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Simple Jacks (and Janes): 17 mostly awful portrayals of people with intellectual disabilities

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1. Ben Stiller, Tropic Thunder (2008)
There’s a lot of biting satire of Hollywood in 2008’s Tropic Thunder, including some real teeth in the running joke about Ben Stiller’s character, who’s known for playing Simple Jack, a character with intellectual disabilities. It’s clearly a dig at both Forrest Gump and I Am Sam, which is called out specifically in a conversation between Stiller and Robert Downey Jr. “Never go full retard,” says Downey. “You don’t buy that? Ask Sean Penn, 2001, I Am Sam. Remember? Went full retard? Went home empty-handed.” He was mostly right, despite the insensitive language: When movies and TV shows attempt to portray people with disabilities, the results are almost always tone-deaf, awkward, and borderline offensive. The characters are presented as cute, or magical, or beloved objects of pity and scorn, even as they’re supposed to be inspiring. It’s not that portraying intellectually disabled characters shouldn’t be done, just that it’s almost never been done well, with most characters drawn so broadly (They talk loud! They have very specific obsessions!) that they become caricatures. And they rarely win acting awards.

2. Rosie O’Donnell, Riding The Bus With My Sister (2005)
It’d be hard to imagine an actor less up to the task of playing a person with intellectual disabilities than Rosie O’Donnell, but at least she has gusto. Scratch that—her gusto is what makes Riding The Bus With My Sister, based on a memoir of the same name, so repulsively ridiculous. O’Donnell shouts, twists up her face, wears mismatched socks, and ignores social cues with such over-the-top glee, it almost feels like she’s making fun of herself. The movie has become the stuff of legend at this point, because it’s just so far beyond the pale. Its message, ultimately, seems to be that this woman’s sister should love her in spite of the fact that she’s incredibly annoying.

3. Ricky Gervais, Derek (2012)
Ricky Gervais’ best-known characters are designed to be laughed at, to be mercilessly mocked by those around them and by viewers at home. David Brent, while he had some redeeming characteristics, was a buffoon, while Andy Millman was so self-important it was easy to watch him fail, even when he was winning. Even when Gervais is playing himself it’s as a hateable asshole, whether in Life’s Too Short or those fucking Audi commercials. All of which makes Derek so confusing. The mental state of its title character, played by Gervais, is ambiguous, but clearly something isn’t quite right—he’s hunched over, frequently grinning crazily, and all too willing to enthusiastically spout his own philosophy about the world. (It comes down to this: Be nice. Which seems an odd thought for Gervais.) But when the character vacillates so quickly between platitudes and “ain’t he a cute dummy?” remarks, there’s no sense of where the joke is, or even if there is a joke, or if this is a comedy at all. Whatever the case, it would’ve been wise to find somebody without Gervais’ baggage to play the role, but since he’s also the writer-director, he probably couldn’t have imagined anyone more perfect for the job.

4. Tom Hulce, Dominick And Eugene (1988)
Tom Hulce—known best from his almost-star-making turn as Mozart in Amadeus—is introduced in Dominick And Eugene when a dog licks his face until he wakes up. He’s a little grossed out, but then exclaims, “Sometimes I wonder who’s stupider, you or me!” Thus we learn that the half-titular Eugene isn’t quite right in the head. Hulce at least has the chops to almost pull this off—he has a sense of innocent glee in most of his roles—but the material doesn’t help him out. It’s of the “aren’t people with disabilities cute?” school, though at least there’s a solid scene in which Hulce questions his own existence and shows some emotional growth. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance, though it should be noted that his disability was the result of an accident, and not something genetic.

5. Sean Penn, I Am Sam (2001)
There’s no question that Sean Penn is one of his generation’s most talented actors: Just look at the diverse work he’s done in Milk, Mystic River, The Game, Dead Man Walking, even Fast Times At Ridgemont High. But in his mad dash for the “full retard” Oscar, he must’ve forgotten to read this particular script before signing on. In the midst of an insanely implausible story—Penn raises daughter Dakota Fanning until she’s 7, with few problems (even though he apparently doesn’t understand how money works)—at which point the state decides to take her away from him… because she’s reached the age where she’s smarter than he is. Of course Fanning is precocious and wonderful in every way, and Penn—all goofy smiles and tantrums, but no depth—is so lovable that hardened lawyer Michelle Pfeiffer wants to take his case. Penn was nominated for that Oscar, but he didn’t win. Maybe because he was surrounded by sentiments like, “One’s intellectual capacity has no bearing on their ability to love!”


6. Cuba Gooding Jr., Radio (2003)
Most movies about people with intellectual disabilities feature at least one scene in which the main character acts goofy and lifts everyone else’s spirits, with the implication being, “If he can be happy, surely we all can, since there’s nothing wrong with us!” That certainly happens in the brutishly heartwarming Radio, starring Oscar winner (not for this!) Cuba Gooding Jr. as a man who finds himself a de facto cheerleader for high school sports. He has huge, messed-up Hollywood teeth and he’s excited by the choo-choo train. He does baby voices. At some point, a voice of reason wonders, “I’m not sure if we’re trying to help somebody here, or if he’s being used as some kind of glorified mascot!” But at the end of this very silly (based on a true story) scenario, something very typical happens: learning. “We’re not the ones been teachin’ Radio… Radio’s the one been teachin’ us.” Gooding did win an award for his portrayal of Radio, but it was a Golden Raspberry for Worst Actor.

