As the Hollywood Foreign Press Association continues to overhaul its bylaws, making changes addressing ethics and code of conduct, diversity, equity and inclusion, governance, and membership following criticism of the organization’s lack of diversity, this year’s program will showcase the organization’s philanthropy work. Grantees, including RespectAbility, have been invited to attend.
With one-in-four adults having a disability in the U.S. today, the lack of representation – just 3.5 percent of characters on TV and 2.3 percent on film – means that millions of people are unable to see themselves in media today. This makes it so important that several of the nominations this year feature disabled individuals. This includes a focus on deaf and ASL representation with the nominations of “CODA” and “Only Murders in the Building.”
A Focus on Deaf and ASL Representation
For Best Television Series, Musical or Comedy, Hulu’s hit murder mystery series “Only Murders in the Building” is nominated. This series features James Caverly, a Deaf actor portraying a Deaf character. Learn more about an episode that was shot almost entirely in silence utilizing ASL and other forms of visual communication during a fireside chat featuring Caverly and ASL Consultant Douglas Ridloff, who explored some of the behind-the-scenes work that went into shaping this episode and discussed the overall importance of authentic and inclusive storytelling when it comes to on-screen representation.
Sign language also is involved in the plot of “Drive My Car” (Janus Films). “Drive My Car” has been nominated for Best Picture, Foreign Language.
“CODA,” which has been nominated for Best Motion Picture, Drama, sheds an intimate light on Deaf culture and being a CODA (child of deaf adult) using authentic deaf actors and incorporating deaf professionals in behind-the-camera roles throughout the development and production of the film. After premiering at Sundance 2021, Apple announced they had acquired the distribution rights to CODA for a whopping $25 million, breaking the previous festival record of $22 million. “If there were any lingering doubts as to whether authenticity sells, they were put to rest with the stunning recording-breaking acquisition of the film by Apple at the Sundance Film Festival,” said Delbert Whetter, a RespectAbility board member who is a Deaf film executive. Several individuals from “CODA” joined Whetter and RespectAbility for a conversation presented fully in ASL with interpreters held on Sundance’s digital Main Street platform during the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Other nominated films in this category include “The Power of the Dog” (Netflix), in which the plot deals with alcoholism.
Deaf Actor Troy Kotsur also has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor, Motion Picture for his work on “CODA.” Kotsur has performed in many film and television roles including Disney+’s The Mandalorian, for which he also choreographed an invented form of sign language.
Actors and Directors with a Variety of Disabilities Nominated
Two additional actors for Best Supporting Actor, Motion Picture are disabled. Ben Affleck (“The Tender Bar”) has anxiety and depression; and Kodi Smit-McPhee (“The Power of the Dog”) was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis, when he was 16 years old. For Best Supporting Actress, Motion Picture, Kirsten Dunst (“The Power of the Dog”) has depression.
Actor Billy Porter, who is HIV positive and has diabetes, has been nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series, Drama, for his work on “POSE” (FX Networks). POSE also has been nominated for Best Television Series, Drama. The AIDS epidemic is a major component of the show’s plot.
Actress Lady Gaga, who has PTSD, has been nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama, for her work on “House of Gucci.”
For Best Television Actor, Musical / Comedy Series, nominees include Anthony Anderson (“Black-ish”), who has type 2 diabetes, and Jason Sudeikis (“Ted Lasso”), who was born with anosmia, a disability that affects one’s sense of smell.
Several nominees are dyslexic, including Director Steven Spielberg (“West Side Story”), who has been nominated for Best Director, Motion Picture for; Paul Bettany (“WandaVision”), who has been nominated for Best Performance by an Actor, Limited Series, Anthology Series or Motion Picture made for Television.
Actor Peter Dinklage, who is a Little Person, has been nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy, for his work on “Cyrano” (MGM), which also has been nominated for Best Picture, Musical or Comedy.
Also in this category of Best Picture, Musical or Comedy, “Don’t Look Up” (Netflix) stars several actors with anxiety including Jonah Hill. Ariana Grande has hypoglycemia, PTSD, and anxiety while Kid Cudi has anxiety and depression. Melanie Lynskey had an eating disorder. Featured in “West Side Story” (20th Century Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures) Rita Moreno previously attempted suicide. “Tick, Tick … Boom!” (Netflix) has themes of HIV and the AIDS crisis.
The same applies for Best Limited Series, Anthology Series or a Motion Picture made for Television nominations, which includes several featuring disabled actors and/or disability themes. “Dopesick” (Hulu) is about opioid addiction. Actor Will Poulter is dyslexic and has developmental coordination disorder. “Impeachment: American Crime Story” (FX) features Annaleigh Ashford, who has celiac disease, and Edie Falco, who had cancer and battled alcoholism. “Mare of Easttown” (HBO) has themes of suicide and addiction.
A Focus on Animation
Lastly, in animation, “Luca” (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures) has been nominated for Best Motion Picture, Animated. This film’s casual inclusion of disability creates a more inclusive and accepting society. “’Luca’ is a great example of how we can include representation of people with different bodies in all of our content,” said Ashley Eakin, a writer/director who was born with a limb difference. “Too often the character with some type of disability or limb difference is the villain or scary. While Massimo is brash, he is also a talented chef and caring father. They even make light of the way he lost his limb with ultimately explaining it was just the way he came into the world.”
In addition, “Encanto” (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures) features lead actress Stephanie Beatriz, who has an eating disorder.
Looking to the Future
The pace of diversity of all marginalized populations has been increasing, allowing new voices to be heard. More people with disabilities need to be visible in front of – and behind – the camera. An increase in diverse, accurate and authentic portrayals of disabled people in television and film can significantly help to end stigmas that undermine their opportunities to receive the education, training and employment opportunities needed to succeed. Award-winning actors, producers and directors can use their immense talents to advance opportunities for the 22 million working-age Americans with disabilities, only one-in-three of whom has a job today.
Critics can be leaders when it comes to highlighting diversity or lack thereof. They are in the position to celebrate it and find fault for its absence. When talking about diversity successes, disability cannot be left out in the cold. Just as importantly, we must draw attention to the actors with disabilities and shows with disability themes that are taking home awards.
Additional research conducted by Eric Ascher.