1984).