Thirty years ago, My Left Foot, was released in cinemas nationwide and helped change the way disabled characters are represented in TV and film. But how much actually changed since?
IT’S been thirty years to this year since the ground-breaking film, My Left Foot, came out in cinemas nationwide. The reason why it was so extraordinary was that it was one on of the first films in British cinema in its day to have a disabled character in the lead role.
Having a lead character who has a disability is a taboo that is still being challenged to this day and age in terms of representation. Many TV and film studios have been reluctant to cast disabled in the past but thankfully that’s now changing.
The lead character in the film is played by both Daniel Day Lewis and Hugh O’Connor who play the role of Christy Brown during the story of his life. The film is set in an Irish town in 1932. Christy suffers from Cerebral Palsy, a condition which affects his mobility. In the opening of the film it begins in the present when he is an adult and the film, the story of his life, is told in a flash-back. Daniel Day-Lewis appears both at the start and gradually appears at later stages of the film as the character is getting older Both actors are fantastic in how they carry the film between themselves in regards to the story telling.
Hugh O’Connor, who plays the younger version of the main character does an excellent job of not just carrying the majority of the story but showing us, as both people and viewers, the ups and downs as well as the struggles of having to live with the condition. During the film we witness the strain it has on both him, his family as well as his friends including the struggles that he has in trying to communicate his feelings with people.
The film is based on the life of real-life artist, writer and poet, Christy Brown. Now what is worth mentioning is that even though Daniel and Hugh who both play the character who lives with Cerebral Palsy is that neither of them actually has it. Whereas the real-life Christy does genuinely live with it.
On the whole this has led to some debate when it comes to casting abled-bodied actors to play disabled characters. For example, in the film, Inside I’m Dancing, James McAvoy plays a character who is disabled yet in real-life he isn’t and it’s the same in film and TV shows such as Glee, The Theory of Everything, Breaking Bad, Me Before You and Ironside. They all feature characters who have a physical disability yet are able-bodied themselves, though has caused outcry from many people who are disabled and from groups representing them. In many ways it depends on how you see it, at the end of the day actors are people who are paid to portray a character.
One of the reasons for this debate is that it is seen as not authentic and that it robs actors with actual disabilities from being able to play such roles. Though on the flip-side of the argument it is only acting and one of the points of being in the acting profession is playing a vast array of different characters be it of religious beliefs, sexuality, accents or nationality. A quick example I can think of is actress, writer and comedian, Francesca Martinez. She has Cerebral Palsy, though she prefers to describe herself was wobbly. From 1994 to 1998 she appeared in the TV school series, Grange Hill, playing a character called Racheal Burns.
For me, she was the very first person I saw on TV who had a disability. I remember feeling very proud for her as I’d seen someone like her before.
But going back to the film itself, I saw it as ground-breaking because like so many others I had never seen a film with a disabled lead-character. So, for me it was pretty much ahead of its time as there were no other films that were like it.
However, coming back to the present, My Left Foot, is an astonishing work of art in cinematic history and one that deserves to be told in the way that it shows the harsh realities of people growing up with a disability like Cerebral Palsy and how society can often treat them. Struggles, trials, tribulations and overcoming the odds. Nothing is ever hidden from the viewer.