Reasons & Remarks – SCI In Film

When it comes to disability representation in Hollywood, the all too common “wheelchair trope” leaves much to be desired


Every time Hollywood comes up with another story centered on a character in a wheelchair, my eyes roll.  

It’s not because these films tend to present a character in an overly simplified form portrayed by an able-bodied actor, but because I know it’ll be just a matter of time before someone asks me what I think of the film. Portraying someone with paraplegia must be challenging for an actor beyond pretending not to walk, so I usually keep my mouth shut unless I’m provoked at happy hour.

It seems that no matter how hard the filmmakers try to get it right, there’s no satisfying the critics. Please don’t get me wrong — I don’t defend lazy filmmakers who, by choice, don’t include people with disabilities in the directing, scripting, acting and consulting phases of their productions. However, not all filmmakers are lazy, and many of them have gone to great lengths to be authentic.

Immediately following World War II, studios began looking to veterans returning from battle for great storylines. Thanks to the development of antibiotics and other medical advances, the first generation of surviving paralyzed veterans had plenty of stories to tell. Nevertheless, the first post-war film to feature a paralyzed character had nothing to do with veterans of war returning home as paraplegics.  

The film, The Sign of the Ram (1948), was about a paralyzed woman who manipulates those around her. An established Hollywood starlet named Susan Peters, who had been paralyzed in a hunting accident three years earlier, seemed destined to play the part. 

Still, a paraplegic playing a leading role in a film had never been done before and as a matter of good will, or good public relations, Columbia Pictures invited members of the local Paralyzed Veterans of America chapter to meet with Peters for a photo opportunity.  

The next film to hit the silver screen featuring a paralyzed character was The Men (1950), starring Marlon Brando. Unlike Peters, Brando wasn’t paralyzed but was trained as a method actor, which was new to Hollywood. To be more convincing as a patient, Brando moved into the spinal-cord injury (SCI) ward at Birmingham Army Hospital near Los Angeles to prepare for his role.

Living among the veterans with SCI left such an impression on Brando that he penned the article Thirty Days In A Wheelchair for Varsity Magazine, where he described his experience filming the movie. Furthermore, to make the film appear even more genuine, The Men included real veterans with SCI in a few speaking roles and as extras.   

However, things almost went too far during the filming of Born on the Fourth of July (1989). Starring Tom Cruise, the film is based on the autobiography of Ron Kovic, who was paralyzed during the Vietnam War. 

Spending nearly a year in preparation for the role, Cruise did what you’d expect an actor to do, such as visiting patients at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, reading lots of books on the Vietnam War and spending time in a wheelchair.  

But according to the book Tom Cruise: An Unauthorized Biography (2008) by Andrew Morton, director Oliver Stone, himself a Vietnam War veteran, wanted to go further. Morton wrote that Stone wanted to inject Cruise with a drug that would temporarily paralyze him for a few days to help realistically portray the challenges of a paraplegic.

Morton’s book says that, understandably, the insurance company responsible for the film put the kibosh on that crazy idea. After filming was completed, Kovic gave Cruise his Bronze Star as a birthday present and in praise of his commitment to authenticity.

Peters was a paraplegic, so it’s tough to criticize her portrayal of a paraplegic on the big screen, but able-bodied Brando and Cruise played convincing roles, too, and their films felt genuine. Nevertheless, disability groups are increasing the pressure on studios to change the way they make movies, including the use of actors with disabilities in leading roles.

While I appreciate the idea of having an actor who is a paraplegic portray a character who is a paraplegic, I’m not yet convinced that scenario should be a mandate. Until then, we should appreciate how far some actors will go to tell our stories. 

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