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(Credit: Samuel Goldwyn Company)

Film

How Harold Russell changed attitudes towards disability in Hollywood

@SamWKemp

In the entire history of the Oscars, only three disabled actors have won the award. Considering 26 per cent of the American population has a disability of one kind or another, either visible or non-visible, it’s shocking that there is still such an unwillingness to make Hollywood more inclusive in this respect, especially when you remember that countless non-disabled actors have won Oscars for ‘sensitive’ portrayals of disabled characters.

You’ve got Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown in the 1989 film My Left Foot, Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in 2014’s The Theory Of Everything, and, of course, Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump in the 1994 film of the same name. Over the years, around 60 actors have landed Acadamy Award nominations for portraying characters with disabilities. Only three of them were actually disabled.

The first of these actors was Harold Russell, who, just a year after the bloody climax of the Second World War, won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Homer Parrish in the 1946 film The Best Years Of Our Lives. With so many lives lost, and so many servicemen returning home with severe injuries and disfigurements, Hollywood could have easily continued pumping out tales of heroism and daring. Instead, they chose to make a sobering tale about the challenges three war veterans face reintegrating into civilian life.

One of those veterans, Homer Parrish, who has lost both of his hands in combat and had them replaced with a pair of articulated hooks, was played by a man who had received the exact same injury while fighting overseas – adding a layer of poignancy to the performance. Russell’s portrayal of Homer undoubtedly helped to normalise the presence of disfigured servicemen in the aftermath of WW2. Picking up a single cigarette from a pack with his prosthetic hands, Homer calmly strikes a match and lights his friends cigarettes. “Boy, you ought to see me open a bottle of beer,” he tells them. It was casual quips like this that have Russell’s performance such charm, helping him to portray America’s injured serviceman as dignified citizens worthy of respect.

The Best Years Of Our Lives was the first film to focus on the challenges severely disfigured servicemen faced in everyday society, challenges that had been around for a long time already. After the First World War, for example, countless soldiers returned home with their faces changed by shell and shrapnel injuries. Far from being thanked for their sacrifices, the majority faced social rejection and isolation. When Historian Ellie Grigsby was researching her post-graduate degree at The University of Goldsmiths in London, she discovered the sad story of a man who faced rejection from his wife: “She couldn’t bear to look at him,” Grigsby told the BBC, and was forbidden from serving customers in his old job as a tailor. Homer grapples with the same problem, fearing that his sweetheart, Wilma, who he intended to marry before the war, will be disgusted by the sight of his artificial hands.

By awarding the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor to Russell, Hollywood made a commitment to representing America’s disabled war heroes. So why has that commitment still not been extended to the whole of America’s disabled population? While it might seem superficial, the way we are represented on the big screen has a huge impact on how we perceive ourselves and formulate our identities. By continually refusing to celebrate the talents of disabled actors, Hollywood is breaking a vow it made to itself over 60 years ago. Just yesterday, January 27th, 2022, Peter Dinklage described the live-action remake of Snow White and The Seven Dwarves as “backwards” for its outdated portrayal of people with dwarfism. “You’re progressive in one way and you’re still making that fucking backwards story about seven dwarfs living in a cave together, what the f are you doing man?”. Clearly, we still have a way to go.

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