It’s one of the more difficult acting jobs, and if you nail it, you can pretty much count on an Academy Award nomination. Ah, but there’s a thin line between acting and overacting, and too many go the wrong way, making a mockery of the movie and the subject.
I am, of course, talking about playing a retarded character. Yes, I know the preferred nomenclature is “mentally challenged,” but if you’ve seen most people play “mentally challenged” in a movie, I’m pretty sure you’d agree most are retarded.
So, here’s a look at the Best (and Worst) Retarded Performances.
The Best of the Mentally Challenged
1. Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
Most people didn’t remember young Leo from his stint on the hit TV show Growing Pains, so when he played Arnie Grape in this early film role, most people just naturally assumed he was mentally retarded. Really, he was that good. My mom taught special ed for many, many years, so I have been around people with mental disabilities, and DiCaprio’s performance is very true to life. He didn’t play cute. He didn’t play sad. He just played a true-to-life character, showing warmth, humor and sadness in a natural way. It’s a dignified performance that garnered him a Best Supporting Actor nomination and later paved the way for other performances that showed he wasn’t, in fact, retarded.
2. John Malkovich in Of Mice and Men
I’m not sure if Malkovich’s Lennie is actually mentally challenged or just what the old folks call “simple.” Either way, he’s great in a role that deserves praise and rabbits.
3. W. Earl Brown in There’s Something About Mary
This might be a bit of a shock, since it’s unlikely this movie ever gets serious consideration for any of its acting, but Brown is phenomenal. Like DiCaprio, you just kind of assume he was actually mentally challenged. Years passed until one day after watching Deadwood, I hit imdb.com to find out the name of the actor who played the murderous son-of-a bitch Dan Dority. Imagine my surprise to find out this Steve Earle-lookalike was Mary’s brother.
4. Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade
As with DiCaprio, Thornton’s relative anonymity caused us to believe there might not be any acting and that this guy might just very well be mentally challenged person. Add in the fact that he wrote and directed it, as well, it was becoming conceivable he’d sweep the Academy Awards and the Special Olympics. It was not to be, however, since he was only acting, but what a testament to his performance.
5. Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump
I’m always completely torn on Forrest Gump. I love part of the movie. I hate part of the movie. Sometimes Hanks is believable as this mentally challenged, lovesick man. Other times he mugs for the camera in ways that all but bugs for an Oscar nomination. In the end, though, I’ll always laugh as I picture Forrest standing on the boat, wearing his undershirt and a humongous grin and waving at Lt. Dan.
Special Ensemble Award
The cast of The Ringer
I liked this movie. I thought that it was kinda sweet when it could definitely have been amazingly offensive. Instead, the film portrays its Special Olympians as regular folks, letting them earn laughs rather than be laughed at. Special points, too, for incorporating people with mental disabilities, blending them into the cast in such a way that other than Johnny Knoxville, I’m still not sure who was and wasn’t mentally challenged.
The I Don’t Know Where To Put Him Section
Chris Burke in Life Goes On
And this is where the path to hell begins.
I’m not sure anyone really knows him as Chris Burke, but say “Corky,” and everyone is on board. Burke, I mean Corky, has the claim to fame from the early 1990s TV show Life Goes On (this, of course, is not including his puzzling career as a recording artist). Being that he actually has Down’s syndrome, I’m not sure where to place him on this list. It’s not like he’s actually acting, but then again, for a mentally challenged guy, he’s not half bad. Let’s split the difference, put him in the middle in the neither good nor bad category, and if anyone asks, we’ll just say he was on TV and this deals with movies.
On a related note, I recently saw that Life Goes On has been released on DVD. One of the special features included auditions from Patti LuPone and Bill Smitrovich, who played the parents. Really? Really? That’s the audition you think people want to see?
The Worst of the Retarded
5. Sean Penn in I Am Sam
OK, to be fair, this isn’t really a god-awful performance, although it is pretty sucky, particularly from a guy as talented as Penn. I had to include it, though, because it is the best example of an Amazingly Good Trailer For A Movie That Turned Out To Be Pure Shit.
When I first saw the preview for I Am Sam, I’m not exaggerating to say it made me cry. Don’t lie; you did, too, when social workers are behind a mirror watching little Dakota Fanning talk to Penn and she whips around to glare at them and say: “Did you hear that? I said I didn’t want any other daddy but him. Why don’t you write that down?” Seriously, I cried just a little as I wrote that. Then I thought about the movie and threw up just a little in my mouth.
4. Adam Sandler in The Waterboy
Sandler has made a career out of playing characters right on the edge of retardation, but in The Waterboy, he expressly plays a person with a disability. Not a good decision, Adam.
3. Adrien Brody in The Village
While not as retarded as the actual script, Brody, who once won an Academy Award, should have known better than to prance around as the town fool. Everything about this performance disturbs me. He’s creepy. He’s unlikable. Worst of all, though, he’s phony in a “Hey, I’m acting here” sort of way.
2. Cuba Gooding Jr. in Radio
I refuse to watch this movie. This description from imbd.com explains why: Football coach Harold Jones (Ed Harris) befriends Radio (Gooding), a mentally challenged man who becomes a student at T.L. Hanna High School in Anderson, South Carolina. Their friendship extends over several decades, where Radio transforms from a shy, tormented man into an inspiration to his community. The previews were so horribly bad and offensive that for a moment I wished I was retarded just so I could protest it.
1. Juliette Lewis and Giovanni Ribisi in The Other Sister
How did this movie get made?
This is the description: A mentally retarded girl proves herself to be every bit as capable as her “perfect” sister when she moves into an apartment and begins going to college.
This is the tagline: A love story for the romantically challenged.
That’s three strikes, friends.
Words are failing me.
(Note: You know, everyone makes a big deal about how Cuba Gooding Jr. won an Oscar for Jerry Maguire and then followed it with so many bad performances that the award should be taken back. How come nobody says this about Diane Keaton, who was so good in the first two Godfather films and Annie Hall, only to follow it with things like Because I Said So, Something’s Gotta Give and The Other Sister?)
Then there’s the fact that Lewis falls in love with Ribisi (who is also playing a retarded character, although to be fair, he always plays a retarded character or, at the very least, someone who is slack-jawed).
The more I think about it, this might truly be the worst movie ever made. In the words of Adam Thompson, someone somewhere walked into a bank and convinced someone that this would make money, thus securing a loan. How did this happen? You could stick a team of retarded monkeys in a room with typewriters missing half the alphabet and end up with a better script after three months of random button pushing and monkey masturbation.