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Acting and disability

Outside Centre: Disability Perspectives

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Acting and disability
Lon Chaney

A glance at the timeline at the back of this Catalogue reveals that it can be very profitable  to  act disabled:  many  Oscars and BAFTA awards are won  by actors  playing  a disabled role. It is almost the case that to be a great actor one  must have suffered for one 's art as a disabled character at least once. This is especially true for men but somewhat less so for women. Some actors have been 'disabled ' a few times, perhaps also playing gay or ill in order to up the ante .

The reason is not complicated. Acting disabled (abnormal or different) is a showcase for the actor 's craft. Acting disabled is the only time an actor can actually reveal, or so we are told, the skills of the profession. The twisted body, the hours of make-up, the discomfort, they all combine to ensure the ultimate validation  for  the  craft of acting.

 

Another reason for the success of acting disabled is the dominance of various narratives about disability: the cure of an impairment at the denouement, the closing scene' s triumph over tragedy, or the heroic deterioration from health and  wealth into despair  and death. Each requires an actor to show their range (from athlete to quadriplegic in 90 minutes), but it is a process that says more about acting than it does about disability.

 

It has been said that any actor with eyes on winning an Oscar should remember the three 'D's: Disadvantage, Deficit and Disability. Or, as bluntly expressed by a journalist, 'Bum a ride on other people's  tragedies'.

Many actors have thrown themselves into such roles with such commitment that they become famous for it: John Hurt in The Elephant Man (1980) Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot (1989), and Lon Chaney throughout his career. The suffering of the actor becomes a metaphor for the real impairment, when the truth is that  the disabled suffer principally from their objectification by society rather than from the impairments.

 

Lon Chaney - The Man of a Thousand Faces

Lon Chaney (1883- I 930) is famous for his passion for the unfortunate and misunderstood.  He occupies legendary status in the imagery of disability even though virtually all his work was in the silent cinema and much has been lost. James Cagney played him in the 1957 Universal biopic appropriately titled The Man of a Thousand Faces.

His passion as well as his skill at portraying disabled people was credited to the fact that both his parents were profoundly deaf. He is now a cult figure for both disabled and non-disabled silent film enthusiasts. Make-up was his forte and, as such, his disabled characters were often more grotesque than they were in any way 'true to life'. Yet his collection of disabled characters is astounding, and his roles include a fraudulent cripple, an armless knife thrower, a blind pirate, an arm-dislocating con man, a legless criminal, a hunchback (the original Quasimodo), a disfigured romantic (the original Phantom of the Opera).

Many of his films had disabled people in the cast (though often as 'freaks').

He died just after he had completed his only talkie, a sound remake of The Unholy Three (1930). His son, Lon Chaney, Jr, also became a well-known actor, and starred in

a number of films, including Of Mice and Men (1939) as the learning-disabled Lenny, and, most notably, The Wolf Man (1941), but he never achieved the same degree of fame or success as his father.

 

 

House of Dracula

D: Erle C Kenton

Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine USA -1945 • bw • 65 mins • 35mm •Horror• NFTVA

Frankenstein, the Wolf Man and Count Dracula all appear in this monster omnibus.

 

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

D: Wallace Worsley

Lon Chaney, Patsy Ruth Miller USA-1923-bw-69 mins• 16mm • Horror

Chaney's first big-budget film and the one that made him a star. He delivers a remarkable performance as Quasimodo, using heavy weights to simulate a crippled gait, and still manages to retain the expressive power of his body.

 

The Phantom of the Opera

Disfigurement

D: Rupert Julian

Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin

USA• 1925 • colour/bw :79 mins • 16mm • Horror

The story of the disfigured composer who haunts the Paris Opera, still obsessed by a love of beauty that leads  him  to  kidnap a pretty singer, was possibly Chaney's crowning achievement in makeup and in creating a monster  torn  between  cruelty and humanity.

 

The Shock

D: Lambert Hillyer Lon Chaney

USA• 1923 • bw • 69 mins • Drama-NFTVA

Chaney plays a crippled underling of  'Queen  Anne',  underworld ruler of San Francisco's Barbary Coast. He is sent to a small  town to wreak revenge on a man who betrayed Anne in her youth.

Instead he falls in love with the man's daughter whose kind treatment of him leads to his transformation.