Why Hollywood Loves Mentally Challenged Characters

What is it about Hollywood and mentally challenged people? (I wanted to write "crazy people", but realized that's not PC).

Cineleet has an interesting post about movies that depict mentally challenged characters, from those who suffer from mental retardation, savant syndrome, to plain ol' derangement, and analyzed what made these movies so great:

The 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder highlights an inconvenient Hollywood truth: Oscar loves mental disabilities. In the film, Ben Stiller’s action hero character, Tugg Speedman, wishing to expand beyond his stereotype, attempts to court Oscar sympathies by playing a mentally challenged farmhand. It ends up being a critical failure. This is because, as Tugg’s co-star Robert Downey, Jr warns him, “You never go full retard”. And he has a point.

The most critically acclaimed performances by characters with disabilities still retained something the audience could emotionally relate to.

For instance, take Dustin Hoffman's award-winning portrayal of the "idiot savant" Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man (1988):

Character: Raymond Babbitt as played by Dustin Hoffman

Mental Disability: Autism / Savant Syndrome
Barry Levinson’s film features Hoffman as an “idiot savant” who possesses a phenomenal capacity to count toothpicks and cheese balls (and later, cards in Vegas). Hoffman’s performance arguably is one of the most ‘affected’ of all the characters on this list, and as such, the hardest to emotionally connect with, particularly for his brother (Tom Cruise), who’s self-centered and primarily interested in the estate their father left Raymond. But in the midst of his worst autistic episodes, Raymond’s primal instinct to care for his younger brother is the touchstone that makes this performance resonate.

What the Critics Thought: The Los Angeles Times called Hoffman’s performance made the film “hypnotically interesting”, and Newsweek’s David Ansen said the film was “made with care, smarts, and a refreshing refusal to settle for the unexpected”.

How it Paid Off: It took home four Oscars that year, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Hoffman.

Link - Thanks Warren!


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"(I wanted to write "crazy people", but realized that’s not PC)"

It may not be PC (which is a synonym for being respectful) but it certainly isn't accurate. "Mentally Challenged" isn't an improvement. There's a huge range of humanity that have psychiatric disorders and developmental disorders. "Crazy" doesn't describe anyone with autism (not savant syndrome), or Down's Syndrome. "Derangement" is not a diagnosis (Robin Williams' character in "the Fisher King" has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

People with acute psychiatric disorders are ill. People who have disabilities have disabilities. People who have mental retardation (a medical term describing a low IQ) aren't necessarily suffering.

What really bugs me about this post is that most (if not all) characters portrayed by actors who have won Academy Awards have some sort of pathology. Edith Piaf and Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood) were pretty ill also. We're all on the continuum.

Rather than worrying about being "PC" or not, ask yourself if your description of people are accurate or respectful.
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