The recent row over the lack of black nominees for the Oscars points up a further injustice perpetrated on disabled actors, says Ian Macrae.
I have a friend, a blind actor, who regularly drives a tractor; he used also to drive a milk float and when required, as part of his employment as a farm worker, he also drives a quad bike.
Ryan Kelly plays the character Jazzer in the long-running radio soap The Archers and the only thing which distinguishes him as blind during recordings is that, while other actors stand at the mic reading from a script, Ryan/Jazzer has learned his lines.
He trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School but after graduating and before he landed the part as Ambridge’s resident Scottish loveable scaly, and, indeed, since then, he struggles to find other acting jobs.
Ryan and other disabled actor friends of mine have come to mind as the debate rages over the so-called “Oscar White-out”. Leading black performers and directors including Spike Lee and British born David Oyellowo have decided to boycott the glitzy ego-fest in protest at the fact that, for two years running, no black artists are nominated in any of the performance or directing categories.
This is deeply shocking, if not altogether surprising even to those of us who are not black. Not only does it show that brilliant performances in a wide variety of roles by black actors both male and female go largely ignored by the predominantly white movie establishment. It also points up the other limiting factor that still too often, roles which are not defined by or require a particular skin colour are, more or less by default, cast as white. This means the pool of roles likely to be available or offered to black performers is smaller.
So what does any of this have to do with disabled actors?
Well, there is an even more limiting factor in operation for disabled actors.
The term “cripping up” is often used – as “blacking up” used to be in the days when Laurence Olivier took the lead in the film of Othello – for a non-disabled actor taking the part of a disabled character. And the word “taking” is used advisedly in that context because many people, including of course many disabled actors, see this as work which they should be offered being taken from them.
The Oscar-winning role of dishonour, though distinguished, is too long.
Daniel Day-Lewis, best actor for Christie Brown in My Left Foot; Tom Cruise nominated for taking to a wheelchair to play Vietnam veteran Ron Novik in Born On The Fourth Of July; Dustin Hoffman playing an autistic character in Rainman.
And if these can be dismissed as “of their time”, we can come bang up to date with Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar last year for his portrayal of Professor Stephen Hawking in The Theory Of Everything.
How long is it going to be until faking disability is held to be as unacceptable as “blacking up”? And when are disabled actors going to have equality when it comes to being cast for what they can do as performers rather than what they are seen to be by non-disabled directors.