December 11, 2005
The New York Times
SANTA MONICA, Calif. — WHEN Edward Barbanell was growing up in Florida, he didn’t have a quick retort for the kids who would bully him and call him names on the playground. “I just learned to walk away from it,” said Mr. Barbanell, an actor who has Down syndrome. “They can call me what they want, but I am not a ‘tard.”
Now, he knows exactly what he would tell those kids: go see his performance in “The Ringer,” a PG-13 comedy directed by Barry Blaustein and produced by the Farrelly brothers’ Conundrum Entertainment with the active endorsement of Special Olympics. “This movie will touch people’s hearts and give them a sense of hope about what people with intellectual disabilities can do,” he said.
For Mr. Barbanell, the Dec. 23 opening of “The Ringer” would seem to represent an important moment in movie history. This film, as no major Hollywood film before, features a substantial number of actors who have intellectual disabilities. They are portraying reasonably competent, genuine characters – not the stereotypical victims, villains and heroes who have most often defined the disability experience in studio movies. And in a particularly striking turnabout, these actors with disabilities are playing comedy, inviting the audience to laugh with them, not at them.
Anxiety persists among some in the disability world that the filmmakers may have something other than their best interests at heart. They worry that the Farrellys’ signature bawdy humor, as seen in their blockbuster hits “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary,” could exploit and demean people who are already stigmatized, making them again the butt of the joke.
“They’re sensitive, but they want to have it both ways, and that’s what frustrates me about them,” said Kathleen LeBesco, chairwoman of the department of communication arts at Marymount Manhattan College. She recently published a paper on the Farrellys’ “contradictions of freakery” in Disability Studies Quarterly.
But Peter Farrelly argues that America needs to understand the inherent humanity of people with intellectual disabilities, and that includes seeing them make jokes, engage in hijinks and dance close to “Full Monty”-style in the shower. “My whole point in making this movie is to make people with mental disabilities accessible, make people know who they are and feel comfortable with them,” he said during a recent interview in the brothers’ office here.
“If you don’t know someone who’s mentally challenged, and you meet them, you’re afraid of them because you don’t know what to expect,” he said. “It’s not bad. It’s just normal. But if you do know them, you’re very comfortable.”
This is obviously uncharted territory. Nobody really knows how audiences will react to seeing people with intellectual disabilities in a big-screen comedy – this is a considerable step beyond “Life Goes On,” the last decade’s Down syndrome-centered television dramedy – or whether they will show up in the first place.
Years of conditioning have taught Americans that it’s not appropriate to stare at people with intellectual disabilities, much less to laugh at them. But what if a movie goes over adults’ heads and appeals directly to teenagers?
And is it even remotely possible for these actors to pry open doors in the entertainment world so that others in their cohort may follow, as Bill (Bojangles) Robinson and Hattie McDaniel did for African-American performers in the 1930′s?
These are the kinds of questions that have been floating around ever since Peter Farrelly and his brother, Bobby, received a pitch from Ricky Blitt, a writer from television’s iconoclastic “Family Guy.” His script idea had a simple, if explosive, premise: a guy fakes a mental disability in an effort to rig the Special Olympics.
More than five years ago, 20th Century Fox agreed to bankroll the $15 million project, but only if the brothers could secure the unqualified endorsement of Special Olympics. It was not an easy process. After an initial positive response from the Special Olympics president (and now chairman), Timothy P. Shriver, the Farrellys spent a couple of years in negotiation. They pared out some situations (a strip club) and some language (that can’t be printed here). Dialogue was scrubbed. (“Mentally challenged” and “intellectual disabilities” were in. “Mentally retarded” was out, except in special circumstances.) There were arguments. During production, a Special Olympics representative stayed on the set to make sure nothing untoward slipped in.
The resulting film stars Johnny Knoxville, best known as the star of MTV’s gross and dangerous stunt series, “Jackass,” as the anti-hero. It would not be giving away too much of the plot to reveal that he is befriended by disabled athletes whom he comes to admire, and that he sternly admonishes another character who labels his new friends ” ‘tards,” a variant on the widely used playground insult “retard.”
The hope is that Mr. Knoxville’s high-octane persona will draw in the adolescent boys whom Mr. Shriver sees as susceptible to an attitude transformation. “We’re taking a risk with humor that might be edgy, and language like ‘retard’ that might be offensive,” said Mr. Shriver, who is executive producer of “The Ringer.” “I think it’s time to zing it and zap it and make it go away.”
Supporting Mr. Knoxville are five actors with intellectual disabilities in speaking roles, including Mr. Barbanell as Mr. Knoxville’s wisecracking roommate, and Leonard Flowers, a hunky Special Olympics athlete who has earned two gold medals in worldwide tennis competition and was immortalized on a Wheaties box. An additional 150 Special Olympics athletes are featured as extras, and the film includes scenes in which an out-of-shape Mr. Knoxville struggles to keep pace with them.
