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Why The Theory of Everything Is a Disappointing Depiction of Disability

Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.

Photo by Liam Daniel © Universal Pictures International

There is a scene in The Theory of Everything in which Stephen Hawking sits on a stage. He is almost immobile in his wheelchair; Eddie Redmayne, the actor playing him, is at the bottom of his descent into disability. Hawking sees a woman in his audience drop her pen, and the film shifts into a fantasy sequence: Redmayne rises from the wheelchair, straightens the limbs he’s been twisting and twitching in his portrayal of Hawking, and walks over to pick up the pen. He hands it to the woman, smiling flirtatiously, suddenly free of his disability and once again a handsome movie star. Then he returns to the wheelchair and resumes his imitation of the effects of ALS, and the film’s action continues.

Every able-bodied actor who plays a disabled character performs a version of this scene, but they usually do it after the film has ended. Disabled writer Christopher Shinn, paraphrasing disabled writer John Belluso, explained this ritual in the Atlantic last year:

John Belluso had a theory about why actors who play disabled characters often win Oscars: It is reassuring for the audience to see an actor like Daniel Day-Lewis, after so convincingly portraying disability in My Left Foot, get up from his seat in the auditorium and walk to the stage to accept his award. There is a collective “Phew” as people see it was all an illusion. Society’s fear and loathing around disability, it seems, can be magically transcended.

The Theory of Everything is the embodiment of this idea. It is so keen to pander to able-bodied audience members’ disgust at disability, and to soothe the guilt they feel because of it, that it actually pauses to allow that “collective ‘Phew’ ” to occur during the film. James Marsh’s movie exists for two purposes: to make able-bodied people feel good about themselves and to win Oscars. It is succeeding in the first aim and may soon succeed in the second. Redmayne is nominated for Best Actor at this year’s Academy Awards and, having just won one of the two equivalent awards at the Golden Globes (where there are separate awards for performances in dramas and performances in comedies and musicals), is one of the two favorites to win.

Like many other disabled people, I have often argued that disabled characters should, wherever possible, be played by disabled actors. When disabled characters are played by able-bodied actors, disabled actors are robbed of the chance to work in their field, and the disabled community is robbed of the right to self-representation onscreen. Imagine what it would feel like to be a woman and for the only women you ever saw in films to be played by men. Imagine what it would feel like to be a member of an ethnic minority and for the only portrayals of your race you ever saw in films to be given by white people. That’s what it’s like being a disabled person at the movies.

There can be exceptions to the rule that disabled roles should only be for disabled actors, and The Theory of Everything may well be one of them. Partly because the film focuses on Hawking’s life both before and after he developed ALS, the casting of Redmayne as Hawking is not equivalent to a clearly inappropriate instance of a character who was born deaf being played by a hearing actor, for example, or of a character we only ever see in a wheelchair being played by an actor who is able-bodied. And so I cannot definitively say the role should have been played by a disabled person—but we should be having the discussion. Whenever a member of the disabled community is played by an able-bodied person, we should have the discussion about whether that is acceptable.

Even if we accept that Redmayne should get a pass to play Hawking, we are still left with a film that excludes disabled people while pretending to speak for them. The Theory of Everything is based on a book by an able-bodied person, adapted by an able-bodied screenwriter, and directed by an able-bodied director, and it stars able-bodied actors.

Another Oscar contender, Ava DuVernay’s egregiously under-nominated Selma, burns with authenticity about black experiences because it was made by members of the black community, not by members of the community that has historically oppressed them. In contrast, The Theory of Everything flickers weakly with truisms that can be mistaken for insight only by people who are not disabled, because it was made by—and for—people who are not disabled.

The ultimate ambition of David Oyelowo’s performance as Martin Luther King, Jr. is to express the reality of black life and black history in a way that resonates with those within the black community and educates those outside it. The ultimate ambition of Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking is to contort his body convincingly enough to make other able-bodied people think “Wow! By the end I really believed he was a cripple!” Our attitudes to disability should have evolved past the stage when this mimicry is considered worthy of our most famous award for acting.

Judged by many of the standards by which we usually assess movies, The Theory of Everything is not a bad film—but it is far from progressive in its depiction of disability. And if a film about the most famous, limit-defying disabled person in the world cannot challenge the limits of the way we portray disabled people on screen, it has to be seen as a lost opportunity.