Perhaps you’ve been too busy trying to hold onto your mortgage to notice, but there’s been a fair amount of controversy over actor/director Ben Stiller’s comedy “Tropic Thunder”. Apparently some folks have an issue with use of the word “retards”- and the depiction of disabled people- in the film. Understandable…
…but having both a mentally disabled brother AND having laughed my ass off through the entire film only last night, let me say a thing or two about what I believe is wrong with the controversy:
Let me be clear, there are those who have raised, lived and/or worked with disabled people who are angry toward the film, and that is their right. Timothy P Shriver, Chairman and CEO of the The Special Olympics, has issued a boycott of the film, calling it “an unchecked assault on the humanity of people with intellectual disabilities — an affront to dignity, hope and respect.” Shriver’s a passionate and intelligent guy. And, as someone who has seen, first hand, the amount of love and work it takes to raise a mentally disabled child, I can’t thank him enough for his battle to elevate the stature and dignity of disabled people around the world. It’s hero’s work.
That being said, I’m also someone who’s had to sit through endless films and subsequent conversations, about mentally disabled people which were sincere, meaningful, well intended, and utter bullshit. And yes, I’m referring to both the films and the subsequent conversations. Stiller’s big-budget farce takes wicked aim at the bloated, contrived performances that audiences and the Academy loves to fawn over, and hits, in my opinion, a bulls-eye. The fact is, Hollywood doesn’t make films about disabled people any more than it makes films about real relationships, real love, or real war (with the exception of the excellent and un-watched “Generation Kill”). When it comes to people with mental disabilities, they are always so far off the mark, so intent upon deifying the disabled that they don’t bother to consider the day in, day out realities of raising and loving someone who will never “grow up”. Yes, it’s full of rewards, and laughter and joy, but it’s also relentless, grinding and complicated.
Mentally-disabled people are not angels. They can be angelic, sure. And hilarious and insightful and they can make you so happy your face hurts. I love my brother Lloyd, and I can’t imaging having grown up without him. His presence in my family has made all of us much more tolerant, empathetic and better people. But he’s not, as Hollywood likes to paint it, a gifted other with some magical, otherworldly connection to a higher truth that we “normal” people cannot attain. It’s way messier than that, folks. Yet over and over and over again, I’m asked to watch films like “Benny and June”, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”, (the much better)“Rainman”, etc, etc, where the adorable, gifted “special needs” character teaches our other, too driven, too hard, too self-involved lead actor learn how to be human. Not only am I asked to watch it, but then I’m supposed to nod wildly about the beauty of this, the great leap for “people like your brother”.
I can’t remember the number of times I’ve had to sit at a dinner party biting my tongue, while someone went on and on about so-and-so’s brilliant version of a mentally disabled person. I always want to scream, “How come no-one ever had to scrub so-and-so’s ass?” The fact is, if anyone in Hollywood ever made a real movie about a mentally disabled person, no one would watch it. Why? Because it’s too painful, too difficult and too real. As Robert Downey Jr.’s character brilliantly schools Ben Stiller’s character, “you never play full- retard man”.
Seriously, who wants to see that?
For me, Tropic Thunder is a relief. Finally, someone is calling BS on “meaningful” performances about disabled people. And it doesn’t stop there. The entire industry is hammered, skewered and abused. From over-wrought “real” actors playing in black-face to a depiction of a Jewish studio head that blew my mind for about ten thousand reasons, no one gets out alive. And sure, I get the irony of a made, Hollywood insider like Stiller taking the piss out his cash cow, but who cares? It made me laugh, it made me cringe and most of all, it took the words right out of my mouth: “Never play full-retard, man. They don’t give you the Oscar for that”.