The soundtrack also includes some tracks from the Kids of Widney High, a band composed of students from a special education school in Los Angeles. Their big number? What else: “Respect.”
Attitude research recently conducted by the Center for Social Development and Education at the University of Massachusetts Boston underscores the band members’ implicit message: they could definitely use a little respect. A national survey of 6,000 middle school students found that young people consistently underestimate the abilities of peers who have intellectual disabilities. In addition, the survey found that 67 percent of young people surveyed would not spend time with a student with an intellectual disability if given a choice, and almost 50 percent would not sit next to one on a school bus.
These findings come 30 years after landmark federal legislation opened the schoolhouse doors to students with disabilities, granting them the right to a public education alongside their peers. Although these students have now been educated in public schools for more than a generation, are performing at higher levels than ever before and are increasingly graduating from high school, they still face substantial stigmas.
Research financed by Special Olympics suggests that negative stereotypes in movies, television and newspapers are a big part of the problem. Another recent study, financed by the Screen Actors Guild and performed by the National Arts and Disability Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, reported that people with disabilities remain “virtually invisible” in American film and television.
That is certainly not the case in the world of the Farrellys, whose comedies use disability as a paradigm to explore life’s quirkiness. Actors with real-life disabilities appear in virtually every film, both in featured and incidental roles, to the extent that it is often difficult to tell exactly who is disabled and who isn’t.
“We have used a lot of disabled people in our movies, and I’m not exactly sure why,” Peter Farrelly said. “I know one reason is I happen to know a lot of disabled people. I am amazed more people don’t.”
Among those he knows best is his childhood friend Danny Murphy. One summer day in 1974, when the two young men sailed with friends to a familiar spot in Oak Bluffs Harbor on Martha’s Vineyard, Mr. Farrelly climbed onto a piling and prepared to dive into the water. Mr. Murphy waved him off, took his place and dove in himself. He struck a hidden silt mound and broke his neck. The injury left him a quadriplegic.
YEARS later, when the first Farrelly film came out, Mr. Murphy asked sharply why it didn’t include anyone in a wheelchair. “I’ll never forget Pete’s face,” Mr. Murphy said. “It was as if I had just told him that his parents had died.”
WHEN the next movie came around, Mr. Farrelly invited Mr. Murphy to appear. In “Kingpin,” he played the bad guy who flipped the switch to chop the bowler’s hand off, and he has appeared in virtually every Farrelly film since.
Another recognizable Farrelly star is Rene Kirby, an actor with spina bifida whose self-deprecating and humorous performance provides much of the heart of “Shallow Hal.” “When I meet a guy like that, I feel so blessed to come across such a spirit,” said Mr. Farrelly, who grew up in a Roman Catholic household. “It makes you feel small. It just makes me want to put him in the movie. And it’s not just any exploitative thing. It’s not like, you know, this will be odd. It’s just that I’m impressed with a guy like that, and I want to put that spirit on-screen.”
Then there’s Ray (Rocket) Valliere in “Stuck on You,” the intellectually disabled waiter who works in the twins’ hamburger joint and provides a comic foil for the film’s stars. Scores of other people with disabilities turn up in Farrelly films where you don’t expect them, or may not even know they are there – an amputee and a woman with a mobility impairment who play casting agents in “Stuck on You,” for instance.
Of course, it is true that Farrelly films have won many laughs at the expense of high-priced actors in disability drag. In addition to “Dumb and Dumber,” think of Woody Harrelson as “Kingpin’s” handless bowler, and Jim Carrey as a man with a split personality in “Me, Myself and Irene,” a film that the National Alliance on Mental Illness accused of stigmatizing schizophrenia.
(In the Farrellys’ office, a California Media Access award recognizing the brothers’ “lifetime commitment to the advancement and inclusion of people with disabilities in the media industry” is displayed. The office, which is wheelchair accessible, also contains two life-size sculptures of the human buttocks and vestigial tail that were a key plot point in “Shallow Hal.”)
Still, Farrelly films have consistently tried to portray disabilities in a normalized and sympathetic fashion, free of inflated admiration, condescension and crocodile tears.
The conjoined twins in “Stuck on You” are a couple of sensitive, regular guys whose disability proves to be both a hindrance and a help. The main character in “Hal” learns that his true love’s disability, morbid obesity, should not keep him from appreciating her beautiful inner self. And in “Mary,” the audience is cued to assess the fundamental goodness of characters by judging how they relate to Mary’s disabled brother.
This time around, the Special Olympics’ Mr. Shriver is hoping the conundrum posed by the Farrellys’ comic touch is irreverent enough to appeal to the target teenage demographic but not so blatant as to alienate the general public or the organization’s traditional supporters. It’s a delicate balance, and the stress occasionally shows. “I haven’t gotten a lot of hate mail in this job,” he joked. “That may change.”