Thursday, October 09, 2008

Going Full Retard

Simple JackThe alleged slight of developmentally disabled individuals in Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder is little more than a tempest in a teapot. Rather than making fun of retarded people, Tropic Thunder pokes fun at the films and filmmakers who've used retarded/mentally ill characters to tug at heartstrings and garner awards. The portrayal of disability has garnered several accolades from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. A brief list of Oscar-nominated films/performances over the last few years includes Shine, Slingblade, As Good as It Gets, and Girl, Interrupted.

The film-within-a-film, Simple Jack, serves to exemplify the lengths to which some actors go for Oscarbait. Rather than being offended by Simple Jack or the discussion of past performances of famous screen personae (Rain Man, Forrest Gump, I Am Sam), the real offense stems from the overwrought paroxysm's displayed in an attempt at accolades.

Along with the silver screen, retardation is prolific on the boob tube. Some of the most memorable retarded characters have been the focus of made-for-TV dramas. These melodramas teeter on the edge between abject exploitation and sublime shame.

Top Ten Full Retard Performances:

10. Ian McKellen (Walter) in Walter (1982) – While Reaganomics was tearing apart the United States, Thatcherism was slowly destroying the U.K. Consider Walter the antidote to Bill with its heart-wrenching portrayal of a man who survives against all odds. Ian McKellen shambles through the drab British streets, taking refuge with his pigeons. This was followed by Walter and June which follows similar themes explored in Profoundly Normal but without the schmaltz.

9. Tom Hulce (Dominick Luciano) in Dominick and Eugene (1988) – After turning it out in Amadeus, the future looked bright for Tom Hulce. He's turned in a few great performances after his Academy Award-winning turn as the prolific composer but has yet to recapture the verve he displayed there. With Dominick and Eugene he came close. However, his brilliant turn as Dominick—the garbage man brother of med student Eugene (Ray Liotta)—was overshadowed by another little film with a similar theme, Barry Levinson's Rain Man.
8. Leonardo DiCaprio (Arnie Grape) in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993) – This early role by DiCaprio brought him deserved attention and kudos. Teetering at the brink of nimiety, the young actor goes to the brink with his whining, stammering, and constant finger movements without ever crossing the line between excessive mugging and pitch perfect performance.

7. Larry Drake (Benny) on L.A. Law – The firm of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak filled a quota when they hired Benny Stulwitz, a developmentally disabled middle-aged man who managed to teach the heartless lawyers a life lesson through his foibles. Eventually he was paired up with Alice (Amanda Plummer) and the two raised eyebrows and bucked convention in the name of romance.

6. Sean Penn (Sam Dawson) in I Am Sam ( 2001) – What happens when all of these retarded couples start popping out babies? Maybe something like I Am Sam wherein Sean Penn plays a mentally-challenged Beatles fan that fights to keep his daughter. Along the way, Penn has to teach uptight lawyer Michelle Pfeiffer to relax via his joie de vivre. This is one of the few tardsploitation films to garner a Bollywood remake (Main Aisa Hi Hoon)!
5. Juliette Lewis (Carla Tate) in The Other Sister (1999) – Some actors are just shoo-ins for roles as retarded people. Director Garry Marshall struck gold with two such thespians in The Other Sister in Juliette Lewis (who had already gone retard in Kalifornia, Cape Fear and Natural Born Killers) and Giovanni Ribisi (who went on to out-retard Phoebe on Friends). This loathsome film combines a "refreshing outlook of a slow sibling" with the "retarded lovers looking for acceptance" theme. In this case it's Diane Keaton who shakes her head in dismay as her on-screen sister does something to upset her uptight world. The Other Sister only helped exemplify how out of touch Garry (Exit to Eden) Marshall has gotten.
4. Mickey Rooney (Bill) in Bill (1981) – A treatise about the benefits of deinstitutionalization, this drama is a product of Regan-era idealism and self-delusion. To Baby Boomers, Mickey Rooney is known as Andy Hardy but Gen X will always remember the diminutive actor as happy-go-lucky retard William Sackter ("Bill for short!"). When Bill's released from an institution, life looks bleak until he finds a family in need of his simple outlook on life. Unfortunately, this film didn't start a wave of adoptions for the countless kicked out of group homes and institutions after social programs were gutted in the ‘80s. This was followed by a sequel, Bill on His Own, two years later. (His adoption didn't work out).

3. Shaun Cassidy (Roger Meyers) in Like Normal People (1979) – Teen heartthrob Shaun Cassidy went awry in this "we're retarded and we're in love" story along with Linda Purl. The two had a rollicking good time as they slurred their lines and cursed a world that wouldn't respect their relationship.

2. Rosie O'Donnell (Beth Simon) in Riding the Bus with My Sister (2005) – The former stand-up comedienne, Rosie O'Donnell, exercised her acting chops in this Hallmark television drama with hopes of propelling herself into the ranks of "serious actress." Rosie was more believable pretending to be a heterosexual lusting after Tom Cruise on her talk show than as the developmentally disabled sibling of Andie MacDowell. Her "simple" attitude is meant to contrast her sister's harried life. Aw, how cloying.
1. Kirstie Alley (Donna Lee Shelby Thornton) in Profoundly Normal (2003) – Not since Benny and Alice has television seen such a pair of mentally-challenged and socially ostracized lovers. Kirstie Alley and Delroy Lindo drool and stammer their way through this embarrassing tale of an interracial relationship between two slow people. If you were mortified by "Fat Actress," you've may consider suicide rather than watching this film.


therealshell said...

Ray Liotta played a doctor in Dominick and Eugene, not a garbage man.

Anonymous said...

Loved this article. I am so glad you included Shaun Cassidy's towering performance in Like Normal People. -Mike

Scott said...

ahhhh yeah,

i knew mike wouldn't leave out the sean cassidy one. used to reference that movie on stage a few years ago and it STILL got a laugh.

the only part i remember is when they're in the kitchen cooking and burn dinner. or something like that.
i'm sure i could find it somewhere online.

Anonymous said...

Reganomics tearing apart the US?
God you are a moron.

Have you actually read the economic statistics from the 80s or are you just anti-Reagan because some rich hippie at the college you attended for two semesters told you to be?

Read a book pinko.

therealshell said...

Mike a "pinko" ? Hahahahahahahahaha

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