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When Not Going ‘Full Retard’ Paid Off: Ten Critically Acclaimed Depictions of Mentally Challenged Characters


Forrest Gump (1994)

forrest-gump

Character: Forrest Gump, as played by Tom Hanks
Mental Disability: A low IQ of 75 (Borderline Mental Retardation)
Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of Winston Groom’s novel features a lead character you can’t help but love. The beauty of the titular character who manages to positively touch everyone he meets (including several historical luminaries) is he is so unsophisticated that he only knows or cares about what’s really crucial to the human experience. In other words, to quote Forrest, “I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is”. Tom Hanks hits every note perfectly. Anyone with a dry eye after Forrest asks Jenny if their son is smart (unlike himself), is not in possession of an actual heart.
What the Critics Thought: An overwhelming favorite amongst audiences and critics alike, albeit sometimes criticized for its unabashed sentimentality. Roger Ebert said “Tom Hanks may be the only actor who could have played the role”.
How it Paid Off: Forrest Gump was nominated for twelve Oscars and won five, including Best Actor.


Here’s the heart-wrenching moment Forrest meets Forrest, Jr.

The Madness of King George (1994)

madness-george

Character: King George III of England, as played by Nigel Hawthorne
Mental Disability: Dementia, brought on by Porphyria (a blood disease that can actually make your urine and feces look purple!)
When Nicholas Hytner decided to adapt Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III, he wisely chose to keep the most electric aspect, actor Nigel Hawthorne. Hawthorne gives a gripping performance as the 17th century monarch gone mad, even while the nation’s finest doctors are helpless to determine why.
What the Critics Thought: Rolling Stone said “The thrill of Hawthorne’s astounding performance is not something you want to miss.” and The New York Times called it a “stunningly mercurial display of wit, pathos and fiery emotion”.
How it Paid Off: Nominated for four Oscars. Nominated for 14 BAFTAs (Britain’s version of the Academy Awards), and winner of 3 (including Hawthorne’s portrayal).


King George realizes there are some limits to absolute rule, and those who have power over even him.

Sling Blade (1996)

sling-blade

Character: Karl Childers, as played by Billy Bob Thornton
Mental Disability: Low IQ (Mental Retardation)
Conceived as a lark while working on another film, Thornton spent years developing the character of Childers, even developing a one-man show he performed on stage. Karl Childers is mentally disabled, recently released from a mental institution for killing his mother and her lover. While the criminally insane may not make for the most sympathetic characters, it was Karl’s care for a young boy and his mother, and the lengths he goes through to protect them, that cemented the role as an instant cultural reference.
What the Critics Thought: NYT’s Janet Maslin called Thornton’s performance “arresting” and “sadly affecting”, and Variety gave it “nothing but praise”.
How it Paid Off: The Screen Actors Guild awarded Thornton Best Actor, and while nominated as such by the Academy as well, he took home the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Ironically, Thornton lost Best Actor to another performance by a mentally challenged character, as you’ll soon see…

Karl’s a man of few words, but he does like his food.

Shine (1996)

shine

Character: David Helfgott, as played by Geoffrey Rush
Mental Disability: Acute anxiety neurosis
Based on the true story of Australian concert pianist David Helfgott, and his descent into and management of his mental illness, Geoffrey Rush’s portrayal of Helfgott rivals Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt for its affectations. Deranged, speaking in a rapid-fire obsessive chatter, Helfgott is a hard character to connect with, until we discover the backstory that made him that way (it should be noted that the Helfgott family has gone on the record to state that many of the darker moments of his upbringing were heavily fictionalized for dramatic effect). We also gain sympathy with him through Gillian (Lynn Redgrave), the divorcee who encourages him to perform in public again.
What the Critics Thought: Variety called Rush “quite remarkable” and Rolling Stone hyperbolically called the film “utterly extraordinary: biography without banality, uplift without upchuck, art without artifice”.
How it Paid Off: Shine was nominated for four Golden Globes, and seven Oscars. Geoffrey Rush won Best Actor in both cases, narrowly edging out Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade.

Helfgott talent is re-discovered after coming in off the street and wowing a pub crowd on the piano.

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

crowe-as-nash

Character: John Nash, as played by Russell Crowe
Mental Disability: Schizophrenia
The story of economist John Forbes Nash and his struggle with schizophrenia is one that is so phenomenally dramatic and tumultuous, it’s difficult to believe it’s true. Russell Crowe portrays Nash as he runs the emotional gamut from the flash of genius that inspired his theory of governing dynamics to the descent into madness as imaginary characters from his schizophrenic psyche pervade his world and drive him into obsessive irrationality. Director Ron Howard puts the viewer directly in Nash’s head and Crowe attacks the role with fearless intensity.
What the Critics Thought: Variety called the film “consistently engrossing” and Crowe “sensationally good”. The New York Times noted perceptibly that unlike Hoffman or Rush, whose characters gave them a “a license to show off”, “the fierce presence of Mr. Crowe…refuses every temptation to overact”.
How it Paid Off: Crowe’s electric performance earned him Best Actor awards at the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards, BAFTAs, Oscars…and of course, the MTV Movie Awards.