7-8. Juliette Lewis and Giovanni Ribisi, The Other Sister (1999)
Garry Marshall’s treacle-powered The Other Sister may be the most insidiously, unintentionally offensive movie ever made. Juliette Lewis and Giovanni Ribisi play developmentally challenged lovers whose every foible is played for laughs, including a particularly egregious scene in which they discuss The New Joy Of Sex, deliberating which positions they’d like to try out as part of their maiden voyage into coitus. It’s intended as a tender, real-life moment, but it comes across as just mocking—as does a part when Lewis’ character gets lost in her own house, which occurs in the background of a scene.

9-10. Shaun Cassidy and Linda Purl, Like Normal People (1979)
Ground zero for developmentally challenged people vs. Hollywood debacle, 1979’s Like Normal People starred pop sensation Shaun Cassidy (“Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Do You Believe In Magic”) and Linda Purl (seen most recently in everything from The Office to Homeland) as lovers fighting for the right to marry. But everything they do is so exaggerated for effect that it’s difficult to concentrate on what they’re actually saying. Purl’s vocal affectation—some kind of constant whine/shout—is so gratingly unbelievable it’s a wonder Cassidy’s character didn’t bolt the other way immediately.

11. Jim Belushi, Homer And Eddie (1989)
No name says “dramatic actor capable of a challenging role” less than “Jim Belushi,” the egotistical also-ran of the Belushi family. By 1989, he already had enough film roles under his belt that he could probably be choosy, so presumably he decided to play Homer Lanza—a developmentally challenged man whose trouble stems from getting hit in the head with a baseball—for the promise of acting awards. Belushi hits the road with Whoopi Goldberg, herself shooting for cred by playing a homicidal character with a brain tumor. At least Belushi keeps it simple, never stretching beyond his ability to act kind of dumb (something he does all the time, not just in roles like this one). The New York Times found Homer And Eddie’s one saving grace: “at least they don’t fall in love.”


12. Mickey Rooney, Bill (1981)
For a certain age group, Mickey Rooney isn’t known for the big Hollywood roles he had as a young man, but for a pair of TV movies he made in the mid-’80s, Bill and Bill On His Own. In them, Rooney plays a man with developmental disabilities who alternately amuses and saddens those around him, particularly documentary filmmaker Dennis Quaid. One minute he’s grabbing far more chicken than a reasonable person would eat; the next he’s telling Quaid about childhood abuse at the hands of his caretakers. The movies—not that subtle at the time—have aged very poorly, and now scan like goofs more than the serious dramas they were intended to be.

13. Billy Bob Thornton, Sling Blade (1996)
Most actors reach for these roles after establishing themselves first, but not Billy Bob Thornton. The role that made him famous was Karl Childers, a “slow” Southern murderer who grunts and talks in a guttural voice. To his credit, Thornton—who also wrote and directed—never plays Childers for laughs, and the idea that his character is intellectually challenged isn’t exactly central to the plot. On the downside, Sling Blade hasn’t aged well at all. Still, as dated as it looks now, Thornton got what he was after—an Oscar nomination. That Grammy is still elusive, and will surely remain so. Would you ask Tom Petty about French-fried pertaters?!


14. Robin Williams, House Of D (2004)
Robin Williams doesn’t really go “full retard” in David Duchovny’s terrible directorial debut, House Of D—he lets his gigantic prosthetic teeth do most of the acting for him. Sure, he makes frowny faces and says inappropriate things (like “I shaved my ass once” and “I have a huge penis”), but only those teeth really differentiate this from any other Williams performance. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but like many intellectually challenged characters in movies, Williams only acts troubled when it’s convenient to the plot. And by the end of the movie—when he’s in both old-man makeup and those horrible teeth—he even gives a speech about the parlance of his affliction: “1984, some time in the spring, I went from retard to mentally handicapped. And then, in 1987-88, I went from handicapped to challenged. I changed again. I’m probably changing right now. Who knows what I’ll be next?” You’ll not be called to the awards show, Robin—critics hated this movie (the Boston Globe put it well: “Williams is absolutely sincere in the movie, and, thus, I can think of no better incentive to avoid it”) and it didn’t even make half of its $2 million budget back in theaters.

15. Kevin Bacon, Digging To China (1998)
What happens when a spirited young girl (Evan Rachel Wood, in her big-screen debut) makes fast friends with a grown man with intellectual disabilities? Chances are good that her mother, Mary Stuart Masterson, won’t like it one bit. But that won’t stop the little girl from learning life lessons—or lessons about how to mug like a madman—from Kevin Bacon, in a role so awards-grabby you can practically see his hand clutching an invisible Oscar the whole time. Sample emotion-heavy dialogue: “You like me now, but you’re gonna grow up! I’m not!”


16. Mel Gibson, Tim (1979)
If the gender roles were reversed in Mel Gibson’s first big starring role—as the title character in 1979’s Tim—it would play more like an episode of Australia’s Most Wanted than like a movie of the week. Gibson’s day laborer has a mild disability—one that makes him happy and eager and prone to wearing short-shorts (“I’m not the full quid—anyone’ll tell you that!”). When Piper Laurie hires him to do some yard work, romance naturally blossoms. First she teaches him to read, then later teaches him the ways of amour, or whatever they say in Australia. Strangely, everybody in Gibson’s family is pretty psyched for him to hook up with this prototypical cougar: Only she seems to be hesitant about getting together with him. Spoiler: They get married and have sex.

17. Kirstie Alley, Profoundly Normal (2003)
This made-for-TV movie does a couple of things right, which is unusual for the genre. It hits some complex emotional beats in the true story of a couple—Kirstie Alley and Delroy Lindo, both of whom have intellectual disabilities—and their struggle to get married and have a child, against the wishes of social workers. But while Lindo plays it pretty subtle, Alley goes way over the top, sounding stilted, practiced, and wrong. The movie also casts actors with real-life disabilities in supporting roles, which throws into sharp relief just how silly Alley sounds, including an affectation that makes it seem like she’s pretending to be deaf.