Monday, July 29, 2013

Iron Man, too

It's rather bold for actor Blair Underwood to portray a white gay man.

Wait; that was Raymond Burr.

Burr, who lived a discreet life with a long-term male partner, was perhaps best known for his 1960-70s TV shows Perry Mason, and Ironside, about a San Francisco police chief paralyzed after a sniper shoots him. Determined to continue striving for justice, he solves crimes with the help of a driver and assistant.

Underwood will play the lead in a revamp of the original Ironside. The updated version is set in New York City. If the show were accurate in its portrayal of daily life, it would include the numerous transport difficulties faced by disabled residents. But since it's filmed in Los Angeles, that will probably be overlooked.  New York City's record on accessibility, even decades after the Americans with Disabilities Act, is, well, dismal.

Some in the disabled community feel that if there isn't an able-bodied back story to be visualized, the character should be played by an actor who actually is disabled.

While the short Huffington Post article doesn't address that, their slideshow also includes some press stills from a very different upcoming program, The Michael J. Fox Show.

The veteran actor has been very open about his ongoing struggle with Parkinson's Disease. What is truly refreshing is the bravery of Fox and his new show's producers in developing a family comedy where the lead actor, like Fox in real life, also has Parkinson's.

As someone who is not disabled, I've become quite sensitized to the fictional portrayal of a real community that's millions strong.
Readers and critics have asked about, and commented on, my book Every Time I Think of You, and its aspects of sexuality, or more specifically, the sexual ability of its characters.

It's certainly an aspect of the story, being a romance. But why would the coverage of a detective TV show like the new Ironside need to prove the virility of its main character? The trailer includes a moment of Underwood embracing a female costar.)

The Los Angeles Times is blunt (if not obdurately stupid) with its headline: "He can have sex!"
"This Ironside is a bit of a ladies' man. The pilot shows him getting very close in the wheelchair with a trainer he has met during an investigation.

Said Underwood, "Every spinal cord injury is different." He referenced the documentary Murderball, about quadriplegic athletes who play wheelchair rugby. "Everyone in that movie has an able-bodied girlfriend."
Gee, aren't we relieved? Deadline is even more stupid, using the phrase "Wheelchair-bound."  Fail.

Entertainment does need to "sell the sexy," and the handsome Underwood has a fan base to cater to. He also has a family connection. His mother has Multiple Sclerosis and uses a wheelchair.

How his character's life and struggles are depicted will probably be closely watched by disabled activists, who have often critiqued the frequent misrepresentations of their lives in media, fictional and otherwise.

I'll be watching the new show as well. My previous posts about film and TV movie depictions of disabled characters have covered drama, comedy and horror genres. With the exception of documentaries, nearly all of them are played by non-disabled actors. 

For more of my posts about movies and TV shows depicting disabled characters, see Wheel to ReelReel to Wheel 2, and Reel to Wheel 3. and Wheely Scary.

 That's Entertainment covered a ballroom dance film with a transgendered character, and even an erotic comic.

It's great to see a new show, or a remake of an old show, that includes disabled characters. One flaw I can safely predict is the lack of a community - other disabled characters- in the show. Uninformed script writers too often isolate disabled characters to rarify their experience to make it "interesting" or "inspirational."

What's predictably disappointing is to see the media coverage still in remedial mode in its coverage of these shows. Until they get it right, I think I'll go hunt down some episodes of the original Ironside, and its depiction of San Francisco's groovy 1970s.

UPDATE Aug. 6: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette expands on the topic. There are a few interesting parallels to my fictional work (Pittsburgh setting, reference to Carnegie Mellon). But more important, it voices the opinions of disabled actors.

UPDATE: Aug. 12: Here's's slideshow of stills from 20 movies that have non-disabled actors portraying disabled people.

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