In the 1927 silent film "The Unknown," Lon Chaney plays Alonzo the Armless, a circus performer who hurls knives with his feet at his comely assistant, played by a young Joan Crawford. During the movie's quieter moments, Alonzo uses his toes to drink wine, smoke cigarettes and strum a guitar.
Though Chaney was blessed with a myriad of theatrical abilities, smoking cigarettes with his feet was not one of them. For those moments in the film, the director employed an armless double, Paul Desmuke, a knife thrower and sometime violinist. Later in the film, the viewer discovers that Alonzo actually has arms, but up until that point, one might wonder: When casting the role of an armless man, why not just hire an armless actor?
It's the sort of question Lawrence Carter-Long, a disabled activist and adviser for the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, has been asking for years.
"For non-disabled actors, playing disabled characters has been a way for them to get awards, to win Oscars," he says. "What we're seeing happen now, though, is that people are starting to question it. Just as you wouldn't have someone who's not African American play an African American role without a lot of eyebrows being raised, those kinds of questions are being asked within the industry."
On Tuesday, Carter-Long begins co-hosting TCM's month-long festival "The Projected Image: A History of Disability in Film." Of the 21 films in the series, which includes Chaney's "The Unknown," beloved Oscar winners ("The Miracle Worker," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") and rarely-seen dramas, only a handful feature disabled actors in the lead roles.
"It's not the kind of thing that I was conscious of or even thinking about," admits co-host Ben Mankiewicz. "If this festival does anything, it's made me aware that, yes, why aren't we [casting disabled actors], or at least trying."
The festival marks the seventh series from TCM to examine how different cultural and ethnic groups have been portrayed in film. Several of these earlier series showcased movies in which white actors were cast in nonwhite leads (Katharine Hepburn as a Chinese peasant; Burt Lancaster as an Apache chief). In later films, however, after the prospect of actors performing in blackface, yellowface, or brownface became less palatable within Hollywood, one sees a dramatic shift away from these types of "creative casting."
Not so with this series. The featured films span from 1927 to '87, and if anything, one notices more disabled actors in the earlier films. There's Harold Russell, who lost his hands as an Army instructor during World War II, playing a disabled veteran in 1946's "The Best Years of Our Lives." Two years later, Susan Peters, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a hunting accident, plays a conniving matriarch in the noir thriller "Sign of the Ram."
"She's literally hell on wheels in this thing," says Carter-Long. "If the industry could do something like that in 1948, you have to ask, why aren't they doing it now?"
If attitudes about casting haven't changed all that much over the years, he says, there has been an evolution in how the disabled have been depicted in film. During the silent era, he notes, one sees the disabled depicted as monsters and outcasts ("The Phantom of the Opera," "The Unknown").
Following World War II, one sees sympathetic films about disabled veterans returning from combat ("The Best Years of Our Lives," "Bright Victory"). And following the rise of the independent living movement, says Carter-Long, there were films like 1972's "Butterflies Are Free," about a blind man who moves out of his overprotective mother's home, finds an expansive San Francisco apartment, and falls in love with Goldie Hawn.
"Movies are a great vehicle to talk about changes that happen in our society and in our culture," says Carter-Long, who curated the TCM series. "I wanted to show that evolution, how the films influenced society, and how the changes in our culture influenced the films that were being made."
The series includes several films rarely seen on television. Three of them — "Lucky Star," "23 Paces to Baker Street" and "Mandy" — are airing on TCM for the first time. "You can't do a list of films about disabilities and not do 'The Miracle Worker,'" says Mankiewicz. "But Lawrence also brings in movies that people wouldn't have even expected."
Case in point: "An Affair to Remember," which most fans think of today as one of the most romantic movies ever made, rather than a film about the disabled. In the movie, Deborah Kerr is struck by a car on the way to her rendezvous at the Empire State Building — then spends much of the rest of the film trying to hide the fact that she's in a wheelchair from the understandably befuddled Cary Grant.
"She's ashamed, but it's never explained why she's ashamed, or what she's afraid of," says Carter-Long. "But there's this assumption that now that she can't walk, she could never have the same kind of life with Cary Grant. In watching the film, you go, wow, it wasn't that long ago that people had those attitudes."
Such frustrations aside, Carter-Long loves these films, and indeed, there's much to love here. In addition to Jack Nicholson's Oscar-winning performance in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," there's the rarely seen 1942 thriller "Eyes in the Night," about a blind private eye, and director Tod Brown's 1932 horror classic "Freaks," the story of a band of good-hearted sideshow performers who exact their gruesome revenge on the film's villains, two so-called "normals" who end up being the most freakish of the lot.
"Americans love stories about characters overcoming adversity," says Mankiewicz. "People all over the world love them, and here you have this sort of built-in adversity. It just might be more powerful if the disability in question were played by someone who actually had that disability."
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