Nash is inspired to develop the theory of Governing Dynamics…in a most unconventional way.

In Tropic Thunder, Robert Downey, Jr.’s character Kirk Lazarus cites Sean Penn’s role in the film I Am Sam as an example when going “full retard” did not reap critical rewards, and perhaps he’s got a point. Let’s take a closer look…

I Am Sam (2001)

samiam
Character: Sam Dawson, as played by Sean Penn
Mental Disability: Mental retardation
Penn plays Sam Dawson, a mentally retarded father to seven-year-old Lucy (Dakota Fanning). As Lucy grows older, Sam discovers she’s beginning to surpass his own mental development. An unexpected crisis brings attention to a social worker, who splits them apart, and he must enlist the help of a high-profile lawyer (Michelle Pfeiffer) to prove his mental competency to parent Lucy.
What the Critics Thought: Rolling Stone called the film “Contrived, manipulative and shamelessly sentimental”,  the New York Times said, “[I]ts sentimentality is so relentless and its narrative so predictable that the life is very nearly squeezed out of it”, and Roger Ebert said Penn “does as well as can be expected”.
How it Paid Off (or rather, How It Didn’t): While nominated Best Actor for both a Screen Actors Award and an Oscar, Penn went home empty-handed that year.

While I personally feel it’s not a terrible film, I admit you get about as much emotional fulfillment from the trailer as you would from the whole film.Hollywood (and in particular, Oscar) has seemingly been preoccupied with celebrating the triumphs of the mentally disabled for decades. There’s something about watching someone struggle helpless against the bonds imposed by their own minds that evokes sympathy in the collective consciousness. As long as the public demands these films, there will be actors who take up the daunting challenge not just to portray these characters, but to do so with sensitivity and respect. BONUS CLIP: Here’s the end credit sequence from Being There. These outtakes of Peter Sellers ‘corpsing‘ while trying to deliver a line presumably cost him the Best Actor Oscar.
BONUS CLIP 2: Just for fun, here’s a clip from the screechingly bad psychedelic biker sequence in 1968’s Charly. Ah, the 60’s…

25 thoughts on “When Not Going ‘Full Retard’ Paid Off: Ten Critically Acclaimed Depictions of Mentally Challenged Characters

  1. Another excellent and related type of characterization – though not usually recognized as involving a mental disability, is Leonardo Decaprio’s role playing Howard Hughes in The Aviator. Based on his behavior, tendencies and intellect, many have suspected that Hughes actually suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a form of high-functioning autism. For anyone familiar with the condition, DeCaprio’s performance is spot-on.

  2. Another excellent and related type of characterization – though not usually recognized as involving a mental disability, is Leonardo Decaprio’s role playing Howard Hughes in The Aviator. Based on his behavior, tendencies and intellect, many have suspected that Hughes actually suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a form of high-functioning autism. For anyone familiar with the condition, DeCaprio’s performance is spot-on.

  3. Of course, Hollywood & the critics have an ongoing love affair with characters who have disabilities in general — not just mental ones. Think of the reception of films like My Left Foot or Scent of a Woman.

    Many of these are just underdog stories, and it’s hard to not root for the underdog

  4. Of course, Hollywood & the critics have an ongoing love affair with characters who have disabilities in general — not just mental ones. Think of the reception of films like My Left Foot or Scent of a Woman.

    Many of these are just underdog stories, and it’s hard to not root for the underdog

  5. Moe. Yes, this became very apparent to us as we were preparing this post. We’re planning on doing a companion post on portrayals of physical disabilities in Hollywood.

  6. Moe. Yes, this became very apparent to us as we were preparing this post. We’re planning on doing a companion post on portrayals of physical disabilities in Hollywood.

  7. Also DeCaprio’s performance in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, which earned him Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations.

  8. Also DeCaprio’s performance in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, which earned him Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations.

  9. I just watched Tropic Thunder for the first time last night. Funny to me that the dvd also featured a very real preview of a very emotional drama starring a very serious Robert Downey Jr. opposite a VERY full retard Jamie Foxx. I honestly wasn’t sure if it was part of the parody for a while.

  10. I just watched Tropic Thunder for the first time last night. Funny to me that the dvd also featured a very real preview of a very emotional drama starring a very serious Robert Downey Jr. opposite a VERY full retard Jamie Foxx. I honestly wasn’t sure if it was part of the parody for a while.

  11. Sorry but A Beautiful Mind is so watered down to what actually took place that I give the movie no credit for any accuracy of depicting the condition and Russell Crowe gets no credit for this role either. The behavior is so much more extreme than what was shown that it is actually a slap in the face to any one that suffers from the condition.

  12. Sorry but A Beautiful Mind is so watered down to what actually took place that I give the movie no credit for any accuracy of depicting the condition and Russell Crowe gets no credit for this role either. The behavior is so much more extreme than what was shown that it is actually a slap in the face to any one that suffers from the condition.

  13. Why isn’t Angelina Jolie here? She won an award for Best Supporting Actress, for the film “Girl Interrupted”as a loony, didn’t she?

  14. Why isn’t Angelina Jolie here? She won an award for Best Supporting Actress, for the film “Girl Interrupted”as a loony, didn’t she?

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