Autism in the Movies: A Fair Portrayal?

Temple GrandinDenisa and I watched Temple Grandin last night, and we both definitely enjoyed it. I thought it was a very well put together film. Clarie Danes seems to do a superb acting job. The story is touching and engaging. For those of you who don’t know, the movie is a biographical look at the life of Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who managed to overcome both of those obstacles (being autistic and being a woman trying to break into a male-dominated business in the 1960s) to make a big impact on the way cattle are handled in the beef industry. It was made for TV by HBO, and really is a top rate production. Three and a half stars.

That said, it got me thinking about autism in cinema in general, and I admit I’m not quite sure how to take a lot of performances. I don’t know anyone close to me with autism, and so as an outsider to that world, I have a hard time telling if the movies that portray it are true to life or not. The thing is, it seems to me that Hollywood has a fixation on autism sometimes. You’ve got Temple Grandin, Rain Man, I am Sam, Forrest Gump (in some aspects), Gilbert Grape, Little Man Tate, and The Boy Who Could Fly, to name a few. And in many of these, you get big name actors and actresses stepping in to play the roles of autistic people, and you get Hollywood applauding their efforts.

Now again, I really don’t know if I’m totally off base here or not. For all I know, these actors are doing a superb job portraying autism, and I should just keep my trap shut. But what this post is really about is that I’d like to hear from some people who *do* have close friends or family affected by this. How do you feel when you see these films? Are they fair portrayals? Is there anything they typically do that really gets under your skin? Because I can’t help but feel like some of these movies at least oversimplify the situation. I mean, Tropic Thunder had a running gag about how the main character (a “serious actor”) tried to get an Oscar by playing a mentally handicapped person and going too far. Are these movies just Oscar bait, or are the actors and actresses really doing autistic people a service?

Inquiring minds want to know . . .

4 Comments

  • By GCC, March 23, 2011 @ 7:28 pm

    Glad you liked it!! I agree – I’d be interested to see a documentary (or even just an interview) with the real Temple Grandin to compare against Claire Danes. I thought the movie definitely dealt with autism in a much deeper/realistic way than most movies do.

  • By Mr. Fob, March 24, 2011 @ 2:51 am

    I’m in no way qualified to answer your question, but Jessie has taken several tests that suggest she has some degree of Asperger syndrome, and Temple Grandin resonated with her–several aspects of Temple’s experience as portrayed in the film reflect the way Jessie perceives the world. Also, we both thought it was one of the best films we’d seen in quite a while.

  • By Mr. Fob, March 24, 2011 @ 2:52 am

    (checking Email follow-up comments because I’m curious to see if anyone has insights to your question)

  • By Bryce's Ramblings, March 25, 2011 @ 7:49 pm

    From my Facebook discussion on this post, it sounds like most people thought it was a fair portrayal. I watched a TED talk by Temple, and she seemed to like the movie, too. That speaks volumes in its favor.

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