Playing a disabled or mentally ill character seems like it would be one of the most demanding roles for an actor to portray. Itâ€™s probably just as tough for an actress, although few films seem to be centered around handicapped women. It also seems to be something of an initiation rite â€“ although itâ€™s not universal , a large number of the finest actors, particularly in more recent years, have distinguished themselves by portraying characters that are either on the lower end of the intelligence scale, or suffering from a psychiatric disorder that makes coping with the surrounding world into a daily ordeal. In the final few moments of Billy Bob Thorntonâ€™s breakthrough performance as both an actor and a director in Sling Blade (1996), a fellow inmate in the mental institution heâ€™s returned to asks him, â€œWhat it was like out there, in the world?â€ Thorntonâ€™s character Karl responds with the memorably simple pronouncement, â€œIt was too big.â€
The Film: Sling Blade
The Song: “The Maker”
The Artist: Daniel Lanois
Although the immense praise Billy Bob Thornton received for his performance as Karl Childers was well-deserved, itâ€™s actually hard to pin down what handicap or illness Karl suffers from. When he is interviewed by a student reporter at the beginning of the film, the elaborate preparations and preconditions suggest that he suffers from autism and wonâ€™t react well to a deviation from routine. His tendency to rub his hands together suggests stereotypy, another common autistic trait. And Karlâ€™s savant-like talent for fixing small engines coupled with his rudimentary social skills add even further to this impression.
However, Karl complacent acceptance of his imminent departure from the mental institution and his ability to adapt to new situations seem to refute this. Furthermore, the instantaneous empathy that Karl begins to show for his newfound friend Frank Wheatley is very uncharacteristic of autistics. Karlâ€™s grasp of the implications of Doyleâ€™s return to the household suggest that he can conceptualize complicated situations, and although Karlâ€™s solution to the problem is very straightforward and simple, itâ€™s a course of action that he contemplates thoroughly before following it through. In both writing and portraying Karl, Billy Bob Thornton managed to create a character that either suffers from a very unique disability or illness, or otherwise suffers from no disability at all other than a need to process information very slowly and a certain lack of initiative.
Itâ€™s interesting how certain conditions become off-limits once they have been portrayed successfully. Once Dustin Hoffman portrayed the autistic Raymond Babbit in Rain Man (1988) and was rewarded with a well-deserved Oscar, it became more or less of an untouchable disorder. Daniel Day-Lewisâ€™ performance in My Left Foot (1989) also netted an Oscar for his portrayal of the artist Christy Brown, who suffered from cerebral palsy. As with autism, the condition hasnâ€™t been represented by a lead actor on the big screen since (although Bill H. Macy took on cerebral palsy in the television movie Door to Door in 2002). Geoffrey Rush pulled in another Oscar for disabled characters in Shine (1996), portraying the pianist David Helfgott, who suffers from schizoaffective disorder. This condition is unfamiliar enough to most writers and viewers (yours truly included) that it is unlikely to be portrayed on film ever again.
Other conditions will continue to be portrayed regardless of how good a performance is turned in by the actor, simply because the manifestations of these illnesses are too fascinating for writers to pass up. Jack Nicholson won the Oscar for inhabiting the obsessive-compulsive author Melvin Udall in As Good as It Gets (1997), and itâ€™s hard to imagine anyone delivering a more compelling performance, but I guarantee that youâ€™ll continue to see OCD characters turn up in films. The same goes for paranoid schizophrenia, which was ably imagined by Oscar nominees Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys (1995) and Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind (2002). Leonardo DiCaprio has been nominated for two such roles; his brilliantly slobbering portrayal of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in Whatâ€™s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) has been unmatched for authenticity since, and his interpretation of Howard Hughesâ€™ compulsions in the biopic The Aviator (2004) was also widely praised. And of course, the horror movie genre couldnâ€™t really exist without sociopaths, although itâ€™s rare that they are given the type of depth and complexity that Anthony Hopkins gave to Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
Ed Norton in particular seems to enjoy playing mentally ill characters, particularly when given the opportunity to layer the roles. He played a nifty sociopath pretending to suffer from dissociative personality disorder in Primal Fear (1996) and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor award. His character in Fight Club actually did suffer from dissociative personality disorder in Fight Club (1999), and in The Score (2000), Norton once again played a character who was pretending to suffer from a disorder, this time imitating mental retardation to obtain an inside position as a janitor in order to pull off a heist.
The idea of a nonspecific low-intelligence or mild mental retardation is a popular one amongst screenwriters. Tom Hanks played the amiable simpleton Forrest Gump (1994) and won an Academy Award that seemed to be based more on goodwill for the film than anything else. Sean Penn was nominated for I Am Sam (2001). And of course, Billy Bob Thornton received a Oscar nomination for his slouching, gravel-throated performance in Sling Blade. Hollywood simply loves to make movies about crazy people, and about dumb ones. Itâ€™s unfortunate that weâ€™re rarely given much insight into how these characters came to be so dim (you can rest assured that none of them will ever suffer from Down syndrome) but it generally makes for compelling stories, perhaps we can empathize with the characters. Sometimes, like Karl, we simply find the world to be â€œtoo big.â€
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